An Interview with our chAPSter Buddy, Mark Boots

Our chapter’s very own Luke Talaba had the chance to catch up with Mark Boots and ask him a few questions about the VOTO mobile project that Mark will be managing in Ghana over the coming year. Here’s what he had to say:


Luke: Mark, how did you first get involved with EWB?

Mark: I first got involved in my third year at the University of Saskatchewan.  I think my first project was actually re-making the chapter website;  I didn’t know too much about EWB at the time.  After that project, I thought, “wow, these EWB people are pretty cool.”  So, I dove into the chapter a bit deeper.  About four months in, the chapter experienced a severe turn-over — all of the experienced folks were graduating — and with some great support from those graduating members, I stepped up to a co-presidency position.  It was a dive into the deep end.

Luke: So, your interest in the computer and web development side of things directed you to applying for a placement with the VOTO mobile project?

Mark: Well, sort of.  At the 2010 EWB conference in Toronto, I helped organize a 4-way debate with the CEO’s of EWB USA, EWB UK, and a couple of Canadian African Programs Staff members (APS) on the role of technology in development. I wanted to engage the audience during the debate, so I built an app that showed a two-dimensional grid on the screen.  Using their cell phones, everyone could vote for their current perspective and it would show up on the grid.  As the debate was in process, audience members could change their vote at any time, allowing us all to see how ideas and opinions were evolving.

VOTO Mobile is the brainchild of Louis Dorval.  He was at that conference, and afterward we chatted about the mobile app that I used. When it was time to build a team for VOTO, he called me up.

In the working world, I’ve been leading a large software project for the past two years, and the geeky side of me really loves working in teams on software.  At the same time, I don’t want to just be a code monkey, and I really hope that my work can have a healthy social impact on the world.  VOTO is a perfect intersection of those two interests for me.

Luke: Is the VOTO mobile project developing an SMS or voice based service?  And, is its purpose to give a voice to the under heard average citizen in rural Africa as well as provide organizations with info from these citizens?

Mark: Off the bat, we’re testing out both voice and SMS services.

The basic idea of VOTO mobile is to increase transparency, participation, and accountability.

We’ve identified a need for governments to communicate more often and in higher quality about what they are doing for communities and also for participation to go the other way – for those communities to provide more info to decision makers about their needs, desires, and priorities.  If you have both of those covered, then individuals can start holding their governments and NGO’s accountable to make sure that their voice is acted upon.

Originally we intended on using only SMS, which would be technically simpler.  However, our Junior Fellow this summer, Nicholas Fleming, found that people in rural areas tend to call each other much more often than texting. There’s two reasons for this: In Ghana, voice rates are really cheap compared to texting.  (The situation is a lot different in Malawi and eastern Africa.)  The other critical thing is that we don’t want to restrict our representation to only people who can read and type in English.  With a voice service, the goal is to be able to record and receive messages in a lot of the local dialects.

As of right now, we have three main services to prototype:

Infoline: allows governments and NGOs to send announcements – texts or recorded voice messages – to their constituents.  There could also be a toll-free number that people could call in to access pre-recorded information.

Surveyline: is a service that polls citizens, allowing us to listen to priorities and needs of individuals.  For governments, this might be a useful tool in annual planning.  For NGO’s, this is a critical thing to consider before starting projects, and it can also be used for monitoring and evaluation as projects are ongoing to try to measure their real impact.

Openline: would be a call-in number that allows citizens to report things that are important to them, such as broken infrastructure, instances of corruption, etc.

Luke: What stage is the VOTO mobile platform at right now?

Mark: We’ve been using a temporary platform for a few trial SMS surveys this summer.  That was before realizing that voice was more important than SMS.  For example, we sent out an SMS survey to about 19,000 phone numbers and got back just 340 replies.  So, we’re hoping to increase our response rates quite a bit and using voice might be a big part of that
Recently, we’ve hired our first local staff member to lead the programming for us.  He’s starting in Kumasi with some cell phone hardware and open source packages.  With that, we’re starting on the design of our own platform.

One of the great things that Nic (our Junior Fellow this summer) did was to seed a lot of partnership opportunities.  I plan to follow up and keep the momentum moving to make sure that we can develop the system in conjunction with organizations that are actually using it.

Luke: Will the funding for VOTO mobile eventually be connected to these partners?

Mark: We’re still exploring this.  Down the road, it would be great to have some sort of cost sharing agreement.  It would be even greater for organizations to recognize how great it is to hear voices coming up from the grassroots level and be able to use those, to the point where they would value the service.  Even better still would be to influence donors to make this an important part of the projects they fund.

We’re still looking at different business models.  One idea is to incorporate some for-profit market research into the platform.  For example, a business could use the polling service to find out if there is a market for fertilizer in the community.  A hybrid business model could consist of using the revenue from for-profit business research services to fund the non-profit/NGO services.

But right off the bat, what if government and NGO’s don’t have the funding to be able to use this?  Currently, we’re looking to different foundations and grants for our initial funding.

Luke: Have you compared this project to Canadian platforms?

Mark: There are some parallels with the Pew and Gallup polling research foundations in Canada.  The national election in Ghana is at the end of this year, so that could be a pilot project for VOTO mobile.  Ghanaians get really excited about their democracy, and the media is really interested in stories on that.  If we produce some results during the election, it would help get the VOTO brand out there.  We have done a few surveys on people’s priorities for the election.

The questions we have to ask about that are:
How do you make sure surveys are statistically significant?  How do you recognize which biases you have?  How do you correct and account for things like that?  We might learn a lot from existing Canadian organizations on that.

For example, we know we will not be able to get a perfectly representative sample with this survey platform.  If 75% of respondents are men and 25% are women, other groups might weight the women’s responses higher to correct for that.

Luke:  Are you aware of other services similar to VOTO in Ghana or other parts of Africa?

Mark: Yes, but not a lot.  I’m aware of Farmerline.  That service is intended to provide information on-demand to farmers.  Their focus is a bit different, but the underlying technology is similar.  We have some connections through EWB’s other APSs with this project.

There are a few other ones – lots in Kenya, a few in Nigeria, and one out of MIT that is now being marketed around the world.  Probably the best thing is to learn as much from them as possible and to build on that.

To initially develop and prototype stuff, we’ve been talking to an organization called Freedom Fone, which makes some open source software for setting up these kinds of SMS and voice-based software platforms.  In the end, we might be able to contribute some code back to their project as well.

Luke: Can you anticipate what your time will look like while you are in Ghana?
Mark: Ha ha, I wish!  Actually, a book that’s been recommended to me is In the Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński.  In it, the author says that the best way to learn about Africa is to pick a tree, sit under it, and watch what happens.  Just to be open, curious, is a great way to learn.  So I don’t want to overschedule my week and miss out on this time to learn;  I’m hoping to leave some time for free exploring and curiosity.

A lot of the technical work will involve building our software team in Kumasi or Accra, which would involve working in city offices.  Another big part will be meeting with partner organizations; many of these are also based in Accra. And finally, I want to spend time in rural villages understanding how people communicate, how they use their phones, and how might respond to a service like VOTO plans to provide.

It would be neat to be on a village stay, just living with a family, and see what happens when a farmer happens to get a call from VOTO.  How does he interpret it?  What is his/her reaction?

Luke: Have you ever been abroad before?

Mark: I’ve actually never worked in the developing world before.  I’ve done some traveling in Europe and a bit in Japan.   I’m a bit nervous and also really looking forward to learning to communicate, work, and relate to people in Ghana, and get a better understanding of perspectives from all parts of society.

Luke: How can EWB members and Canadians in general help this project go forward?

Mark: That’s a great question, and I hope I’ll have better answer for you in the near future.  There’s a few ways in the context of the Toronto Pro Chapter network.

1)    On the technical side, if people are interested, there’s the possibility of researching existing platforms that we could make use of, and on the non-technical side – researching organizations working in a similar space and lessons that they’ve learned.

2)    Later, I think it could be a really neat cross cultural experience to have a hybrid software development team – some working in Canada, some in Ghana, all working together.  I don’t think we’re not ready for that right now, though.

3)    The last way would be to just keep me connected with life in Canada, and share some of the stories and learnings that come out of this project.

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