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CheckMySchool.org, websites that call you, and other innovations connecting schools to communities

Michael Trucano's picture

The World Bank recently hosted two events showcasing innovative tools and practices that can be used to help build bridges between schools and their local communities, helping to promote and support greater transparency, good governance and citizen engagement along the way.

The CheckMySchool (CMS) initiative in the Philippines (“promoting social accountability one school at a time”) is one of those projects that people intuitively ‘get’. Why not use tools like the web, Facebook, and mobile phones to help inform communities about the types of resources that their schools are supposed to have – and offer a way for them to report back when something is not as it should be?

The project was born as a result of a large project to distribute textbooks to schools.  How can you ensure that textbooks are delivered to over 44,000 schools located on over 1000 islands, on time and in acceptable condition? Recognizing the complexity of the task, and that the national department of education and its regional and district level equivalents would need some help, community and civil society groups were enlisted in key ways to help prepare schools for delivery (refurbishing, and in some cases building new, rooms), to deliver the textbooks to schools once they had arrived in local hubs and to then inventory and check the textbooks once they had reached the schools.  Groups involved in this process faced basic challenges related to the availability, flow and accuracy of information, things like: Where was a school located?  How many books was it supposed to get (and later: did it receive them?)? Was the school's physical plant prepared to be able to store the books safely?

CheckMySchool was born from the lessons of this experience.  Originally this was, essentially, a public web site, detailing basic information about schools – where they are, what they are called, how many teachers and students and classrooms and toilets (etc.) they have – developed and sustained by a small team at a Philippines-based NGO (the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP), which entered into an agreement with the national department of education to publish this sort of education sector-related data.  Through a variety of outreach activities – including public service messages on TV and radio, coordination with journalists and media outlets, politicians and, especially, civil society groups and volunteers who served as ‘infomediaries’, helping to disseminate and contextualize information for the local constituency groups with which they work – the project offered a way for an individual to find out what resources her local school was supposed to have, and to report back when local reality did not match what was being reported out of Manila.  Check your school , the initiatives challenges residents in communities across the Philippines, to make sure you have the number of classrooms for which funds have been allocated, that the toilets are working, or to ensure that teachers are reporting for work. As detailed in a short feature story published on the web site of the Word Bank Institute, “Comments and complaints can be channeled through the website, email, Facebook or Twitter and even through text messages. The information is fed into the geo-referencing database by local school monitors who send in real-time data via their cell phones using SMS text messaging.”

For a quick overview of CheckMySchool, please see the video embedded at the top of this page or the archived video from the recent event at the World Bank featuring a presentation by Dondon Parafina, who coordinates the project, and a related discussion.  The World Bank Institute published a short article, Check My School – Not Just a Website, after the event. To see CheckMySchool in action, visit the project web site, including the CheckMySchool interactive map, or the CheckMySchool page on Facebook. (This initiative was also profiled in its very early days in an EduTech blog post, School computers not working? There's an app for that!)

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As an initiative still in its infancy (CheckMySchool has yet to celebrate its second birthday), it will be interesting to see how this effort in information sharing, community engagement and crowdsourcing evolves over time.  And not interesting only in the context of the Philippines: A number of people attended the recent at the World Bank specifically because they wish to replicate much of what CheckMySchool is doing in other countries with similar sorts of information needs. 

So, while many other countries around the world look to the Philippines for inspiration and practical guidance on how they might be able to take advantage of ICTs to help improve governance and transparency of related to resources and resource needs in schools, are there lessons from other parts of the world which might be of relevance to the people leading and guiding the project in the Philippines itself?

While the CheckMySchool is in many ways a global pioneer in specifically targeting the education sector, there are scores, if not hundreds, of projects around the world that people lump together under the general category of ‘e-governance’ or ‘e-transparency’. During the World Bank event, I was asked to offer some quick suggestions or recommendations for potential consideration by the CheckMySchool team, based on what people are learning as a result of experiences and lessons from other countries from sets of these sorts of ‘e-governance’ or ‘e-transparency’ initiatives.  In case they might be of interest more broadly, especially to groups embarking on, sustaining, or considering similar sorts of initiatives, here are the five general comments I made (please feel free to offer your own perspectives and suggestions in the comments area below):

1. Remain outside, but linked to, government (close … but not too close)
The role of CMS in ‘speaking truth to power’ is an important one.  It is also, of course, a potentially dangerous one.  Initiatives that trumpet the fact that the initiative will serve to ‘hold people accountable’ may unnecessarily put some key stakeholder groups on the defensive – positioning CMS as a way ‘learn’ about where the needs are the greatest and improve data quality may be less threatening, while at the same time accomplishing the same things in the end.    The decision for CMS to seek and sign a memorandum of agreement with the Department of Education to ensure access to government data has no doubt been critical in both ensuring timely access to data and in establishing the legitimacy of the CMS effort.  That said, many ICT-related initiatives – even quite successful ones – have trouble surviving changes in administration if they are considered to be linked to closely with the previous government.  All of this is a delicate dance in many ways, and one which I presume CheckMySchool has been adept at performing, but it is perhaps worth mentioning again from time to time.

2. Use the technology people are already using
It is encouraging that you have welcomed people visiting your Facebook page instead of compelling them to visit the main CheckMySchool.org web site, which was initially seen to be the primary interface between CMS and the public.  This shows a level of comfort, and pragmatism, with meeting people where they are, and not making them come to you.  Where most people ‘are’, of course, is on their mobile phones, and incorporating more and more SMS capabilities into CMS will no doubt continue to be more and more important.  Given that CMS is built on the Drupal platform, considering ways to use tools like VoIP Drupal (see below) might be another way to connect with users in ways with which they are already comfortable.  Given the impending plans to bring CMS to Indonesia, and the huge popularity of mobile Facebook there, I expect that you will be well prepared to ‘meet people’ there in the virtual places where they already are.

3. Don’t confuse your beneficiaries with your users
Your choice to explicitly target ‘infomediaries’ – i.e. the people who serve as information brokers or sources for your target populations – seems to be a good one.  Many initiatives make the mistake of trying to directly target the beneficiaries of their efforts, instead of connecting with the ‘middlemen’ who are the closest and most familiar with the groups of people who could most benefit if the objective of their particular ‘e-governance’ initiative is to be met.   As you grow and you explore new types of activities, maintaining a close focus on serving the information needs of groups of infomediaries may become even more important.

4. Consider yourself a permanent pilot project, adapting to user needs and quickly iterating your tools and services, based on what you learn, in ways that are ‘open’
As they become more established, and especially as their activities have greater impact and/or assume a higher profile, many initiatives find it increasingly important to demonstrate just how ‘open’ they are.  Consciously choosing ‘open’ tools – i.e. technologies with which tech communities are familiar and so can vouch that you are not hiding things – may become more important over time, as might a willingness to be more and more open about how you do what you do more generally.  Being as transparent as possible in your actions might be especially important for an initiative that is at its core about transparency!

5. Be careful of friends bearing gifts – their objectives may not be the same as yours
When international donors and funding organizations get excited about a program – as they evidently are about CMS – lots of new opportunities may present themselves.  There is a danger that such interest from abroad can smother a nascent initiative like CMS if you are not very careful.  Many outsiders, for example, will want to measure the ‘impact’ of what you are doing.  Be careful here – while the importance of careful impact assessment is hard to overstate, you should be careful to resist the call of international donors and research communities to prematurely ‘evaluate’ the impact of CMS where such activities might distract you from your core task at hand or where such activities dictate the ways certain new activities are rolled out, because these don’t meet the research design objectives of outside groups.  This is not to say that CMS shouldn’t be open to such activities – far from it! they are a great opportunity for learning, at the very least, and at some point such studies will be valuable tools to demonstrate the impact of what you are doing – but that you should participate in such activities conscious of the fact that they might entail certain trade-offs. This is especially true in the early days, when you are still refining your approach and tools, and where ‘premature’ summative evaluation might lead some people to conclude that ‘there is no impact on ___’, and thus damage the momentum and support that is building behind your activities even while you are still iterating your approach to best figure out how you might be able to realize this impact.  And: Given that the core team of CMS totals only four people, and the evident interest of many other countries in learning from your emerging experience, one could imagine a scenario where invitations to speak at international conferences and perform targeted technical assistance to other places could compromise the ability of key staff to continue to focus like a laser beam on the needs of your target communities in the Philippines.

What actually has happened as a result of CheckMySchool?  Anecdotal evidence of certain individual actions was cited during the event, and I expect the upcoming World Bank case study of CheckMySchool will include mention of additional anecdotes, but these are still early days for the project.  Watching some of the compelling personal video testimonials on YouTube, I do worry that highlighting individual cases where ‘action’ resulted quickly because of information posted on CMS may raise unrealistic expectations in some quarters – setting the stage for a potential backlash when complaints don’t result in remediation in short order.  This is not to say that initiatives like this shouldn’t be assessed on the tangible actions that they help catalyze.  Of course they should.  There is more to transparency initiatives such as this, however.  There is a real value in letting in a little sunshine into places where data of this sort have often been obscured from wide public view, in providing a mechanism to give people a voice, and in hearing and acknowledging those voices publicly.  Even where a response isn’t immediately forthcoming from those in charge, this helps provide information and documentation that groups can use to advocate for action, and eventually to report on any response that results.  Many countries are reluctant to release even the very basic sorts of data that the Department of Education in the Philippines have made available to CheckMySchool.  We know the data is not accurate, they say, and so we have to wait until it is accurate before we put it out for public consumption.  Unfortunately, the result of this in many places is that the data never see the light of day.  It is possible to look at this from another perspective, however: How do you expect your data to improve if you don’t let people know what data you have – and by doing so, potentially enlist their help in improving what you have, and filling in the gaps where you don’t have anything?

One undeniable impact of CheckMySchool outside of the Philippines is that this concept has excited a diverse set of countries, from Eastern Europe to Central America to Eastern and Southern Africa, to attempt something similar.  Explorations are currently underway to bring this initiative to Indonesia, and I expect we’ll see a few more countries follow the example of Moldova in rolling out small beta test of this approach, and the enabling technologies, this year. To me, it seems that one key feature of the CMS ‘model’ in the Philippines is that it takes advantage of the fact that there is a vibrant civil society in the country that can both benefit from the type of information sharing that CMS is meant to promote, as well as to help enable this information sharing in the first place.  How well the CMS model may work in places where there is not a diverse, robust, well-established civil society ecosystem already in place will be interesting to observe....

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The day after the CheckMySchool event, the World Bank welcomed Leo Burd of the MIT Center for Civic Media to present lessons from a variety of pilot activities exploring the use of the VoIP Drupal online platform as part of a talk on “Technologies for Social Inclusion and Civic Empowerment”.  VoIP Drupal is a versatile open source communication toolkit that adds the power of voice and Internet-telephony to web sites. It can be used to build hybrid applications that combine regular touchtone phones, the Web, SMS, Twitter, and other channels in a variety of interesting ways, facilitating community outreach and providing an on-line presence even to those who are technically challenged, or who do not have regular access to computers.

The general premise behind VoIP Drupal, as Leo explained it, is that the Internet is a very good tool to connect people with similar interests/backgrounds who are in different places, but that it is not so good at connecting people with different interests/backgrounds who are in the same place.  Lots of people are thinking about how to bring the Internet to smartphones, and the rapid growth in smart phone penetration in communities around the world is undeniable, but the fact remains that most people are still using 'less smart phones'.  Might there be some way to effectively bring those people with such low end phones onto the Internet?

One potential way to answer this question, Leo suggests, is to consider the use of tools like VoIP Drupal. Drupal, for the uninitiated, is a commonly used, free open source platform to help build web sites (this blog, for example, runs on Drupal) and there are Drupal developer communities all around the world – even in some of the poorest countries. VoIP Drupal essentially runs on top of, or plugs into, Drupal.  Under development for the past seven years, the VoIP platform is now quite stable.  One challenge for the VoIP team is that this tool/platform is so powerful and versatile – some people refer to Drupal as the ‘Swiss army knife of web tools’ – that it is in many ways a strong technical ‘solution’ that is search of specific ‘problems’ that it can help address.  Because it can be of potential usefulness in some many different contexts, it can be difficult to ‘sell’ it to potential user communities in ways that are simple and quick.  One of the challenges I find here at the World Bank is that non-technical people, when being presented with a new tool that they have trouble getting their head around often ask questions like ‘is it possible to do ___’?  To a technical person, the answer to such question is invariably ‘yes’, but of course this simple ‘yes’ often obscures that fact that what is possible is not always quick or easy to implement, especially in cases where the user is not sure what exactly she wants the tool to do.  In order to help ‘educate’ the consumer on what is possible without too much difficulty with the current tool, Leo spoke about a number of pilot implementations of VoIP Drupal in communities with a variety of information needs. [A link to Leo’s presentation is available on the related event page.]

My Dot Tour is a multimedia walking tour in the Dorchester area of Boston (not too far from MIT).  The web site allows people to take a virtual tour through the neighborhood listening along the way to stories recorded by people related to specific places.  People can add stories themselves through a variety of means –including calling a phone, clicking on a link on the web page and speaking into their computers micro[hone, or calling or texting a number posted ‘in real life’ at the specific place.  This is one example of how web and voice content can be accessible – and created by – people with access to the Internet or to phones in ways that are very simple for the end user.  While there is a lot of technology making all of this happen, from a user perspective, things can be as easy as just calling a number, responding to a few voice prompts, and then either listening to a story recorded by someone else or contributing a story herself.

Wisconsin Rapids is a rural community (population: 45,000) in the one of the north central U.S. states that is suffering the effects of the closure of a paper mill plant that employed many of this residents.  The SameBoat system is designed to give residents timely information about services and events from over 200 local community organizations that can help families during employment transitions.

Initiatives like CheckMySchool, and tools like VoIP Drupal, point to some potentially exciting ways that new technologies can be used to connect people and institutions within local communities in ways that take advantage of the power of the Internet in ways perhaps considered ‘unconventional’ within such communities themselves to help enable citizens to be better informed, in the belief that information can help lead to action.  They take advantage of the fact that people use new information and communication technologies in multiple ways, and that it is important to make the power of these tools accessible through a variety of inventive means, especially targeting beneficiaries who would benefit from access to the Internet but who may not have the ability or means to ‘connect’ to things like web sites.  They are built largely on free software tools, contextualized through processes of constant iteration to explore how best to meet the needs of individual schools and communities that aren’t being well met through other means.   They are just two examples of some of the exciting things happening in the places where new technologies, education systems and community needs intersect.  Watch this space – there is more to come!

 
Note: The embedded videos in this blog post come via YouTube and are used with permission of CheckMySchool and the MIT Center for Civic Media.