USAID, Columbia University, local community members
Atrocities in hard-to-reach areas - for example many areas in Eastern Congo - often go unnoticed because of the lack of accessibility, both due to poor infrastructure and to the simple fact that fighting makes it too dangerous to get close. The inability of international organizations and humanitarian NGOs to collect information under these conditions hampers the provision of assistance in a timely and effective manner. A real challenge faced by many approaches is the difficulty of getting data that is not just real time, but representative.
Columbia University (with support from USAID) began the Voix des Kivus pilot project in summer 2009 to assess the technical feasibility of a decentralized, representative, SMS-based information system in the region and to assess the utility of the program to participating communities and potential users. The motivation was to determine the effectiveness of measurement using a crowdseeded SMS platform powered by FrontlineSMS software. Three cell phone holders - one member of leadership, one women's group leader, and one community member elected as a cell phone holder - were given cell phones and text messaging plans and make themselves available to other community members to send texts on their behalf. The texts sent were entirely voluntary.
Peace Engineering Takeaway
The project was monitored evaluated thoroughly for impact: the pilot was conducted in summer 2009 with four villages in South Kivu and expanded to 18 by late 2010. Peter van der Windt and Macartan Humphreys of Columbia University write, "Our conclusion is that the project seemed much more interesting to people that could not make use of it than to those that could" - that is, while the researchers determined they could work with fragile populations, the technology did not actually benefit their intended users.