The iLabs: Letting Context Drive Development

Designing a technology that can be used around the world in many situations is efficient – but sometimes has to adapt or it can ineffectively fall flat.

InSTEDD designs open-source tools and builds local capacity for health, safety, and development. Certain projects work with mobile phones to create SMS and voice-based software, which is adaptable for use around the world.

To best use these tools, InSTEDD has opened two Innovation Labs (iLabs), localized tech start-ups in Cambodia, and Argentina. The iLabs focus on solutions to humanitarian projects and respond to local needs with context-appropriate technologies.

The iLabs recognize that by focusing on local interpretation over foreign “experts,” they can bring in local knowledge of what does and doesn't work socially – extending their impacts beyond the life of a single project. These programs are designed with this context-driven flexibility in mind.

Estamos convencidos de que los programas y tecnologías más eficientes se desarrollan a través deprocesos flexibles e iterativos, y se basan en la participación activa de las comunidades a las que deben servir… Nuestra experiencia nos indica que el uso de métodos ágiles y centrados en el usuario para diseñar y desarrollar tecnologías móviles permite la recolección confiable, el procesamiento y el análisis de los datos.

We believe that the most efficient programs and technologies are developed flexibly, with a base in the active participation of the communities they serve… Our experience shows that by focusing on mobile technologies that are agile and designed to be user-centric, we can reliably collect and analyze data.

- Boris Krygel on the iLab Latin America blog.

The iLab in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The iLab in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

With an emphasis on local communities’ active participation, the iLabs work with local programmers to develop skills, while also encouraging regional innovation through Hackerspaces, Devcamps, Barcamps, and so on. Yet from the beginning, the Southeast Asian context was quite different than that in Latin America.

Community Health Workers and Rapid Response Teams in Mukdahan, Thailand, use a mobile-based disease surveillance system to improve their ability to respond to public health threats.

Community Health Workers in Thailand, use InSTEDD mobile-based disease surveillance to improve responses to public health threats.

A start-up in Cambodia may not have the luxury to experiement and – consequently – to fail. But at the iLab Southeast Asia, failure is accepted as part of the process of innovation. Having a risk-tolerant environment allows for a willingness to try new ideas, even if they ultimately don’t work.

On the other hand, in Buenos Aires, InSTEDD found that the preexisting context was completely different. While in Cambodia there was already a culture of technology use for social development, there was a limited pool of experienced Cambodian programmers. In Argentina, there were already many programmers working on a variety of technological projects – though rarely for social development. Thus, at the iLab Latin America, a partnership model was adopted with a local tech organization. By working with a preexisting group of software developers, rather than building and training their own team – they could focus building bridges with local socially oriented organizations, collaborating on projects and participating in panels and events.

A nurse at a community health clinic vaccinates a baby. InSTEDD tools are being used at this clinic to support resource management and disease surveillance.

A nurse at a community health clinic vaccinates a baby. InSTEDD tools are being used at this clinic in Cambodia to support resource management and disease surveillance.

Responding to local context has affects on not only the organization's form, but also on the technology they develop. One of the technolgies designed with the iLabs and used around the world is Verboice, a software designed to be accessible for both programmers and users. Building on prior successes with SMS technologies, Verboice allows anyone to create and run interactive voice projects through a mobile phone. Messages can be recorded and played back in any language or dialect through mobile phones, allowing callers to access information simply through their phone keypad.

They showcase tutorials on their blog:

The program is not intented to be weighty and difficult to manage; InSTEDD's Director of Platform Engineering, Nicolas de Tada, writes on their blog,

“… we work in an agile way by building things quickly and trying them out with the people who will be using them as early on as possible. We emphasize simplicity and scalability…”

Verboice has been used for projects as diverse as the Red Cross emergency response in San Francisco – and was used to build the program Baby Monitor.

Piloted in Western Kenya with Population Council, Baby Monitor is used in situations where a pregnant woman, living remotely, is more likely to be reached by a cell phone than a health worker; with questions designed by clinicians, she can answer questions to determine what kind of care she may need.

From Population Council's Baby Monitor (also on Facebook)

From Population Council's Baby Monitor (also on Facebook)

Through this pilot, InSTEDD learnt several things about the program and the importance of “human centered design” – for example, using phone buttons 1 and 2 to answer a yes/no was found to be a problem: because of the proximity of the buttons, users were more likely to answer incorrectly, and hang up! But changing the yes/no option to buttons 1 and 3 led to fewer mistakes. And while the original model began by asking specific questions about the user’s state of health, through trial and error the iLab realized the first question should have been “are you currently having an emergency?”

A Verboice system flow chart in Khmer (Cambodian language) showing the steps to register HIV patients.

A Verboice system flow chart in Khmer (Cambodian language) showing the steps to register HIV patients.

Verboice is currently being used in Cambodia through funding from the Spider Center, creating new projects in partnership with BBC Media Action, Marie Stopes International, and
the International Labor Organization, currently all in the testing process.

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