Field research for SMS queries in Uganda

August 4, 2009 at 11:40 pm Leave a comment

The Grameen Foundation, Google, and telecom provider MTN Uganda have launched a suite of mobile phone applications. These are the first products of nonprofit Grameen’s Application Laboratory (AppLab) effort. The SMS query-and-answer services are designed to work with basic mobile phones, and provide real-time health and agricultural information as well as a virtual marketplace.

Users can access the services at the time of their choosing and search relevant content on-demand, operating almost like the Internet.  The services include: Farmer’s Friend, a searchable database with both agricultural advice and targeted weather forecasts; Health Tips, which provides sexual and reproductive health information, paired with Clinic Finder, which helps locate nearby health clinics and their services; and Google Trader matches buyers and sellers of agricultural produce and commodities as well as other products.

Local organizations provide the knowledge base for each information service. Users enter a freeform text query, and Google’s algorithms identify keywords, search the appropriate knowledge base, and return the most relevant answer.

Agriculture query results

It’s worth noting what a huge opportunity there is for such services. Overall, 80% of new mobile users are coming from developing countries (CGAP). Google further points out that Africa has the world’s highest mobile growth rate, and mobile phone penetration is six times Internet penetration. One-third of the African population owns a mobile phone and many more have access to one. In Uganda agriculture employs over 80% of the workforce and only 13% of Ugandans live in urban areas, so using mobile phones to get information to rural populations meets a great need.

And that’s why it’s worth spending money and time to get the service right. How do you anticipate what questions people will ask, and what answers will be most useful? Enter the user experience team, taking a classic Wizard of Oz technique to Ugandan villages.

First, we trained a multilingual team to act as user researchers in 17 carefully selected locations across the country. In each place, they introduced themselves to a cross section of people they met and invited them to participate in a free study that would help create useful services for Ugandans. If the person agreed, the researcher handed them a mobile phone and encouraged them to write a text message containing a question they wanted to know the answer to. (If people had their own phone, we reimbursed them with phone credit.) The text message was then routed to a control room we’d set up in Kampala where a human expert read the text message, typed a response, and sent it back via SMS to the person who asked the question. In the meantime, the interviewer observed and recorded the participant’s user experience. This allowed us to record rich qualitative data from hundreds of interviews in just a few days, and to collect quantitative data from hundreds of search queries.

The team captured 280 queries in 4 days. Watch this great video; it really gives you a feel for the process. The sessions at the markets start at around 2:20. At 6:22 are visits to phone operators in rural villages, where phones are shared. (Get the feeling that the answer to the malaria query didn’t quite hit the mark?)

I’ll be interested in the longer term reports of social impact, to be conducted with Innovations for Poverty Action, plus Google.org support.

Advertisements

Entry filed under: ICT4D, User Experience. Tags: , , , , , , .

August 19 microfinance events, SF Today’s flair is No on IE6

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


Twitter Updates

Recent Posts

Feeds


%d bloggers like this: