Mobile surveys: The innovative human microphone

Gemma Todd, Dar es Salaam Community Manager
Dar es Salaam, 16 January 2015

The contemporary paradigm in urban studies focuses on how to create "smarter" cities — using innovative technology to devise and implement revolutionary designs and programs and thereby repair and redeem the urban dystopia, a key task on humanity's agenda. In Dar es Salaam, technology has become a means to promote technological entrepreneurialism and employment among the population, as well as to map the city itself — in short, technology is becoming a much more powerful means to enable development.

However, within this paradigm we must be critical of our own assumptions about how this development takes place, and who is interconnected within this growing network. Even within today's "global network society," our technological paradigm, not everyone is systematically connected. Losers are forcefully defined and excluded. It is therefore important to emphasise how technology has been and is being used in the growing mega-city for monitoring and evaluation — and, in particular, the extent to which organisations are relying on technological means to assess public service provision. In the case discussed here, the technological service used is the mobile phone, and the population tapped is the growing number of residents who are active on online social media.

In 2011, it was found that 60 percent of Dar es Salaam's lowest-income households have no access to electricity; that one-quarter of residents were not satisfied with their available health care; and that one of the greatest burdens of their lived experience is water supply. That same year, Dar es Salaam integrated technology into the city's monitoring systems, initiating a mobile survey collecting information on public services (access, availability, and quality) from 350 residents. Once collected, this data is reviewed and interpreted to inform and enable Dar es Salaam's future policy, plans, and decision-making.

Initially financed and managed by the World Bank, the mobile survey is now a project of TWAWEZA. Following the responses obtained throughout the city has enabled TWAWEZA to set up an urban forum, "Listening to Dar es Salaam," in which it continues to ask important questions about residents' lived experiences. The monitoring of public services and experiences is ongoing — asking random members of the public their opinions bi-weekly through mobile phones. The idea is simple: using technology to gain information from the bottom up, to really understand how the public experiences the city. The "Listening to Dar es Salaam" forum disseminates the data, and has made the information open-access and public.

In 2013, for example, respondents explained how despite rising crime rates they felt unable to trust the police. About 80 percent of respondents reported that they had been a victim of theft or that either they or someone from their household had witnessed a crime in public. Thirty-eight percent of the respondents who reported experiencing theft were from the Ilala city district. The questionnaires have also highlighted the extent to which corruption and bribes are a norm within the city's health system: corruption comes part-and-parcel with the system, ensuring a patient's access to treatment as well as determining the quality of that treatment. One-fifth of respondents reported having to pay bribes at health facilities in Dar es Salaam. As the city remembered the collapse of the Indira Gandhi building, questions were also raised on perceptions of building safety. The public were asked how confident they were that future collapses of high-rise buildings would be prevented; 57 percent stated they were "not confident."

The data collected is not only published on Listening to Dar es Salaam's Twitter account and online, but also continues to provide an accurate and reliable source of information for the World Bank's Global Monitoring Reports. Their 2012 GMR asked questions about the impact of rising food prices for residents in Dar es Salaam to understand the level of food (in)security. Thus, technology in urban environments is not only solving and changing how we navigate the city; it is also becoming a key advocacy tool. Mobile surveys in Dar es Salaam provide information, raise public awareness, and empower civil society to demand effective decision-making.

Photo: Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security

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