USAID Impact Photo Credit: USAID and Partners

Archives for Innovation

Mobile Persuasion: Can mobile phones and cutting-edge behavioral science improve lives?

An agri-economist we know starts his talks by being provocative:

Actually, the world doesn’t need to spend one more dollar on agricultural research. The truth is we have all the information we need to feed the world. What we don’t know is how to get people to use the agricultural products we already have.

We might not fully agree, but it has a key insight. All of us- including people living in poverty- have complicated, demanding lives. So simple availability doesn’t mean that even life-changing services like vaccines and HIV tests stay at the top of our minds.

Some real examples from Mozambique:

Farmers tell us they want to use fertilizer, but it’s a hassle because the dealer is 35 kilometers away and by the time planting season comes they have no cash.

Farmers and community members in Morrumbala, Mozambique. Photo by Bita Rodriguez

Farmers and community members in Morrumbala, Mozambique. Photo by Bita Rodriguez

People living with TB know they need to take their medicine. And they do, but as soon as they start to feel better- even though their treatment isn’t complete- many stop.

Jerome has multidrug-resistant TB, he has been undergoing treatment for over a month at the East Avenue Medical Center, Philippines. WHO/HM.Dias

Jerome has multidrug-resistant TB, he has been undergoing treatment for over a month at the East Avenue Medical Center, Philippines.
WHO/HM.Dias

We know this gap between our intentions and actions exists because we live it out ourselves. Who doesn’t have a medical appointment they’ve been avoiding or an antibiotic regimen they gave up the moment they felt better? In the developed world, we design programs like automatic retirement enrollment to make decisions as easy as possible. Yet, in development we often fail to design programs with simple human behavior in mind.

What’s Possible

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that leveraging behavioral science can significantly improve our impact. Slight changes in the way we offer services can matter. A study in India showed that offering women an appointment with a family planning counselor while not in the presence of their male partner significantly increased use of family planning services.

Mobile Persuasion

At the same time as these advances, the mobile phone is revolutionizing our ability to communicate. With more than 500 million phones in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, there is a tremendous opportunity to combine behavioral science with the power of the mobile phone, or mobile persuasion.

Kenyan students play a mobile game. Credit: Ed Owles, Worldview

Kenyan students play a mobile game. Credit: Ed Owles, Worldview

Using mobiles to change behavior increases our reach, our knowledge, and makes services more accessible. We can remind people in rural areas to take their medicine, digitally track performance, and make follow-up information as easy as receiving a text.

So What Are We Doing?

In Mozambique, USAID is testing and applying mobile persuasion with a few key studies.

 Helping Farmers Save: Poor farmers have a shock of cash after harvest but very little at planting season, the critical time to buy inputs like fertilizer. We’re supporting a study on offering farmers the chance to save for fertilizer right after harvest with mobile money. The ultimate goal is to increase farmers’ crops and income. To do that, the study will answer critical first order questions: can we increase farmers’ use of mobile money (a new and under-used technology in Mozambique)? Would small incentives encourage farmers to save and keep those savings until planting season? Would offering their friends and families the chance to save via mobile money increase use of mobile money by introducing a new social norm? Would that use translate into decreased demands on farmers’ savings?

Helping People With HIV/TB: Sometimes we learn from good work that’s already on the ground. Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) and Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique ran an SMS study that reminded people living with HIV to come to appointments and take their medicine. In 12 months, this increased appointment adherence for new patients in urban areas by 10 percentage-points. USAID is supporting the continuation of these messages and sending messages with innovative personalization to a new group of patients, those co-infected with TB+HIV.

We’re excited to learn what works and what doesn’t. We’ll have results on the farmer study next month and will post the second part to this blog.

Our challenge is to take these insights and apply them to other thorny development challenges.  And, of course, to turn them inward to help USAID create the systems that make applying good science and user-centered design quick, easy, and transformative.

 

Eye in the Sky Moves Mountains in Development

THE WORLD IN HIS HAND: Him Lal Shrestha, a Remote Sensing Analyst at the USAID-funded SERVIR Himalaya initiative, explains how data is transmitted from a satellite and informs the Government of Nepal on how best to make use of their land. Photo by Richard Nyberg, USAID

THE WORLD IN HIS HAND: Him Lal Shrestha, a Remote Sensing Analyst at the USAID-funded SERVIR Himalaya initiative, explains how data is transmitted from a satellite and informs the Government of Nepal on how best to make use of their land.
Photo by Richard Nyberg, USAID

When Him Lal Shrestha wants to know what is happening on the ground affecting Nepalese farmers, he shoots a glance up—way up to an orbiting satellite. That great big white ball on the top of his building helps bring life-saving data down to earth. Here’s how.

Shrestha is a Remote Sensing Analyst at the USAID-funded SERVIR Himalaya initiative. He showed me around his facility and explained how satellite imagery can tell us what is happening to land in Nepal and across the countries surrounding the scenic Hindu Kush Himalayas.

Pointing to his screen, he explains how land cover, particularly in agriculture and forest, in many areas of Nepal is being depleted — a serious issue that will affect how local people plant, harvest and survive. It’s also a huge concern for government officials who are trying to thwart potential calamities that could make things tougher for people just trying to make ends meet.

Screenshot on the SERVIR Himalaya website shows land cover trends over time.

Screenshot on the SERVIR Himalaya website shows land cover trends over time.

Shrestha describes what he sees on his screen. “In the case of Nepal, from 1990 to the current year, we see remarkable pressure on the land cover changes,” he said. “Land cover is a function of population growth; because of population growth, there is urbanization. So ultimately there is pressure on the forest coverage,” he said, adding that the survey work is important internationally because “we are discussing reducing emission from the deforestation and degradation.”

Helping people understand forest cover and other development challenges at home and across borders is the goal of this USAID effort in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Some of the tools help people detect forest fires hidden behind mountain ranges and send SMS messages to firefighters so they can speed off in pursuit in less than an hour.

Dr. Rajiv Shah meets local scientists at SERVIR Himalaya.

Dr. Rajiv Shah meets local scientists at SERVIR Himalaya.

“It is hard to fix a problem that you cannot see,” said USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah during a recent visit to Nepal. Dr. Shah believes that by harnessing science and technology, “we can put critical information in the hands of the people most affected by natural disasters.”

Other tools keep a big eye on glacier melts leading to water flows and help monitor food production and estimate crop yields to better inform the Nepal government so they can make critical decisions ahead of time to avoid famine and all the suffering that comes with it. Similarly, other governments in the region can use satellite imagery of land conditions within their borders to make informed decisions.

Top: Imja Glacier in 1956.  Bottom: By 2012, the Imja glacier had receded dramatically, leaving behind a lake 110 m deep and containing over 60 million cubic meters of water.

Top: Imja Glacier in 1956.
Bottom: By 2012, the Imja glacier had receded dramatically, leaving behind a lake 110 m deep and containing over 60 million cubic meters of water.
Photo Credits: (Top) Erwin Schneider, Courtesy of the Association for Comparative Alpine Research, Munich. (Bottom) Alton C.Byers, The Mountain Institute

According to Bronwyn Llewellyn, Environment Team Leader at USAID Nepal, a lack of transparency in decision-making is an issue to tackle across the region. “Science and technology can help a lot with that transparency. It’s a tool that is accessed by everyone online. By creating tools that cross boundaries, you are creating a language of science that can be used across the borders. So everyone is looking at the same tool and making the same decisions.”

So what’s USAID’s vision for this science-based development mapping toolkit? Governments across the region need the big picture. And the satellite data it collects enables them to track global climate change and make more informed decisions about land and water use that impact their countries’ future.

Driving Progress in Asia through Science, Innovation & Partnership

Nepal is a place of mesmerizing beauty. Located in the Himalayas with eight of the world’s 10 highest mountains, including the highest peak on Earth, Mt. Everest, it’s no wonder more than 20 percent of the country is protected. The diverse terrain ranges from emerald green tea gardens, terraced paddy fields and historic temples nestled in hillsides to thick jungle, sprawling forest, pristine lakes and the largest concentration of glaciers outside the polar region.

The beneficiaries seen here grow off-season, high-value vegetable crops with drip irrigation technology, which increases crop yields by up to 30 percent and reduces water consumption by up to 75 percent, helping farmers cope with more erratic water supply from climate change while increasing their incomes.

The beneficiaries seen here grow off-season, high-value vegetable crops with drip irrigation technology, which increases crop yields by up to 30 percent and reduces water consumption by up to 75 percent, helping farmers cope with more erratic water supply from climate change while increasing their incomes.
Credit: USAID/ Bimala Rai Colavito

But what lurks behind this idyllic landscape is a growing problem — climate change. Nepal struggles with both water scarcity and increased flooding, impacting everything from health and nutrition to livelihoods and food production. With agriculture employing 80 percent of the population and one in three suffering from food insecurity, these ecological shocks can present serious setbacks for farmers and their families, robbing them of their livelihoods or ability to put food on the table.

At USAID, one of our top priorities is developing innovative solutions that can help vulnerable communities withstand chronic threats, such as pandemics or climate change, and sustain progress when disaster strikes — not get pushed further into poverty. This is important across the globe but particularly in Asia, where half the world’s poor live and more than half of all natural disasters occur. In today’s interconnected world, our success matters to the United States. As the fastest growing region in the world accounting for more than half the world’s GDP and nearly half its trade, Asia has become a key driver of global politics and economics. Progress — or instability — in Asia has ripple effects throughout the world and can impact us here at home. Across the region, we’re hard at work.

In Nepal, we’re helping farmers and families mitigate the adverse impacts of a changing environment on their lives and livelihoods. We’re helping them adapt to new rainfall patterns and adopt new water-saving tools such as multiple-use water systems for sanitation needs, drinking and growing food. We’re also introducing solar-powered pumps, which enable farmers to use drip irrigation for high-value crops, increasing their annual income by over a third. Our work has had a transformational impact on women in particular — who are typically responsible for collecting water — freeing up their time and energy to invest in other aspects of their lives.

We’re forging partnerships that leverage resources and harness the science, technology and innovation that exist throughout the region to maximize impact — and reach. USAID recently announced three new partnerships with Indian organizations to share successful, low-cost agricultural innovations and technologies with African countries. These partnerships are a win-win for all: The organizations gain access to new market space; USAID advances its efforts to increase food security and farmers’ incomes in Africa; and African countries gain access to new tools to help their citizens escape extreme poverty. These include a low-cost tractor, an organic fertilizer made out of seaweed and a solar-powered food dehydrator — all devised to increase yields and incomes by mechanizing operations, fertilizing depleted soils and preventing post-harvest losses.

In Timor-Leste, we saw a great opportunity to extend our reach by partnering with ConocoPhillips, which has significant investments in the country and contributes to sustainable community development — particularly in agriculture and education to help Timor-Leste improve agricultural productivity and increase its pool of skilled workers. This is vital in a country where nearly 40 percent of people live in extreme poverty and more than 60 percent of the population work in agriculture. Together, we are helping more farmers than ever before diversify their crops to increase their incomes and improve their families’ health and nutrition. Through this partnership, we have been able to double the number of farm families benefiting from this project. Farmers practicing new horticulture techniques have boosted their incomes by up to 300 percent.

And we’re bringing transformative science and technology to remote corners of the world where they’re needed most. Due to climate change and rapid urbanization, the coastal nation of Bangladesh — which has the highest malnutrition rates in the region — is losing up to 1 percent of its arable land each year. Adding to the challenge, 80 percent of the country rests in a low-lying river delta prone to flooding. To tackle these challenges, USAID is training farmers in the use of high-yielding varieties of rice seeds that are tolerant to soil salinity and adverse weather, as well as in the use of fertilizer deep placement technology, which allows for fertilizer to be placed under the soil and closer to the root where it is most effective, as opposed to on top of the soil where it is more likely to be washed away. As a result, soil fertility is improved, fertilizer use is reduced and yields are increased. Our efforts helped the coastal district of Barisal end its rice-deficiency and produce enough rice to feed its people.

Asia faces complex and integrated problems on a scale never before seen in history. These issues demand innovative approaches that combine resources and expertise at every opportunity. We are committed to the task, and hope you’ll click here to find out how you can join us.

Cooking With Green Charcoal Helps to Reduce Deforestation in Haiti

An organization in northern Haiti is promoting a cooking fuel made from agricultural waste that can save trees, help farmers increase their yields and generate additional income.

“Our aim is to try to stop deforestation in Haiti by teaching people to switch from cooking with charcoal to using cooking briquettes, small discs made from charred agricultural waste,” said Anderson Pierre, the Supply Chain Manager for Carbon Roots International (CRI), a USAID-supported non-profit organization operating in Quartier Morin.

Workers create cooking briquettes, small discs made from charred agricultural waste, in northern Haiti on Dec. 12, 2013. Photo copyright Kendra Helmer/USAID

Workers create cooking briquettes, small discs made from charred agricultural waste, in northern Haiti on Dec. 12, 2013.
Photo © Kendra Helmer/USAID

Despite the fact that only about 2 percent of Haiti’s forests remain, it is difficult to shift habits of cooking with wood charcoal to methods that are environmentally friendly.  According to Pierre, other alternative fuels are still not well-known – or accepted.

“We work little by little, changing perceptions and providing information on the benefits of using briquettes,” Pierre said.

CRI employs smallholder farmers and entrepreneurs to produce carbon-rich char from agricultural waste such as sugarcane bagasse, the fibrous matter that remains after sugarcane stalks are crushed to extract their juice. CRI uses this waste to create two innovative products: renewable charcoal cooking briquettes called “green charcoal,” and “biochar,” a potent natural soil additive that increases soil fertility and removes carbon from the atmosphere. CRI sells the briquettes as an alternative to traditional wood charcoal through a network of women retailers, and disburses biochar back to farmers to increase crop yields and further raise incomes.

As a result, the project contributes to the sustainability of Haitian agriculture and provides income opportunities for women entrepreneurs. It offers a comparably priced, locally appropriate green cooking fuel to the Haitian marketplace, as well as encourages the adoption of biochar as a viable tool for increasing agricultural productivity and soil resiliency.

CRI’s efforts to promote green charcoal are gradually gaining ground in northern Haiti. While they’ve been focusing on market research and production, they plan to expand to bulk sales and more roadside kiosks this spring. In December, CRI ran a public awareness campaign in Quartier Morin under the slogan “Green Charcoal is Your Charcoal”, using demonstration stands and offering free samples of briquettes.

“The Haitian consumer likes the fact that this comes from a source other than wood. People have heard about a Haiti that used to be green. They understand that deforestation is not good. If they have an alternative, they will go for it,” said Ryan Delaney, co-founder of CRI. The briquettes are 5 to 10 percent cheaper to buy than wood-based charcoal and they can be burned in a traditional cook stove, making it an attractive fuel alternative.

USAID is supporting CRI through a $100,000 Development Innovation Ventures award. The USAID award has helped CRI prove itself — it developed a network of producers, started production and created viable markets for biomass products.

“We want this to be a self-sufficient project,” Delaney said. “We have just purchased a machine that can increase the briquette production from 3,000 briquettes a day to 3 tons an hour. There is a lot of sugarcane production in Haiti providing the needed sugarcane waste…. Right now we sell small-scale, but we have ambitious expansion goals.”

Delaney estimates the charcoal market in Haiti to be valued at about $700 million a year (approximately $90 million in northern Haiti).  “The potential to scale in Haiti and beyond is enormous, as there is little centralized production of charcoal,” he said.

This month, the U.S.-based CRI expects formal operations to begin for their for-profit entity in Haiti, called Carbon Roots Haiti, S.A.  Eventually CRI wants to hand over green charcoal production to Haitians, Delaney said. ”Ultimately, we envision this as a Haitian company run by Haitians.”

Launched in October 2010, USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) holds a quarterly grant competition for innovative ideas, pilots and tests them using cutting-edge analytical methods, and scales those that demonstrate cost-effectiveness and widespread development impact. DIV uses a staged-funding model inspired by venture capital to invest comparatively small amounts in relatively unproven ideas, and continues to support only those that prove effective.

For more information on DIV and how to apply, go to http://www.usaid.gov/div. For more information on CRI visit http://www.carbonrootsinternational.org/ and see photos of CRI in Haiti on Flickr.

Read another story about how USAID is fighting deforestation through an improved cooking technology program.

Anna-Maija Mattila Litvak is the Senior Development Outreach and Communications Officer for USAID/Haiti.

Business Students Tackle Childhood Pneumonia in Uganda

A collaboration between USAID’s Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact (CII) in the Global Health Bureau and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University led to teams of business students from around the world competing on ways to reduce child deaths from pneumonia in Uganda.

The 11th annual Kellogg Biotech and Healthcare Case Competition brought together eleven teams representing nine business schools from the US, Canada, UK, and Mexico on January 25th in Chicago. This year’s winning team was from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley and the runner-up from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The winning team from the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley.

The winning team from the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. Credit: Jason Brown

Thirty-two teams applied to participate from twelve different schools around the world. The teams invited to compete had impressive credentials; many of the participants worked at global healthcare companies and several had medical degrees.

Judges of the event were pharmaceutical executives who evaluated the teams’ business-minded supply and demand solutions. Pneumonia is the largest killer of children in the developing world and can lead to death if not correctly and quickly diagnosed and treated appropriately.

“This is business education at its finest,” observed Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Kellogg and one of the directors of the case competition. “In this competition we have teams of students working to address a major global health issue. In the process, they are learning an enormous about global health, team dynamics and the power of business concepts.”

The case was developed over the course of several months by students and professors at Kellogg in close collaboration with CII. Students performed research and interviews throughout Uganda.

Professor Calkins and Kara Palamountain, Director of the Global Health Initiative at Kellogg, then wrote the case outlining the many barriers to increasing the use of antibiotics in a country with limited resources. At the end of the case students are asked to propose solutions from several options within a given budget to maximize lives saved.

“This case forced students to think both analytically and creatively. The challenges are significant; it isn’t a case with a simple answer,” said Calkins.

CII actively looks to support the already strong work across USAID’s Global Health Bureau by engaging a range of new thinkers and perspectives, many from the private sector. This event demonstrated the value of seeking out these new perspectives; many of the teams proposed promising, well-structured, and feasible solutions based on frameworks and analysis from their business school curricula. Some of the teams will be invited to present their proposals to the Pneumonia Working Group based at UNICEF to inform ongoing global scale-up efforts.

Kellogg Professor Tim Calkins discusses the case following the competition

Kellogg Professor Tim Calkins discusses the case following the competition

Exposing business students to the challenges and opportunities in these developing markets now will likely benefit them in their future healthcare careers. Many countries in Africa and South East Asia are among the fastest growing pharmaceutical markets in the world. Calkins noted, “I was delighted to use a pharmaceutical related case from Africa, since this is where some of the greatest needs and opportunities will be found in the healthcare world.”

In addition to this competition, the case will be a permanent teaching tool in a global health course at Kellogg.

Schools represented include:

  • Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota
  • Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University (Canada)
  • Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley
  • IPADE Business School (Mexico)
  • Judge Business School, University of Cambridge (UK)
  • Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University
  • Rutgers Business School
  • Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan
  • University of Chicago Booth School of Business

Creating an AIDS-Free Generation through Science and Technology

Last year, the United States government provided testing and counseling for more than 57 million people through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The program enrolled more than four million men in voluntary medical circumcision programs and supported more than five million orphans and vulnerable children in countries with some of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS. These are just a few of the remarkable achievements that PEPFAR has made over the past decade—a small testament to the hard work of so many who are committed to and work tirelessly every day to achieve an AIDS-free generation. These great achievements, however, would not be possible without inspiring advances in science and technology.

Women can use this ARV-based vaginal gel to protect themselves against HIV. International Partnership for Microbicides

Credit: International Partnership for Microbicides

For the first time, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – through its Office of Science and Technology - has created an awards program that embodies the agency’s commitment to supporting innovation in science and technology applications. The Pioneers Prize pays tribute to technological advances that offer innovative solutions to critical issues facing global development. By utilizing science, technology and innovation, USAID is working toward its mission to end extreme poverty and promote resilient democratic societies.

As a key implementer of PEPFAR, USAID’s work in HIV and AIDS was well-recognized with this year’s Pioneer Prizes. Awarded three grand prizes, the Office of HIV/AIDS, along with its partners, has been able to share the transformative nature of its work with the rest of the global health and development community.

Among the grand prize winners is the Delivery Team Topping Up (DTTU) program, which uses vendor-managed inventory principles to “top up” supplies, such as condoms and HIV test kits, at public health facilities. To date, the program has serviced 1,800 clinics in Zimbabwe.

The PLACE Method, also a recipient, applies new technologies in HIV and STI testing, spatial mapping, epidemiologic theory and empiric evidence to address the problem of obtaining valid information that can prevent the spread of infections in sex workers and injecting drug users. It targets geographic areas with high rates of infection and the venues where people at high-risk meet. It then uses low-cost GPS receivers and Google Earth to identify gaps in prevention programs.

Finally, Tenofovir gel, a vaginally applied antiretroviral microbicide used to prevent HIV infection, gives women an alternative method to keep themselves safe during unprotected sex. Tested in the CAPRISA 004 trial, Tenofovir gel reduced HIV acquisition by an estimated 39 percent overall and by 54 percent in women with high gel adherence. While still awaiting the results of an ongoing confirmatory trial, regulatory approval, and scale-up, the CAPRISA 004 trial demonstrated for the first time that a microbicide has the potential to drastically reduce HIV infection for women.

With these awarded innovations, it is clear that USAID’s work toward HIV and AIDS prevention through PEPFAR remains essential to achieving our mission of ending extreme poverty. With the commitment, innovative spirit, creativity and hard work of our partners, USAID is continuously using science and technology in unprecedented ways to make great strides toward an AIDS-free generation.

In Progress: How USAID is increasing transparency and modernizing information

On May 9, 2013, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order #13642 “Making Open & Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information.”  The Executive Order was accompanied by the Office of Management and Budget’s Open Data Policy (M-13-13), which provides guidance on implementing the Executive Order, while maintaining protections for national and operational security, and individual privacy. The Executive Order is intended to ensure that U.S. Government information is made available and accessible to the public to drive transparency, economic growth, and innovation.

USAID responded to the Executive Order in two ways.  We compiled each of the first set of deliverables spelled out in the Open Data Policy but, more importantly, we defined and developed the processes for opening Agency program and management data on into the future.  With nearly 200 data assets (defined as a collection of data elements or datasets that make sense to group together), USAID’s Open Data Listing (www.usaid.gov/data) is USAID’s entry point for available, useable, and accessible development data.

Click here to view USAID's Open Data Listing

Click here to view USAID’s Open Data Listing


USAID’s Open Data Listing hosts data assets relevant to global development available for anyone to access, compare, and analyze against other relevant data and keep the findings, or better yet, share with others.  We have already published data assets describing USAID’s budget and financial flows, performance monitoring data, survey data used in planning, monitoring and evaluating development programs, and ten years of monthly prices of crops and produce across twenty-five countries.  This is a small sample of the many data assets we plan to publish.

USAID is committed to learning what types of data would be most useful to open and make available; how to improve our methods of getting the data to you; and how to better document and annotate the data.  We welcome suggestions via our Github site and our online feedback form.

The Executive Order’s emphasis on transparency and increasing accessibility to information is core to USAID’s values, and USAID is thrilled to enhance this part of its mission.  To ensure that inclusiveness and transparency is core to our implementation of the Open Data Policy, USAID has created a special governance committee with intra-agency representation to coordinate the management and dissemination of its data.

USAID’s Open Data Listing and Github site provide the public with a forum to engage and participate in the work of international development.   By working together collaboratively across fields, specialties, countries, and regions, we will identify the most sustainable solutions to eradicate extreme poverty and achieve our global development goals.

Open Cities and Crisis Mapping

The devastating effects of Typhoon Haiyan—known as Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines— have sparked a worldwide humanitarian effort that is notable for the work of “digital volunteers” who are finding ways to help contribute to the humanitarian effort online by providing updated, publicly available, maps for responders like the American Red Cross and identify social media data that could be used by the UN for rapid situational awareness. One common way volunteers help is by tracing over online satellite imagery to create data about the location and shape of objects such as buildings, roads, and bridges. This data can, in turn, be used to perform different types of analysis such as finding the most efficient route between two points, or assessing infrastructure damage. Throughout the last year, USAID’s GeoCenter has worked closely with humanitarian organizations, universities, student groups, and volunteers to better understand and leverage this public engagement, sometimes called “crisis mapping”, in humanitarian response. Our investment in becoming part of the crisis mapping community is yielding some exciting results, including building capacity for online mapping projects that support the current humanitarian response in the Philippines.

This past fall, USAID’s GeoCenter, in the Office of Science and Technology, partnered with the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR) to participate in the “Open Cities” project in Kathmandu, Nepal. The rapid rate of population growth in Kathmandu, coupled with sub-standard building construction in an active seismic zone, exposes Kathmandu to significant risk for disaster from Earthquakes. The creation of disaster plans and mitigation policies requires geographic data to answer questions like, “Where are the buildings the most susceptible to risk? Where is the greatest concentration of population? Where are the resources that can be used to respond in a disaster?” To provide these data, GFDRR has funded Kathmandu Living Labs, a Nepali organization, which is mapping infrastructure, conducting field-surveys, and publishing these data via an open platform, online. The project has already created the first comprehensive map of schools in the Kathmandu valley and provided extensive maps of health facilities. To help with the effort, in November 2013, the GeoCenter organized a mapping party in collaboration with George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC, in which ninety students and faculty spent a Friday evening mapping more than fifteen thousand buildings in Kathmandu. This remote mapping assistance provided by students in the US allows Kathmandu Living Labs to focus more on important field surveys that, when combined with the map data, will provide an open dataset that can be used to model urban areas, analyze infrastructure, and plan for disaster response in the event of an earthquake. The map below highlights the contribution of GWU students: each yellow dot is a data point added during the mapping party to areas that needed to be mapped according to Kathmandu Living Labs.

Map of OpenStreetMap contributions by GWU students courtesy of Mapbox

The impact of our work with the Open Cities project continues to multiply. For example, the National Society for Earthquake Technology in Nepal has recently determined to share its own information, offering new data that will soon be available for public use on the Open Cities website. Just one week after the mapping party at GWU, Typhon Haiyan struck, and many of the students involved in Open Cities immediately offered their newly minted skills to the Red Cross in an effort to provide rapid geographic data to the Philippines. By working as part of this community, we are finding ways to support innovative solutions that we might not have imagined before. Open geographic data are now becoming a convening point for a wide range of stakeholders and the GeoCenter and USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance are evaluating ways to leverage this data for response planning and programmatic decision-making [PDF, 4mb].

Large screen displays show live edits to OpenStreetMap as George Washington University geography students, USAID, and the World Bank map Kathmandu by tracing satellite imagery using online tools for the Open Cities project on November 1, 2013. Click to view photo set on Flickr. Credit: Chad Blevins

Large screen displays show live edits to OpenStreetMap as George Washington University geography students, USAID, and the World Bank map Kathmandu by tracing satellite imagery using online tools for the Open Cities project on November 1, 2013. View more photos from the event on our Flickr site.
Credit: Chad Blevins

Our partnerships with the crisis mapping community and our colleagues in the U.S. Government make this innovation possible: we could not do it on our own. The GWU Department of Geography was a key partner in organizing the Kathmandu mapping party with their students and our colleagues at MapBox provided generous technical support. The faculty at GWU are also creating a curriculum for teaching open-source tools like OpenStreetMap that will be available to anyone to replicate the process. The Department of State’s Humanitarian Information Unit made valuable high-resolution satellite imagery available in OpenStreetMap for both the Open Cities project and to the entire community of crisis mappers for response to Haiyan. Their “Imagery to the Crowd” allows digital volunteers to trace satellite imagery and create valuable data about roads, buildings, and other physical features that can be used to support humanitarian and development projects.

Moving forward, USAID and the GeoCenter look forward to being a part of the crisis mapping community. It is clear that many amazing volunteers, entrepreneurs, and students around the world are becoming part of a growing community with important capacity and innovative ideas. Together, we can meet the challenges of the future.

For more information on USAID’s response to Typhoon Haiyan, please visit www.usaid.gov/haiyan.

For more information about the Open Cities Project, please visit www.opencitiesproject.org.

Empowering Moms Through mHealth

This blog post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

My heart smiled the moment the four women entered the meeting room where I had been waiting. I stood to greet them and the babies they carried, eager to hear their stories. The young mothers sat in the chairs across from us and soon the babies were all up on the table, their proud moms making certain that we could see their precious little ones. The youngest baby was 4½ months old, the oldest 14 months. They were all adorable.

USAID harnesses the power of mobile phones to achieve results.

Credit: USAID

The conversation was lively. One young mother, Letty, described her pregnancy. Living in Johannesburg, she was far from her home country, Zimbabwe, and far from her mother,aunts,grandmother or anyone she trusted to give her the advice and information she craved.The cost of phoning these trusted relatives was prohibitive, so Letty found support when she enrolled to receive text messages via her mobile phone from MAMA, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action. “I’m here. I’m alone. The SMS messages helped me a lot. They helped me feel that someone is there,” Letty told me.

MAMA South Africa was launched with the support of global partners USAID, Johnson & Johnson, the United Nations Foundation, the mHealth Alliance, and BabyCenter. In addition, Vodacom joined the South Africa partnership, offering MAMA’s mobile website, askmama.mobi, free-of-charge to its 25 million customers. The goal of MAMA is to deliver health messages that moms need at specific milestones during pregnancy and during the first year of their baby’s development.

An existing South African mHealth partnership helped bring MAMA South Africa to life: Cell-Life, Praekelt Foundation and WRHI at the University of the Witwatersrand. Through MAMA, new and expectant mothers receive messages that address important topics such as nutrition during pregnancy, how to prepare for childbirth and recognizing signs of trouble which, if unheeded, can lead to difficulties in labor and delivery.

I sat across from these four women who had benefited from the MAMA partnership and listened carefully as they described their experiences. For these mothers, the SMS messages calmed their fears. One of the women, Faith, said that she had enrolled in the program when she was five months pregnant and had found reassurance in the MAMA texts. “The messages sometimes tell you, ‘This is normal’ and then you don’t worry,” she said. Letty added that when her baby was up all night, she received a message that said “Your baby may be teething” and this convinced her that nothing was wrong with her baby.

Another mom, Ntando was seven months pregnant and already had one child when she enrolled in the MAMA program. On the day of our meeting, her baby boy was already five months old. “The way we raised the first one is different from the way we raise this one.” She looked at her son and then added a comment about MAMA. “They’ll help me raise this one,” she said.

The third woman, Memory, signed up to receive MAMA messages when her baby was five months old. She said that she appreciated the help in “how to say ‘no’ to my son.” Memory also told us that she found the messages so helpful that she shares them with a friend who does not have a phone.

Faith visits the MAMA website with her husband and they learn together. Her praise for MAMA struck a particular chord for me – “I like them because they don’t just take care of the baby, they also take care of the moms.”

As our time together drew to a close, I thanked Letty, Memory, Faith and Ntando for taking the time to meet with us. Many of their comments have stayed with me, but none more than this one: “You feel like you are alone, and these SMS messages make you feel loved.”

The MAMA partnership is based on the power and promise of mobile phones in empowering mothers to make healthy decisions for themselves and their babies. What a wonderful added – and unexpected — benefit that MAMA also makes moms feel loved.

Helping Bright Ideas Shine Through Spotlight: Brian Gitta, Makerere University, Uganda, ResilientAfrica Network

USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) – a multidisciplinary research and development effort led by seven universities working to evaluate and strengthen real-world innovations in development – recently spotlighted young academics and their creative approaches to development challenges during TechCon 2013, the first annual HESN meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. As part of a contest, more than 40 students and researchers presented innovations designed to help communities in developing countries.  

Winner Brian Gitta, from Makarere University in Uganda, invented  a tool that can diagnose malaria without the need for blood samples and a laboratory. This is the story of that innovation.

Brian Gitta wasn’t in the mood to get stuck by another needle – he was already getting injections three times a day to fight off a foodborne illness. But as his fever spiked and the pain in his joints worsened, he suspected he was suffering yet another occurrence of malaria, the disease he’d contracted as a child and currently kills one child every minute in the developing world.

A nurse at a local clinic confirmed his suspicion by drawing blood using a needle and syringe. “I hated the needles and kept thinking of ways people could be diagnosed without pain,” Gitta recalled.

Brian Gitta, from Makerere University in Uganda pitches his winning idea that uses cell phones and light – not needles and blood samples to test for malaria. Photo Credit: Cynthia Kao-Johnson/USAID

Brian Gitta, from Makerere University in Uganda pitches his winning idea that uses cell phones and light – not needles and blood samples to test for malaria. Photo Credit: Cynthia Kao-Johnson/USAID

That puzzle was still on Gitta’s mind weeks later as he began his studies in Computer Science at Makerere University and started thinking about ways technology could be used to improve malaria detection. The standard method of determining whether someone has malaria is drawing blood and viewing it under a microscope, which requires health workers and facilities that are scarce in many low-income communities.  For Brian, the goal wasn’t just to alleviate momentary pain; eliminating needles and the need for a lab would not only limit the risk of infection but allow for diagnosis in communities that had no medical centers.

Gitta shared the idea with his friend Joshua Businge and they began researching new ways to detect malaria.  They learned that for years, light sensors have been used to read the blood’s oxygen content through the skin. This seemed like a promising avenue to explore, so the pair recruited Josiah Kavuma and Simon Lubambo, students skilled in engineering hardware.  Together, the team designed a prototype that plugs into a smartphone and can detect malaria using only light. Results are available in seconds and the smartphone can email them and map them for epidemiological purposes.  They named the device Matibabu, Swahili for medical center.

By coincidence, Makerere University was launching an initiative called the ResilientAfrica Network (RAN) as part of HESN and an upcoming launch event in Uganda would give local innovators an opportunity to demonstrate concepts for solving public problems.  The team demonstrated their prototype to Alex Dehgan, director of USAID’s Office of Science and Technology, RAN director William Bazeyo, and Deborah Elzie from RAN partner Tulane University.  “I was very impressed,” Elzie said. “When we talk about innovation, people are often just improving on something that’s already out there…These guys really found a whole new way of looking at how to determine if someone has malaria.”

RAN searches for creative minds like Gitta’s and helps them overcome obstacles that often keep bright ideas from making it to the marketplace.  RAN gave Gitta’s team a workspace, training on writing business proposals, mentoring, and the resources needed to make a better prototype.

They teams hopes to a commercially viable product and plans to partner with an established organization working against malaria.

Reflecting on his innovation, Gitta noted, “as long as you put your mind and hard work to it, you can accomplish anything at any age.”

Page 1 of 15:1 2 3 4 »Last »