“It’s really powerful. It’s in people’s hands; it’s in people’s homes. How do we use it for the greater good?”. GODAN partner VOTO Mobile is a three-year old Ghana-based tech startup and social enterprise which helps businesses, governments, and NGOs use mobile technologies to gather information and feedback through interactive SMS or voice calls in local languages.
According to their website, VOTO’s mission is to “empower communities to collect and share information to drive positive social change.”
Stacie Irwin, the Regional Director of Programs for Anglophone West Africa, says that when it comes to the conversation of open data, it’s great to have people and partners that come in from all different angles.
She says some approach the topic as those who hold “the vast amount of data, and they’re trying to figure out what to do with it.” Others, she says, “don’t have the data and are trying to figure out how to get it.”
Irwin is focused on the ‘how’ in the conversation – “how do you get it from people who are actually not part of the conversation right now, how do you get it back to those people?”
She says that it’s not enough to provide a data base online because if data holders are relying solely on the Internet, that can really limit the number of people who are actually going to access that information, citing her own experience in northern Ghana as an example.
She asks anyone involved in trying to utilize open data to consider how the information can get to those who need it.
“That’s why I and VOTO are really excited to be part of the conversation because I think we have a ‘how.’ Mobile is a huge opportunity across Africa. We’re talking about data and data collecting and actually getting open data into the hands of farmers or family households where we want to improve nutrition outcomes.”
Irwin says it’s a matter of then figuring out, once the data is collected, how it is used, where it is stored, who is it valuable to, how do we actually make sure we’re actually collecting data that’s at least regionally useful, as opposed to case-to-case-case.”
Engaging with hard-to-reach users
Irwin says VOTO is really excited to continue to gather insights about how to use mobile to reach under-reached people. “We’re doing a lot of work on how to engage rural women, who are the ‘final frontier’ of a population who is incredibly expensive and difficult to reach a lot of the time. At VOTO I think we have a tool for collecting data and a tool for making sure that data reaches back to populations who are offline.”
Irwin says VOTO is now exploring how to use mobile for positive behaviour change, across sectors – in agriculture, health, citizen engagement.
The time for mobile
According to Irwin, while mobile technologies have been around for years, it is only now becoming a viable technology for dispersing information. Even in 2002, the penetration of mobile was still less than 30 percent in Ghana and in other African countries it was there but it was incredibly expensive and network connectivity was weak.
“So talking to people at that time about using mobile was like ‘why on earth would we try a strategy that is clearly going to fail us,” says Irwin.
Now, Irwin says there has been a huge explosion of people owning phones and SIM cards, and actually being able to get connected “because prices have really come down, and mobile coverage is increasingly reaching more areas that were typically off the grid before.”
Irwin says it’s a huge opportunity to connect and have conversations with people now that there are major shifts in counties across Ghana and in Nigeria you see mobile phone penetration that is the same as the US.
“It’s really powerful. It’s in people’s hands; it’s in people’s homes. How do we use it for the greater good?” she asks.
Irwin says VOTO is excited to be at the cutting edge of having a really strong platform that will actually enable different types of interaction beyond just pushing a mass amount of text message.
Social influence of mobile technologies
According to Irwin, the peer-to-peer influence of new customers trying out and becoming excited about new technologies cannot be under emphasized. She says an overwhelming amount new users of VOTO’s various programs first heard about them from friends and family members. Irwin says that also rings true of receiving the information from peers.
“When they asked their customers if they preferred getting information from a doctor or peer, they overwhelming say they trust their peers, because they can relate to that information,” she says.
Overcoming gender barriers
Irwin reports that gender barriers remain challenging but can become overturned with access to new technologies.
“We typically talk about how men hold women back from this type of information in developing countries but we actually have data that says, no, they’re an important part of this process,” she says, explaining that in one of Voto’s maternal health programmes it’s often the men who sign up their wives and “that’s an incredible opportunity to deal with gender dynamics and be more inclusive.
“Women are late adopters to some technologies so there are reservations and barriers to them to actually say ‘yes I’m going to sign up to a service, or yes I’m going to use my phone’ but then once they do, they tend to be more loyal,” she adds.