In late 2011, the Society for Nutrition, Education & Health Action (SNEHA), a Mumbai-based non-profit, embarked on an ambitious journey. Their goal was to reduce the incidence of malnutrition amongst 0-3 year olds across Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, by 25% as part of their Aahar project. Dasra, a strategic philanthropy foundation that provides capacity building support to non-profits across India, introduced SNEHA to Dimagi, whose overall philosophy and mobile application, CommCare, seemed particularly well suited to Aahar’s need for a robust mobile technology platform to enter and analyze process and program data in real time.
Two years later today, CommCare is fitted on android-based mobile smart phones held by 70 Aahar sakhis (Front Line Workers, FLWs). These phones have screened in information for over 12,000 children and over 2,300 pregnant and lactating women in Dharavi. Speaking with Aahar’s team, they cite several expected advantages of using CommCare, such as improved accuracy of data, reduced time on data entry and calculation, quick access to data during field visits and improved transparency in the data collection process. However, they also mention unexpected benefits such as a greater sense of professionalism in their jobs and pride in having their children and communities view them as productive, tech-savvy members of society.
So, what helped SNEHA to get it largely right? And what advice do they have to offer peers seeking to integrate mobile technology into their operational DNA?
- Find the right vendor: Apart from the affordability imperative, chose vendors who genuinely want to develop your team’s capability in using and improving the platform.
- Champion the cause from the top: As with any new idea, organizations need senior leadership to establish and reinforce a positive environment around the use of mobile technology. This is especially important in the first few months, when there will likely be resistance from the field and middle-management as benefits aren’t immediately felt.
- Identify or hire an in-house expert: It is critical to have an insider who speaks the third-party providers’ language and helps adequately customize system design. This typically is the most labor intensive and expensive part of the process; an insider can help keep costs down.
- Drive the cause from the middle: Develop program second-line management and demonstrate how mobile technology can make their lives easier by enhancing process transparency and strengthening operations management. Identify master trainers within middle-management – they’re close to field operations and able to relate and respond better to field-level troubleshooting.
- Develop a robust training program: Induction training is only the beginning, refreshers are essential so organizations should factor this into their timelines and budgets. Two years down and the Aahar team is presently on the 25th or 30th version of its customized CommCare application. Every few iterations require a refresher training.
- To avoid an overly excessive number of trainings, establish training-on-the-job by having new FLWs shadow experienced ones. In fact, mobile phones are proving to be an effective medium to train FLWs – see BBC Media Action.
- Establish feedback loops on data entered: Seeing how data entered on mobile phones is received by the server and collated and analyzed is critical in building faith in the system. SNEHA integrates this into their training, and has seen their sakhis use CommCare functionality to ensure their hardwork is being accurately logged.
- Draw out an M&E plan and data forms on paper before going paperless: While using mobile technology for process and program data entry and analysis in the way SNEHA has, it’s important to remember technology is only a medium. There’s no substitute to developing a logic model and understanding what’s critical and feasible to track routinely. Visualizing data deliverables helps design better systems.
- Find the right donor: Good mobile technology solutions are still expensive for most small and medium sized NGOs. The good news is that donors increasingly want to fund innovative interventions. Establishing expectations upfront on higher set-up and recurring costs, as well as potentially longer lead-times in reporting outreach numbers (since numbers will likely be more rigorously processed before reporting) is important.
Tech4MH is an ongoing guest blog series curated by MHTF Research Assistant Yogeeta Manglani. If you would like to submit a guest blog post for possible inclusion the series, please email Yogeeta.