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Sensors, Empowerment, Accountability in Tanzania (SEMA)

Ordinary citizens empowered by smart network in Tanzania

SEMA sign placed at public well
SEMA sign placed at public well
Project location Tanzania
Starting date 01 May 2012
Completion date 01 May 2016
Client NWO/WOTRO
Partners University of Twente and University of Dar es Salaam
Project leader Yola Georgiadou (UT), Juma Hemed Lungo (UDSM)
Project officer Paul Schoonackers
Project type Contract research
Budget Euro 658,258

Better service through publicly visible complaints

‘Sema’ means ‘report’ in Kiswahili. Yola Georgiadou, Juma Hemed Lungo and their teams in Tanzania and the Netherlands have given this name to the ‘Human Sensor Web’ they are putting in place: a combination of social media, mobile networks and geo applications that will give ordinary citizens the opportunity to report which public services are not working. SEMA is short for Sensors, Empowerment and Accountability.

So there you are for the third day in a row, standing at the village pump with your jerry cans, but there is no water to be had. Or only polluted water, or dirty water that is much too expensive. In the old days, you would have complained to the village elder and you would have had to wait and see whether the suppliers would ever be called to account by way of the traditional lines of official bureaucracy. In 2004, the World Bank decided that this had to change. A report published by the bank argued for ‘short lines’ along which ordinary citizens could demand immediate social accountability from their suppliers. Now that 79 percent of the population in developing countries has access to a mobile phone, these ‘short lines’ are technically within reach too.

Visible complaints

A Human Sensor Web is a communication network of geo and other web applications including Google Maps, traditional and new media, and ordinary citizens with their mobile phones, the ‘human sensors’. The applications provide access to public service locations, such as water boards and healthcare. If the level of service is below standard, ordinary citizens can issue a complaint using their mobile phone. The caller goes through a digital menu, after which the application displays the complaint as an icon on the map, at the place where the public service is located. It is now visible to everyone when a supplier is in default. The icon remains visible until the problem has been solved.

Copyright Merrick Schaefer, World Bank

The project leader for the Human Sensor Web is Yola Georgiadou, Professor of Geo-Information for Governance at the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

How much power do ordinary citizens have to get companies to accept their social responsibility?

Georgiadou: ‘That is exactly the goal of the SEMA project: to find out whether the human sensor web can call water and care providers to account. And then: which factors strengthen its effectiveness?'

‘We have strong indications that making failures visible will force companies to accept their social responsibilities. A comparable project, TWAWEZA, is a good example. A Tanzanian NGO gauges the standing of public services on a weekly basis from panels of individuals using their mobile phones. They publish the results in comprehensible language in the regular media, such as newspapers and radio stations. Failing policy thus becomes immediately visible. As a consequence of this approach, water pumps are repaired more often and exorbitant prices for water have been normalised.’

Are you involving the media in your strategy too?

‘Of course. There are many opportunities for cross-pollination between traditional and new media. Newspapers often pick up debates from social media and reinforce the process by reporting on the problems.'

‘What interests us is whether the same applies to all types of companies. Do commercial companies and state-run companies react in the same way to the denouncing strategy? And does it make a difference whether or not they have a monopoly position? Our hypothesis is that the ‘flatter’ a company, the more it will tend to integrate feedback from ordinary citizens into its internal and external accountability processes.’

What problems do you encounter when rolling out the human sensor web?

'In a pilot in Zanzibar we discovered that the owners of the mobile telephones are usually men, whereas the people who fetch water from the public wells are women. Another thing was that the question and answer module in the application turned out not to match Africans’ long-winded style. Instead of selecting one of the answers ‘no’ or ‘dirty’, they wrote long stories along the lines of "Greetings, how are you today? The area of Mwembe Shuari has had no water since 7 o’clock this morning; we don’t know what the problem is.” Moreover, it emerged that individuals are not used to bypassing their own leaders and contacting public bodies themselves. And finally, there was enormous distrust of the authorities, based on previous experiences.’

'Solving these problems was an important motive when formulating the research questions for SEMA. Together with our PhD students, researchers at the University of Twente and the University of Dar es Salaam will focus on this over the next few years. They will also tackle the question of whether ordinary citizens with a Human Sensor Web are able to force public service providers to take responsibility.'

'We want to shed our own assumptions and expectations as well. Companies and government bodies in developing countries are accountable to their own governments and to international development banks. Their situation is more complex than ours. Research into this is still in its infancy so we have to discover a lot of things for ourselves.’

Who are you collaborating with in Tanzania? How did you come into contact with the ‘human sensors’?

'To prepare for the project proposal, we consulted a number of NGOs, commercial companies and government bodies in Tanzania. Through them, we came into contact with respondents. In addition, the University of Twente and the University of Dar es Salaam occupy strategic positions in African knowledge networks concerning water, healthcare, politicology, ICT and spatial sciences.'

Can a platform such as this be easily rolled out to other regions? Or is an extensive exploratory process required for each country, with its own providers and problems?

‘The context is very important of course. And we want to understand its parameters: which aspects of communication are crucial and why, between humans and the application, between the web and the supplier. Whether and where the Human Sensor Web is effective depends on the scalability of the various elements: the problems relevant to water quality and healthcare, the participation of respondents, the cooperation of the media and open source geographic web services. We therefore integrate all disciplines, from software engineering, geo-visualising, sociology and politicology to public administration and the GEOweb.’

One aspect that determines the ability to roll out the project is the use of open source software, for example. Because the emphasis is on participation, equality, consultation and consensus, all the software used in the prototype Human Sensor Web is open source. The idea is to involve local communities in the development and implementation, to study the behaviour of users, ordinary citizens and the government, and to learn from these lessons to make the next version better.'

Participant interaction during the first SEMA Hackathon in Dar es Salaam

'Prior to the launch of the project, we organised a competition for talented and socially engaged programmers and young ICT entrepreneurs. A group of young Tanzanian programmers in Dar es Salaam was given the task of building a tangible contribution to the SEMA project. This enabled us to make interesting contacts and strengthen the local networks. As far as we’re concerned, SEMA can organise more hacking events over the next four years.’

What do you hope to have achieved in four years’ time?

‘Our aim is for the project to lead to win-win partnerships with healthcare organisations and the water sector on the one hand and communities of ordinary citizens and hackers on the other. Eventually, of course, we hope that our research results will influence the policies of the water and healthcare sectors in Tanzania as well as those of donors, NGOs and UN organisations.’

Source: NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research)

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