[Guest blog post by Peter van der Windt, PhD candidate in Political Science at Columbia University focusing on Africa. Peter has been directly involved in Voix des Kivus from the start in 2009 when he presented the project (see video) at the International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009). More on Peter's research, teaching and background available here.]

Voix des Kivus

A crowd-seeding system in Eastern Congo that uses cell phones to obtain high-quality, verifiable, and real-time information about events that take place in hard-to-reach areas. This pilot project is led by Peter van der Windt and Macartan Humphreys from the Center for the Study of Development Strategies at Columbia University.

The pilot

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.

There is fast growing recognition of the role that technology can play in addressing these problems. But 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. Presently (beginning 2011) the program is operating in a random sample of 18 villages from four territories of the war-torn province of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Phoneholders and the goal

It works like this. In each village participating in Voix des Kivus there are three cell phone holders: one representing the traditional leadership, one representing women’s groups, and one elected by the community. Holders are trained extensively on how to send messages to the system. They are provided with a phone, monthly credit, and a codesheet that lists possible events that can take place in the village. Sending messages to the system is free but it is also voluntary – while users do not have to pay for each message they do not get any financial rewards for sending content to the system.

For participating communities Voix des Kivus provides a system for creating histories, archiving testimonies, and communicating with the rest of the world about events that affect their daily lives. For researchers and practitioners working in the region the information gathered forms an important resource to learn more about the situation on the ground in hard-to-access areas.

Technology and the data

The technology for Voix des Kivus is cheap to set up and simple to use. Built on the freely available FrontlineSMS software, the system allows holders to send numeric or full text posts from almost any cell phone. On the receiving side a standard cell phone linked to a laptop linked to the internet comprise the necessary equipment. With other freely available software (R and LaTeX – our code is available upon request), messages received are automatically filtered, coded for content, cleaned to remove duplicates, and merged into a database. Graphs and tables are automatically generated which can then be automatically mounted into bulletins spanning any period of interest and with different levels of sensitivity. Translations of non-coded text messages (often from Swahili into French and English) are undertaken manually.

Over the last 18 months phone holders have sent thousands of pre-coded and text messages ranging from reports of attacks and abductions to reports of crop diseases and floodings. The constant flow of data from our phone holders is kept in a database and captured in weekly bulletins. Each Monday a bulletin is produced and disseminated that presents events that took place in the preceding week. These bulletins are shared with organizations that have received clearance from Voix des Kivus and its phone holders. The latter includes several development organizations based in Bukavu, DR Congo who can use the data to evaluate the situation on the ground throughout the region.

The figure gives the cumulative number of messages sent per phone holder since the summer of 2009. Phone holders show no sign of reporting fatigue (the slope of the lines do not decrease). As you can see, Voix des Kivus expanded from June 2010 onwards.

Crowseeding vs crowdsourcing

An important question for a system like this is whether the messages received can be trusted. Here we find the true value of crowdseeding. In most crowdsourcing approaches anyone can send information directly to the system. Crowdseeding works in a more restricted way with phone holders that are pre-selected, and only they can send in information. Crowdseeding has three main advantages for data quality: 1. The data is received from a representative set of areas; 2. All senders are known to the system and are in a  long term relationship with the Voix des Kivus program; 3. Because more than one holder is selected in each village “internal validation” is also possible. The system can also be used for sending information to holders and for engaging in more interactive forms of data collection. There are also disadvantages of this approach relative to crowdsourcing, the most obvious is that because of their relation with the program there may be concerns about the security of holders.

What we learned from the pilot

We have learned a lot from the pilot. The technical and social capacity is there right now. Interest in participating areas has been very great as witnessed by the steady stream of messaging. Technical barriers were also not as great as expected; solar technology can be used to power phones in the most remote areas and cell phone coverage is much greater than some maps suggest. Data quality appears good with fairly high levels of internal validation. Two questions though are still unanswered. First although we encountered no security concerns we do not know how safe the system would be for holders if it operated on a larger scale. Second, we don’t know whether this information will get seriously used. At the scale in which we have been operating many organizations expressed great interest in the concept and the data; but we do not know of any serious reactions from international actors to the messages coming in, including real time reports of attacks and abuses. Phone holders have continued to engage with the system despite the poverty of reactions, but we cannot expect that to continue forever.

Continuation?

After operating for more than  a year and a half as a pilot in Eastern Congo, the Voix des Kivus experience suggests that obtaining verifiable, high-quality data in real-time from these hard-to-reach areas is not only possible, but needs much less expense and oversight than previously thought. Our pilot is now coming to an end and Columbia is bowing out from Voix des Kivus. The big question we face now is whether and how to continue the system after the pilot, whether this should be run by a domestic group or an international group, whether this should continue as an open resource or as a resource tied to the operations of organizations that can respond. Please post your thoughts here.

For more information see: http://cu-csds.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Voix-des-Kivus-Leaflet.pdf and www.cu-csds.org