Quality materials are an essential ingredient to quality learning experiences. However, despite significant efforts by governments and the international community to produce and distribute learning resources, often times, students in many countries lack books and supplemental learning materials. Simply put, students and their teachers are not always receiving the materials they are supposed to have.
All Children Reading launched the Tracking and Tracing Books prize competition. The competition called for innovations to track books destined to schools in developing countries, allowing stakeholders, ranging from parents to teachers and the Ministry of Education, to quickly and easily access tracking information. Experience in developing countries suggests that when communities know what books are to be delivered and when, they will advocate for on-time delivery. But they rarely have this information and even when they do, they are not able to track books while in transit. My goal was to design a centralized information system that allowed the management and monitoring of shipments while notifying communities on tracking details of book deliveries.
We partnered with the government of Malawi to be the first pilot country for this project. We went on a scoping mission to better understand how books were being delivered in the country. I interviewed stakeholders that were typically involved in the distribution process: donor groups, Ministry of Education, warehouse staff, couriers, and drivers.
I also conducted analogous studies in the health sector, as there were other distribution systems that were working well in the country (e.g. Malaria vaccination deliveries).
Finding 1: the Ministry of Education will benefit from having a centralized system to manage shipments as it can be closely integrated with their EMIS (Education Management Information System).
Finding 2: monitoring shipment data will allow government officials to identify the point of leakage and apply the necessary interventions. E.g., improve road conditions, or using a more reliable courier.
Finding 3: it's likely that deliveries have to stop multiple times before arriving at the final destination. E.g., quality control, spot checks, or breaking down a large pallet into smaller packages for distribution to individual schools.
We also organized a meeting with parents and teachers at a local school. We knew that many people owned and used a basic phone, but we didn't know how they used their phones on a day to day basis.
Finding 4: we were exploring SMS and/or IVR to notify community members on tracking details. We found that the preferred method of choice was SMS as the message will always get through, even if you are away from the phone, but an IVR call requires you to be there to receive the voice message.
Finding 5: English was the preferred language over Chichewa, Malawi's national language. The reason was that words in Chichewa typically have more characters than English words. It would require a high level of effort just to type a simple message on a keypad.
Finding 6: head teachers of schools provide signatures on a delivery note carried by the driver. It was important to consider the confirmation of receipt as the last shipment activity which indicates the successful delivery of books to the correct location.
When a shipment is initiated, an SMS message is sent to those who are subscribed to receive alerts. This message contains a shipment code (think: UPS tracking number).
Using this shipment code, community members can send simple SMS commands for shipment details.
A dashboard view can help identify where something is going wrong. Each shipment captures the historical data of the delivery status and location.
When our designs were ready, we went back to Malawi to conduct an alpha field test. It was a moment for us to assess our system in a small scale. We spent 2 weeks in Malawi, 5 different community visits: 3 urban, and 2 rural areas to test the designs under two use cases:
Scenario 1: correct delivery to a school
Scenario 2: incorrect delivery to a school
In the first week, I spent time training three groups of users on their role in the system: The Ministry of Education officials were trained on the dashboard feature to monitor shipments under each use case. Also, the delivery drivers were trained on updating the status of shipments as they moved the books from the warehouse to the school. Lastly, parents and teachers were trained on sending SMS messages to track the shipment, while the head teacher was trained to send a confirmation message once the books successfully arrived.
In the second week, I observed how each actor used the system to complete their tasks while going through each use case.
Finding 1: there were lots of excitement from the community about using SMS to track shipments. However, there was hesitation due to spending credit on messages. There would need to be partnerships between the government and local telecom companies to provide a toll free number.
Finding 2: we also ran into problems with spelling and syntax errors. For example, "Reciveb1234" instead of "Receive 1234", and "Whare1234" instead of "Where 1234" - all of which retrieved error messages. SMS flows are initiated by trigger words, so there would need to be various 'versions' of each trigger word as to predict the intended message to avoid this issue.
After the alpha field test, we refined and released version 3.0. of the tool. Our system won the All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development Tracking and Tracing Books prize in August 2017.
I presented this tool at the 2017 Gates Grand Challenges Conference in Washington D.C., organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the 2018 African Book Industry Stakeholder's Workshop in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, organized by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa and the Global Book Alliance.