d.school uses mobile technology for social issues in Kenya

The November 17 Liberation Technology Seminar was co-hosted by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), a nonpartisan economic policy research organization that unites remarkable economic talent from all parts of Stanford University. This seminar featured four student-led design projects that were created in the Designing Liberation Technologies course taught each spring at Stanford's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) by professors' Josh Cohen and Terry Winograd. The class works in partnership with the University of Nairobi's School of Computing and Informatics to develop user-based designs that address outstanding challenges in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. 

Josh Cohen described the three main elements of the design school class:

(1) There is a focus on user/human-centered design. Projects are designed based on a close engagement with end users: the people who will be using the solutions. (2) Courses are inter-disciplinary. The idea is to take people who are deeply embedded in a certain discipline and put them together with people from other disciplines. In order to come up with a solution to a real problem, team collaboration is necessary and (3) The approach to problem solving is about practice, not about theory. It is necessary to fail early and fail often in the process of creating workable solutions.

The panelists consisted of students who were working with partners in Kenya on how mobile technology could be used to address various social issues. A multidisciplinary team of students work in close collaboration with partners in Kenya, and some of these ideas are now being tested on the ground.

The first project that was described was M-maji (mmaji.wordpress.com). Sangick Jeon described how water in Kibera is scarce, costly and contaminated. Their aim is to use the nearly ubiquitous mobile technology to improve access to water. Vendors are able to advertise their water and then buyers can ask questions and provide feedback. This saves the time and resources that it takes to find clean water.

Nishuari, the second project, addresses the problem of inaccurate advice and rumors which lead to risky sexual behavior and often HIV and AIDS. They provide a mobile counseling service whereby individuals can submit health questions and receive responses from trained counselors using text messages. This helps to break down logistical and social barriers.

The third, Makmende considered the issue of serious crime in Kibera. Their aim is to look at how individuals can get safely from Point A to Point B. They set up walking groups so that people would not have to walk alone. Over 90% of people had a mobile phone and this was seen to be an effective way of building timely communication, so that groups of people can coordinate to walk more safely to reach their destinations.

The final project was Take Taka, which was the one project that was not focused on using computer technology. The team took up sanitation as the project and decided early on that the use of mobile phones adds no value to the issue. The focused instead of designing a special sanitary bucket that could be used instead of a toilet inside the home, and on developing a system of transmitting the deposits to a biogas unit. This project however has not been carried forward.