Empowering Citizens and Improving Accountability through Technology in Uganda

During my trip to Uganda in February, I came across a number of fantastic projects which are exploring ways in which to use technology to give citizens a greater voice, encourage civil participation and improve accountability.

UNICEF are running a fantastic system called U-Report which aims to stimulate discussion and get viewpoints from the community via mobile phones (mainly SMS using Rapid SMS).  They aim to engage and incentivise through showing the benefits of engagement to constituents. 81,500 members have registered nationally through a short code and they are then polled on issues affecting their area including female genital mutilation, inflation, violence, education, early marriage and service delivery.

In order to achieve impact, they partner with 9 NGOs, as well as research institutes and the World Bank, who devise questions and use the data to plan projects.  They also use the reports for advocacy and significant media work.  They take critical issues identified through the SMS polling and explore them on radio and television shows e.g. early marriage, child beatings.  An expert and an MP are then asked to respond to questions from the public.  The challenge is that this expensive, particularly as the radio stations are local, but UNICEF believe it is worth the high costs as radio is still currently the most effective way of reaching the majority of citizens.

I was fortunate enough to meet with Grace Athuhaire, an experienced journalist who works for Monitor.  She has set up Early Life Radio, which has developed a platform where youth can interact with radio via social media, web and mobile (SMS and voice).  The platform aims to be utilised throughout Africa and they currently receive correspondence from Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gambia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda.

They’ve trained 15 volunteers with a passion for advocacy and focus broadly on political change in investigative journalism, creating and editing Audio Podcasts and advocacy.  They also partner with Shu Jaaz FM and XYZ who create video and audio satire in English and Swahili, which they use on their shows.  They received a Young Achievers Award for this work.

Their shows focus on political education, the environment and culture and aim to stimulate opinion, perspectives, analysis and dialogue whilst encouraging advocacy/social change through attitudinal change.  It will be streamed live (utilising low bandwidth) through the internet and a Facebook plug in.  Fortunately, Facebook can be accessed for free via mobile in Uganda.  Each programme will be linked to a discussion board on Facebook and their website and listeners can pose questions to studio guests.  They also hope to incorporate SMS polling in partnership with TRAC FM.  It is hoped that this project will encourage civil participation among youth in Uganda.

Uganda Watch is a project being run through a consortium of local NGOS including ACCFODE, Democracy Volunteering Group, Action for Development and Uganda Joint Christian Council.  They focus on election monitoring.  In the 2011 election, phones were used for educational messaging and election reporting and reports were verified by data analysts.  They also used a hotline, which was utilised by election monitors, local CSOs/NGOs and citizens.  Election monitors could also use a short code and web interface for reporting, though unfortunately the phone network was shut down over the election period.  They process all results through a complex data centre and then channel information to advocacy groups, the electoral commission, and the press.  They are currently exploring ways in which to use new technologies to encourage civil partipation between elections.

Transparency International’s Uganda branch has recently piloted utilising a toll free call centre and SMS platform to track health absenteeism, late opening times in clinics and other challenges in the health sector in Uganda.  They also ran a radio talk show which reported on the performance of health centres and provided training to communities on their right to health information and other health rights and on how to report violations.

Interestingly, they found the call centre more successful than the SMS because the mobile operator would only enable free SMS by recording people’s names in a database, whereas they wanted to enable the whole communities to report in.  The community also found it hard to use SMS due to low literacy levels and the use of local languages made it hard to devise a universal system.  They also tried using social media but with limited response.  This is an interesting case study which illustrates the importance of considering the local context when developing programmes and demonstrates the importance of evaluating pilot studies and capturing learning as TI Uganda did.

Transparency International is now exploring further ways in which to utilise technology to increase transparency including for the monitoring of police corruption and to encourage good governance.

As you all know, we at Indigo Trust are passionate about supporting innovative projects which use technology to increase transparency and accountability and we’re delighted to see this sector being explored in Uganda despite it being a risky environment in which to operate.