Exploring the Ecosystem for Pulse Lab Kampala

5 min read

Sitting at the regularly jam-packed Mobile Monday events here in Kampala it’s always astounding to see how vibrant the technology scene is in Uganda. The group that meets almost every month represents a wonderful cross-section of what’s going on here: from students overflowing with ideas about how mobile technology can change the world, to leaders from multi-national telcos pushing their networks further and further into rural Uganda, to two-person startups inventing new ways to provide credit on mobile phones, to technology services companies, to non-profits and social enterprises using technology to gather and disseminate information to and from people in areas that often have no electricity at all.

Tech and innovation in Uganda

Over the last six months we’ve been meeting up with many people who are working on projects that are of interest to the Global Pulse effort, and could both contribute and benefit from the presence of a Pulse Lab here in Uganda.

Grameen Foundation’s AppLab has been in Uganda for a few years now, and now has a rapidly maturing social enterprise that is focused on supporting the needs of rural smallholder farmers through improved access to information and services. A network of ‘Community Knowledge Workers’ (or CKWs) works in the far reaches of the country armed with smartphones that allows them to dispense locally relevant agricultural advice curated by experts. The smartphones are also loaded with ODK-based data collection tools, which allow any organisation to use the network of CKWs to gather data to support their own project needs.

A Community Knowledge Workers (CKW) for the Grameen AppLab shows how they use mobiles to provide information services to farmers and collect data from villages.

With decades of conflict a recent memory for many people in the north of Uganda, the government of Uganda is working to build a data centre that will allow all the many organisations working in the north of the country to easily share and access each others data. The Northern Uganda Data Centre is already up and running, and helping to increase the effectiveness of the work of everyone as they use evidence-based decision making to guide their efforts to rebuild a hard-hit part of the country.

At this very moment, both Nokia and Microsoft are setting up technology innovation and incubation centres in Makerere University, one of East Africa’s leading educational institutions. They hope to use their presence here to both enhance the skills of the large pool of graduates here, and provide support to entrepreneurs by incubating innovative businesses ideas. Both Nokia and Microsoft clearly see a future for technology innovation here in Uganda.

A digital photographer takes photos for people at the beach, with a set of motorcycle batteries on his back and compact printer in his hand.

The Ministry of Health in collaboration with development partners, private sector, the technology community, political leaders and the medical health community are working on developing an e-health initiative to promote the improvement of national health information systems and the use of e-health methods and architecture in Uganda. In addition to this effort, the ministry has been rolling out the District Health Information Software (DHIS2) which is an open source platform for collection, validation, analysis, and presentation of aggregate statistical medical data, tailored to integrated health information management activities used in running local hospital operations.

Opportunities to collaborate and support  

With all this exciting momentum in both the technology and electronic data space here in Uganda, it is exciting to think about the possibilities for how a Pulse Lab here could make an impact on protecting vulnerable populations.

One of the standard ways of understanding whether a population within a region is facing problems is by measuring ‘household stress’ (or the extent to which a population is facing challenges in managing their daily lives). ACTED is already conducting this kind of household survey in the north of Uganda to help contribute to their understanding of emerging drought conditions. But it’s easy to imagine how the Global Pulse could contribute to understanding these kinds of things at a national scale. Satellite imagery could be used to determine crop conditions and levels of activity in open air markets. School enrollment data could be used to understand whether parents have started pulling their children out of school. Changes in the amount of money people are adding to their prepaid mobile phone accounts could be used to understand if people’s spending budgets are shrinking. All this together could help provide a real-time picture of the level of stress faced by households throughout the country.

ACTED, Uganda in the Drought Early Warning System (DEWS) project based in Karamoja region.

As mentioned, the Ministry of Health in Uganda is in the process of rolling out information systems designed to help more effectively manage all the hospitals and medical clinics throughout Uganda. At the same time, the Ministry is using the data and subsequent analytics to help both better manage the public health system and use the data to more quickly and effectively identify emerging health problems. Complementing such an effort, Global Pulse could use distribution data from some of the large pharmaceutical wholesalers here in Uganda to understand changes in patients’ need for medication across the country. From the Ministry of Health’s information systems it would be possible to correlate prescription and disease incidence data with drug distribution to understand if there are medical issues that are not being reported to medical clinics. The Ministry of Water & Sanitation also has an MIS that tracks the availability of water throughout the country that could be used to understand where water access issues might be contributing to health problems. All these pieces together could be used to provide real-time mapping of changing medical conditions that could effectively support the existing monitoring systems that the Ministry of Health is now building.

Uganda’s inflation has almost reached 12% on the back of a sharp rise in food and fuel prices. The inflation rate is expected to slow down when farmers start the bumper harvest of food crops mid year. However, the inflation could hit even higher rates due to the rise of crude oil prices at the world markets and energy shortages at the domestic level. The Uganda shilling has also continued to drop, reducing the consumer’s purchasing power parity. In these changing conditions, effective food price forecasting by comparing market price data, farming distribution data, food reservoir or storage data, satellite and meteorological data could be a valuable contribution of the Pulse Lab.

The United Nations’ OCHA Information Management Unit has been coordinating the Geo-Information Management Working Group, which aims to improve geo-spatial data and information sharing, reducing duplication of efforts and the creation and consolidation of data synergies between different partner organizations. However, OCHA has continued scaling down operations in Uganda and in the process, integrating OCHA programmes into its partners’ development efforts. This is creating avenues for Global Pulse to take a lead on Geo-IM efforts in Uganda as a means for data and information analytics and sharing between the various partner organizations in the working group.

With the momentum of the technology scene here in Uganda, the opportunities to support the needs of government here to better understand how Ugandans are being affected by changes such as health and environmental conditions or the shifting cost of living, and the growing set of rich real-time data sources being created from many different sectors, it is clear that a Pulse Lab here in Uganda could help enhance the ability of the Government of Uganda to better support the populations here that are most vulnerable.

Patrick Adengo and Gabriel White are Global Pulse’s Innovation Officers, based in Kampala.

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