A guest post by Lex Paulson

A dusty youth-center basketball court. A Member of Parliament’s office. A wire-strewn nerve center in UNICEF headquarters.

Three places which would be unlikely to host the same crowd of people on an average day, yet each bears witness to the changes wrought by a single, quietly revolutionary new tool: U-Report.

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A potential future u-reporter skates by at the TLC youth center. Credit: UNICEF

Developed in conjunction with the Scouts, the Girl Guides, and six other partners, UNICEF Uganda has created a free, SMS-based social monitoring service which currently links 180,000 Ugandans to health information, government services, and, most importantly, each other.

On our #uinnovate trip, we got an up-close look at how the community that U-Report helped build is taking action. Fueled by short, simply worded polls sent out twice a week — and sophisticated algorithms that sort and track replies by content and geography — SMS messages from U-Reporters are linked to radio and newspaper reports that aggregate and share their opinions with political leaders and the general public.

Free to join and simple to understand, the system has revealed applications as varied and exciting as the community of U-Reporters themselves: as early-warning system for epidemics, as monitors of corruption and absenteeism, as a conduit for peer-to-peer education, as advocates for child-friendly policies, and much more.

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The #uinnovate team gets a briefing from young U-Reporters in Kampala. Credit: UNICEF

Thanks to the UNICEF-Uganda team, the #uinnovate guests (myself gratefully included) had a chance to visit three places around Kampala where U-Report is being put to work.

1) The Nerve Center.

Alongside his team of programmers, outreach assistants, and data analysts, James Powell walked the #uinnovate delegation through the strategy that he and the UNICEF-Uganda team put in place to build a network of 180,000 members in just 15 months.

The guiding principles for getting U-Report started were simple. First, use the technology young people could already access; in this case, though newspaper circulation in Uganda is around 33,000 and Internet access estimated at 13% nationwide, most young people have a mobile phone at their disposal. Second, tap into networks with built-up good will; in this case, the Scouts, Guides, and other community partners, who helped James’ team build a critical mass of U-Reporters quickly. Third, make the barrier to entry as low as possible; to join the free service, new users simply text “JOIN” to 8500, and can opt out at any time. Fourth, be selective and focus on the most useful information; the U-report team found that more than three texts per week saturates U-Reporters, so the partners choose the highest-impact polls and region-specific alerts to maintain interest.

U-Report Screen Shot (Water Poll)
A recent U-Report poll on water availability tracked responses across all regions of Uganda

“The best thing about this tool,” James declares, “is that the U-Reporters come up with better ideas than we ever could.” He mentions a reforestation initiative conceived and organized through regional SMS networks, with no outside donors sought or needed. During Family Health Days, where birth registration is provided free for children under five, U-Reporters helped identify non-functioning birth registration printers, which UNICEF and Ministry of Health were able to get fixed within the week to get the service up and running again.

2) The Halls of Power.

Honorable Huda speaks softly and carries a big SMS. As one of the Ugandan Parliament’s “U-Report superusers,” Honorable Huda is leading the way in employing this tool to mobilize her constituents and help Uganda’s government deliver on its promises.

A former schoolteacher and community organizer who herself spent eight years in a refugee camp as a young girl, Honorable Huda carries herself with the gravitas of a committee chairwoman, tempered by the quiet kindness which suggests a familiarity with life’s struggles.

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Honorable Huda explains how U-Report has helped her serve the public. Credit: UNICEF

“Where I come from, near the border with Sudan,” Huda explains, “we have a great difficulty in providing high-quality education for our children. Many children don’t have access to a trained teacher, and those that do are often too hungry to pay attention in class.” With the help of U-Report, Honorable Huda commissioned a poll targeted at her constituents to find out which educational needs in her district were the most pressing to them.

Armed with over a hundred of these responses, she convened a face-to-face community meeting with almost 400 citizens — many of them U-Reporters — in attendance. With the momentum generated by this meeting, and the poll’s hard numbers, she got the attention of the Education Minister and regional administrators, lobbied successfully for two of her district’s informal “community schools” to be integrated into the regular public system, and partnered with local authorities to educate parents on providing low-cost, high-energy school lunches for their kids.

As impressive a story as this is, Honorable Huda is not alone: according to the UNICEF team, despite a scant history of this kind of constituent service in Uganda, parliamentary initiatives for child-friendly policies — backed up with U-Report data and U-Reporter energy — are finally starting to proliferate. Recently, MP’s withheld their approval of the government’s budget until an additional US$18 million was allocated to maternal and child health, a position strongly advocated by UNICEF and shared by U-Reporters. The Amendment to the Children’s Act of 2005, which would offer new protections to Uganda’s most vulnerable kids, has also been propelled forward in recent months as over 50,000 U-Reporters added their voices to the debate.

“The greatest problem I have with U-Report,” Huda confesses, “is that now the people in my district are so engaged, their expectations of government are growing fast! It’s our duty now to answer those expectations, and I take that duty very seriously.”

3) The Neighborhood.

At around 3pm every weekday, the Youth Life Center bursts audibly to life. A crowd forms around the water pump, the Digital Drum kiosks beep and whirr, and a pickup basketball game quickly and laughingly takes shape. Off to the side, Jimmy, one of the youth leaders, introduces me to two of the most avid U-Reporters, Diana and Fiona.

Before I can even form a question, Fiona jumps in eagerly: “You know, I just U-Reported earlier today.” (When a noun becomes a verb, you can tell a certain youth cachet has been achieved.) When I ask what she reported on, she explains that access to clean water is a big problem in her Kampala neighborhood. “The local council is supposed to fix the water pumps,” Diana offers, “but I see little kids drinking dirty water all the time. It’s not cool at all.”

Has U-Report helped change their attitude toward this kind of problem? “Oh definitely,” Fiona answers. “First, it’s nice just to be listened to for a change. Then I get a lot of interesting ideas from other parts of the country I’ve never even been to, and hear what their problems are too.” Diana nods, and jokes that some of the regions were places she had never even heard of before — now, she not only knows where they are, she’s hearing about what U-Reporters in these faraway places are doing to improve their own communities. “It helps to know that everyone in Uganda is struggling against the same hard things,” Fiona adds. “If one place has a breakthrough, now we can share it with the others.”

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The #uinnovate team in a U-Report encounter at the TLC Youth Center / Credit: UNICEF

As the #uinnovate team says its reluctant farewell to the bustling youth center, I ask the girls if they think their U-Reporting will lead to a more concerted movement for change. “It’s already happening,” Fiona asserts. Jimmy tells me about the trips U-Reporters have taken on the group’s behalf, to Rio+20 and the Doha climate negotiations. “We would just get frustrated by all this nonsense before,” says Diana. “Now I feel like I can really be part of something to change our country.”

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