Cellular Citizenship: Invigorating Development through Mobile

Article excerpt

In Nigeria, hundreds of government-hired enumerators armed with GPS-enabled smartphones have systematically been visiting schools, water points, and health facilities across the country. At each location they take a photo, record a GPS point, and with the aid of a mobile data collection form, assess local capacity based on the availability of necessary human and material resources--such as basic infrastructure, staffing, furniture, and tools--to deliver a given service. For example, is a water point functional and being used? Does a clinic have adequate equipment, medicines, and staffing to deliver care? Does a school have a roof, teachers, desks, and books?

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The goal of this ambitious effort by the government of Nigeria, with technical support by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is to quickly develop a complete, accurate, and timely understanding of the issues related to access to vital services that are critical to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially by the rural poor. To date, this consisted of nation-wide mapping exercises representing an inventory of over 250,000 facilities and service points. Collected in the span of only a few months, this rapid assessment has provided specific and actionable data required by policy makers and planners, both at a local and national level, to properly understand the resources required to address the identified gaps in service provision.

This data collection exercise is part of the Conditional Grants Scheme (CGS), a Nigerian development initiative introduced in 2007 by the Office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President on MDGs in order to enable the federal government to use debt-relief funds to provide technical and financial support to state and local governments to achieve the MDGs. The conditions attached to grants are designed to ensure greater responsibility in public expenditure by decentralizing the planning, budgeting, and implementation of MDG-related programs to Nigeria's 774 local government authorities (LGAs). The overarching goal is to enhance government accountability by improving transparency in decision-making and resource allocation, while increasing local planning capacity and ownership.

Quickly mapping Africa's most populous nation is admittedly an audacious goal, but one that is now possible with the help of the mobile phone.

Planning in the Fog

Traditional paper-based data collection is a costly and time-consuming process that involves the physical collection of surveys, manual data entry, data cleaning, and data synthesis. As a result, government data is usually out of date by the dine it is released, making it impossible for policy makers to adequately plan for and allocate the necessary resources to achieve the MDGs.

Though it is possible to collate GPS coordinates with paper surveys, it is a cumbersome and error-prone process. This weakness in paper-based systems has led planning agencies to over-rely on simple metrics such as facility-to-population ratios, without taking into account proper consideration of important factors such as population density when trying to assess access to services. This is demonstrated when trying to make sense of national-level performance indicators in an LGA with a large urban center, as they usually distort or mask rural conditions. That 70 percent of the population has access to energy in an urban area provides no reliable indication of the reality facing people in neighboring rural areas. Geospatial analysis and good data, which can help disambiguate these indicators, require a trained Geographic Information System (GIS) specialist--a resource to which few district planners have access.

Given the high costs and resources required for such data collection efforts, the process is often funded centrally, with the resulting data usually flowing up to and closely guarded by the collecting agency. …