If You Don’t Go, You Don’t Know”: What We’ve Learned and What We’re Doing About It

February 2, 2012

If You Don’t Go, You Don’t Know
What We’ve Learned and What We’re Doing About It

How to Scale 10x Overnight

Part of the challenge of scaling technologies that use SMS text messaging is how quickly the costs adds up. With this in mind, we knew that in order to reach large numbers of people, we had to develop relationships with mobile operators that could help us keep our costs low. Reluctant at first, always business-savvy, and initially tough negotiators, we built strong relationships with supportive mobile operators. With the support of these mobile operators, InSTEDD could effectively scale from 5 to 500000 people overnight! This meant that with the proper system, you could share what you knew instantly, in real time with the right people who could then take action to mitigate the potential damages.

A New Approach to Working Together

By the time InSTEDD reached 2-years-old, we had accomplished more than anyone thought possible. We had a mature team that knew how to work together in an agile and efficient way and we had made deals with mobile operators and aggregators to help us scale. But most importantly, our iLabs had the full capacity to create, deploy and support a range of tools to help us achieve our mission. The entire team was deeply committed to cultivating a radical shift in how technologies were created. We believed that the design and development of technologies should happen in and by the communities they are meant to serve. Using this approach, the technology was lean, modular, simple, modern, and most importantly, useful. We would work the people who would actually be using the tools, in flexible and iterative ways that showed results in weeks instead of months or years. Yet with all its promise, this was a novel concept that was hard to grasp for people who were used to work in other ways. Many didn’t believe that we could deliver something so fast and cheaply… unless, of course, it wasn’t very good. Few people had the first-hand experience that the closer you are to the problem, the more focused the solution becomes.

Gaining Momentum

The proof that this method was working kept accumulating, and eventually a watershed movement happened as more and more government groups and NGOs approached InSTEDD with the belief that with good, local design, technology would help them achieve their social goals. Since the design was done bottom up, we had government users — not your typical first adopters — choosing to use tools despite them not being mandated officially to do so and without bogus financial incentives. They used the tools because they truly believed they were useful. Since we built things as modular and open source services, local developers stepped up, independently, to build new solutions for hospitals, NGOs and communities. They were able to develop something useful in a matter of weeks– with capabilities that high-income countries would spend millions of dollars on! Due of our relationship with mobile operators, we could aggregate business arrangements and rapidly scale tools from tens to thousands of users…with no extra work.

Haiti Earthquake of 2010

Another pivotal point for InSTEDD came right after the Haiti earthquake of 2010. Our modular architecture, ability to connect with mobile operators and scale quickly as well as our deep-held belief that data needs to flow through fundamental standards, allowed us to deploy an emergency information system to help the relief efforts. The Emergency Information System (EIS) that we developed for Thomson Reuters Foundation supported the flow of a million text messages that aided the relief efforts. As the Haitians were text messaging in their needs, that information was crowd sourced and visualized in other tools of the larger relief ecosystem to help identify what was needed and where. And to achieve even more impact, EIS was used to send messages back to the survivors with useful information to aid their recovery. You can read a project description on our website, watch a video or read a blog post for more information on our work in Haiti.

The Global Community

Since our tools are open source and can be used from any location, we saw that people from New York to Bahrain had discovered that when you design for a constrained environment, the result is simple enough that it’s applicable anywhere else, and ready to roll as soon as the need appears. We intentionally combined our humanitarian mission with smart business acumen so that we could set our first iLab on track to scale and become a financially independent social enterprise. You can read more about our iLabs and that trajectory here.
Today, new applications are designed every day in our two iLabs that help people treat, manage and prevent the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and more. Our tools support the rapid reporting of infectious diseases by sending alerts upwards, downwards, and horizontally, therefore stopping outbreaks before the rest of the world even hears about them. They are used to track information after earthquakes, manage scarce supplies in rural areas, and send disease specific reminders to patients to help them stay healthy. These applications are cost effective, scalable and can be rapidly assembled with the open toolkit we’ve been growing over the years. All of this is done with the context specific needs of the users leading every step of the way.


iLabs: Bridging the Gap Between Society and Technology

Part of the reason why many development projects ultimately fail is because there is a huge, constantly changing, gap between the needs of the people and what was created by the NGO. We knew the intersection between society’s needs and technology is was where the “rubber hit the road” and where we needed to be. With this socio-technical approach in mind, we went straight to the communities themselves and developed the concept for local innovation labs, aka iLabs.

In 2007, InSTEDD launched the first iLab in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to target issues affecting the Mekong Basin region. Since its inception, we’ve worked with the Cambodian Communicable Disease Control to strengthen the agency’s internal communications, we’ve worked with the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD (NCHADS) to develop an appointment reminder system as an extension to their current patient information system.

In April of 2011, we officially launched our second innovation lab. The iLab Latin America was born from our partnership with Manas, a Buenos Aires-based software development and consulting firm that we had already been working with on InSTEDD projects all over the world. Their goal would be to create a center for technological innovation tailored to the Latin American region’s unique needs.

Currently, we are helping the design of our third iLab. What’s even more exciting than opening more iLabs is that parts of our model are being applied all over the world. From Kenya to Liberia and beyond, people are taking action towards creating this sort of innovative environment. The magic of the iLabs can be seen in the faces of those that work there, those that support them, and more importantly those that benefit from their work.

It turned out that by exploring what technologies would help “early detection and early response”, we discovered something much larger. We found a way to continuously evolve, create, recombine and scale the impact of our tools while staying true to the need and keeping our costs low. Metaphorically speaking, we had set out to find gold, and ended up with an alchemist’s recipe, crucible, and lab for producing it. Yet, despite our important discoveries, there is no magic solution.

The challenge is still out there. Millions of dollars are wasted every year on technologies don’t solve the problems at hand, are isolated into silos and keep important data away from the people that really need it. Still today, tools are built with an inherent design that empowers its administrators to fulfill their own needs– at the expense of the needs of the communities. The media will continue to highlight and repeat the flashy, sensational development stories, making it that much harder for the work to tell what’s really making an impact. We are committed to having an real social impact and are creating a team to focus exclusively on research and evaluation. The intent is to have better research that will help discover what has worked and discard what hasn’t based on evidence. Since InSTEDD really helps other groups and agencies do their work; we will have to work with the willing — sometimes folks are too eager to dismiss or hype up the impact of technology based on belief.

A Better World

We all want this world to be better — for ourselves, our families and that rapidly translates to everyone. The evidence is all around us that digital technology is the facilitator of a new ‘age’ — just as stone and iron facilitated new ages, not that long ago. We have just taken our first primitive steps down this new road.

This task is larger than any single organization can achieve. The good news is that each and everyone of us can play a role in ‘changing the world’. If you are reading this there is a high chance you are engaged and can offer support moving forward. Help us in bringing the power of digital technologies to where they make the most difference. We envision a world where people are healthy, productive, kind and creative. We strive to ensure that they are safe when the unexpected strikes or as an unknown future slowly thunders their way. We seek to support the development of a smarter and compassionate future, with well-designed technology that serves the ones in need.

Eduardo Jezierski

Posted by Eduardo Jezierski | February 2, 2012

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One Comment

Brian Walch says:

I think you guys are doing some great things and your statement “The closer you are to the problem, the more focused the solution becomes” is so appropriate. Your blog post shows how starting with a focused solution can lead to much larger and comprehensive impacts such as empowering local communities. Thanks for writing this up… it is a great model you’re building!

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