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School computers not working? There's an app for that!

Michael Trucano's picture

open things up, and you never know what unexpected paths may lie ahead | img attribution at bottomLast week I attended a brainstorming meeting as part of the World Bank's 'Apps for Development' initiative, in preparation for a competition that will be announced in October to bring software developers and development practitioners together to develop useful software tools and data visualizations that use World Bank data. This is (hopefully!) just the first stage in a broader initiative over time exploring how approaches to  'open data' (and not just those generated or warehoused by the World Bank) can help contribute to creation of useful software tools to help with a variety of development challenges.

In addition to an engaging Q&A with various luminaries (including Tim O'Reilly), most of the time was spent in small groups where software developers, data folks and subject experts in various fields came together to brainstorm about how various development challenges might be approached in new ways, and how to harness developer communities of various sorts around the world to help out.

The first directive from the organizers was to consider how existing 'apps' (small pieces of software designed to help users perform specific taksks) that exist in one context might be able to be re-tooled for application in another (especially where newly-opened data sources might be utilized).  Going further, the organizers urged participants to not be constrained by what is currently available, on either the data or app side, but rather to start first with a variety of challenges, big and small.

Within the brainstorming sessions related to 'education', much of the discussion centered around opportunities for the 'crowdsourcing' (the topic of a recent EduTech blog post) of various data collection and analytical tasks.

Perhaps the most-discussed small education 'app' was one that could help with the endemic problem of teacher absenteeism in some countries.  Specifically, how might an 'app' utilize a camera phone to help document whether teachers are showing up for work? (This idea of taking digital pictures of teachers has perhaps been most famously explored in a study done in India by the J-PAL group at MIT; other places are exploring the use of things like fingerprinting).

This proposed 'app' was in many ways representative of most of the apps suggested, in that it addressed some common questions from World Bank education sector staff: How can we enable subnational (especially hyper-local) data collection, and how can we provide access to such data in a variety of visually appealing ways 'in the field', especially by using mobile phones?

In the context of speaking about the use of ICTs in schools, I raised the idea of an app that would allow students or teachers to record how many computers in their school are working (or not).  This is certainly not the most pressing issue confronting education in developing countries today, but it is the sort of discrete, easy-to-understand thing that would lend itself well to the development of an 'app'.  

(While perhaps not the first on any list of most important developmental challenges, this is, as countries buy more and more technology for use in schools, nonetheless a very real, immediate and practical problem, as anyone who has ever visited a school where half the computers are not working -- and half of the remaining stock remain in boxes or behind locked doors, lest they break as well! -- knows).

Would such an app be useful? Practical? Who knows?  But harnessing local and international networks of software developers to help attack such discrete challenges is one way to find out, and possibly to build momentum to tackle more fundamental issues.

Event organizers challenged participants to look where it might be possible to adapt tools and aplications that are already available.   Thinking about an 'our school computers are broken' app, adapting a tool like Ushahidi is one possible way to go.  But there are other projects that offer examples of how to potentially present and collect school-level data in ways that are easily accessable to the public. For example:

Promoting transparency and social accountability, one school at a time!

While school computer-related data is not yet available, an interesting initiative in the Philippines does try to map other types of school-related data, and encourages citizens to submit  feedback via SMS from citizens about the quality of the data currently presented about their schools.

Drawing on data supplied by the country's Department for Education (DepEd), maps information on public education services in the Philippines. The idea is to provide a tool for independent third-party monitoring of government performance in providing education services related to things like school budgets, enrolment, teaching personnel, furniture, textbooks, classrooms, toilets, and test performance.

Currently information about around 8,000 of the country's 44,000 + public elementary and high schools is included in the database (these are the schools whose GPS coordinates are known).  Built using Google Maps, the application currently is available through a web browser, and local feedback on schools is solicited via SMS.

As open data initatives help to unlock facts and figures previously held tightly within governmental bureaucracies, and as (increasingly powerful and affordable) mobile phones and other ICTs are increasingly to be found among wider segments of populations, exploring how to tap the skills and enthusiasm of software developer communities seems a useful way to help spark innovative thinking and the creation of innovative tools to help us collectively identify and implement new approaches to solving various developmental challenges.

note: The image used at the top of the blog post ("open things up, and you never know what unexpected paths may lie ahead") comes from Flickr user J. Samuel Burner via  Wikimedia Commons and is used according to its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

FYI will be demo'ed internally at the World Bank Institute in Washington, DC on 21 September. World Bank staff may wish to check to contact the WBI governance or innovation teams for more information.

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