iSTEP Tanzania

Known Good Sets and the Unknown

Posted on: July 3, 2009

This week seems to have gone by awfully quickly. That hasn’t stopped it from including a lot of work, but at least it’s Friday and the 4th of July is tomorrow. A celebratory weekend is something I could really use right now.

The bulk of my work this week has been trying to figure out the situation with the social workers application. The basic idea behind the application is based on the fact that social workers in rural areas of Tanzania have to submit forms to organizations at the national level about their work in the field. Given the resources available in these rural areas, submitting forms can be a time consuming task and can take over a year in some cases to make it end-to-end. Without Internet access, how can we expedite this process? In Tanzania, Dan has been heading up an idea with cell phones.

Cell phones are one of the more prevalent technologies that have emerged in Africa. Given the prevalence of cell phones, the first few weeks of this internship involved researching what the state of their prevalence was in Tanzania. We researched carriers, costs of different models, and how people used them. Eventually, we hypothesized that using SMS messages, rather than voice, to send form data is more cost-effective due to several factors. Moreover, the usage of SMS in Tanzania is very popular, so if the service we render is simple to use, we will be able to get useful data back.

This is not the first time that SMS messages are being used to relay data. In some parts of the world, one can handle financial transactions via SMS messages sent directly to one’s bank, while farmers are using text messages to track market data to know the best place to take their produce for sale. Knowing that other projects have been utilizing SMS as well with excellent results made us more confident that SMS would be an ideal avenue for transferring data.

That being said, our recent work has been about developing the back end, the software that will receive and track the data that gets uploaded by the people in the field. The people at Kannel have a back end that we plan to utilize. It allows us to receive text messages from a phone connected to a computer and access its content in a variety of formats. From this example, Dan has been plugging away with Zope, an open-source content management system that we can use to collect, process, analyze, report, and export the data, sent by the social workers in the field. Zope is a pretty robust suite of tools that has given us a lot of functionality that will be valuable for a final product. However, as Dan said to me a couple days ago, “you get what you pay for.”

That is, Zope is free and open source, and this has meant that this week we’ve had a serious problem getting all the parts to work together. Zope itself doesn’t come with a ton of functionality, but rather its usage is augmented by all of the modules that are available online. However, given the wealth of developers and lack of communication between people developing for Zope it’s not always true that any two particular modules will work together. Additionally, with the modules constantly being written and rewritten, two different versions of the same module can mean the difference between a functioning application and one that won’t start. Zope tries to help users out by listing some Known Good Sets of modules that should work together, but if one wants anything not listed or needs a newer version of a module than that which is listed in the known good set, he or she may encounter more than a few problems.

Downloading multiple versions of modules to try to get them to work together has been a painful process for me and even more difficult for those in Tanzania, where the Internet connection isn’t always stable. Luckily, by Wednesday, most of these errors were cleared up and we are now getting to more and more of the breadth of functionality that Zope provides. We hope to have a demo very soon that we can get feedback on.  Plus, if we utilize this solution, our software costs are zero.

It may have been a pain to get this far but it’s difficult to complain if we do indeed get results at no cost.

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1 Response to "Known Good Sets and the Unknown"

Kannel is a powerful, but also a complex SMS-gateway. I’ve used Ozeki in the past (it’s proprietary), very easy to setup/use.

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