Posted 23 September, 2015 by Lesedi Bewlay

Harnessing tech to monitor MPs attendance and engagement in Zimbabwe

Representation of the work of the Research and Advocacy Unit. Credit: Maya Richman

Representation of the work of the Research and Advocacy Unit. Credit: Maya Richman

Holding government representatives accountable in Zimbabwe is no easy task. Our Matchbox partner, The Research & Advocacy Unit (RAU) , is building a platform that will highlight MPs’ abysmal attendance in sessions and track their engagement in home constituencies using citizen generated data. They reached out to the engine room for Matchbox support in designing the platform and planning for its development. This blog post is a brief description of how we helped and what we learned.

RAU is an independent think tank that conducts advocacy and research on areas where there is little reliable information. It focuses on human rights, democracy and governance in Zimbabwe. RAU wants citizens in Zimbabwe to have access to parliamentary performance data, such as: whether members of parliament (MPs) are showing up to sessions, and if they are returning to their districts. The goal is to put MPs, who currently act with impunity, in the spotlight so they know the public is watching them.

Supporting RAU from data collection to selecting a hosting provider

Identifying methods of data collection: We started out by working with RAU to think about efficient ways to collect perspectives on how MPs govern their constituencies and their participation in parliamentary sessions. We decided that attendance and engagement of MPs would be captured through direct engagement with a group of volunteers (via SMS and callbacks), documented, and shared on a website. These volunteers will be segmented by district.

Developing the tech budget and costs: Having a good idea of how much it will cost to pilot a technology is  important for any project.  We worked with RAU to draft a budget. This budget included cost for equipment, development of the platform and project management.

Finding the right tool: With some support from from FrontlineSMS, the engine room helped RAU set up an efficient SMS feedback system that volunteers can use to report on their MPs’ attendance and engagement. This feedback will now link to a database that manages contact information and incoming and outgoing information.

Asking the right kinds of questions: While piloting FrontlineSMS as a survey tool. We helped RAU think through how they would ask volunteers questions in a way that would elicit the most informative and concise feedback bearing in mind that SMS messages have a restriction of 160 characters. Here is a sample question from a survey that was piloted:

What should be done with informal vendors who have mushroomed in the CBD of Harare and have given a deadline to vacate and use designated sites?

Possible responses:

  1. Left where they are
  2. Relocated to designated sites now
  3. Eased out of the CBD systematically
  4. Given jobs to quit vending

Users would then respond with an SMS containing the number corresponding to the response they chose.

Building in-house capacity to manage SMS communication tool: During the course of the project we trained two RAU staff members to use FrontlineCloud as a tool to run SMS based surveys. FrontlineCloud allows the team to export responses to formats such as Microsoft Excel for further analysis. We also worked with RAU to build their skills in thinking about audience segmentation. For the first time, they have started collecting and categorizing the contacts into relevant groups based on demographic or geographic indicators. This type of segmenting will hopefully be useful in many projects that they design in the future.

Security survey recommendations: The RAU team completed a security survey that we prepared, and we developed a set of  recommendations based on their responses. We weren’t trying to provide them with general security advice, but rather help them work through the responsible data challenges of the project they were developing. Recommendations include:

  1. Project data should be hosted outside of Zimbabwe to provide an extra layer of protection
  2. Adopt better (and eventually best!) practices to improve hardware and mobile device security within the team
  3. Best practices for data collection and ensuring that team members who are doing data collection are not being targeted by authorities when they are in the public sphere
  4. Recommendations for digital security training

Database and hosting recommendations: The engine room created a recommendations document to give RAU an idea on how to upgrade their database to store received SMSes from surveys. A technical person would be able to follow these instructions in order to do the necessary database customizations. The hosting recommendations section got the team seriously thinking about and discussing the issue of hosting project data outside of Zimbabwe which they understood to be a huge benefit to the security and privacy of project data. For more information on how to select the right hosting provider, visit this guide from the Responsible Data Forum.

Lessons Learned: Documentation and finding expertise

  1. During the course of our support to the project, there was some changes to staff which is quite common. This resulted in having to conduct similar walkthroughs and tech introductions for other staff to ensure they were onboard and able to use the tool well. In  the long term it would be good to think about the way we document processes and training with organizations in case of staff change over. This will save on the time and cost of resensitizing and retraining.
  2. Moving ahead it would important to better utilize the Matchbox network and see what is the most suited expertise that can work with the organization. Ideally this would fit into building longer term relationships between matchbox experts and partners.

We’re excited for RAU to pilot their platform soon, and we’ll continue to give ongoing “light-touch” support as they move forward. Let us know if you have any questions or are working on a similar project and would like more info on what we helped RAU to accomplish!

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