Technology for a better world

This week we share three articles originally published by Vignette Interactive about how technology is coming to the rescue in surprising ways.

Women leave a food distribution hosted by St. Theresa’s Cathedral in Yola, Nigeria, where many Internally Displaced People have fled due to Boko Haram violence. Photo by Danielle Villasana

On the brink of famine in Africa — how grassroots tech is trying to find solutions

By Sydney Guthrie for Vignette Interactive | April 10, 2017

Early last month, UN aid officials made an unprecedented announcement: not just one, but four African countries are on the brink of famine. Over the past decade, civil unrest and drought have plagued Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Kenya, leading to mass displacement and skyrocketing rates of malnutrition-related deaths.

The effects of climate change are already devastating in this resource-lacking region. They are only compounded by military and terrorist presence. Corrupt officials have been known to block humanitarian efforts, aerial bombings have stalled economic growth, and diseases have run rampant in overcrowded migrant camps, with little hope of medical assistance. International aid officials say they are facing one of the biggest humanitarian disasters since World War II.

An aerial view of an IDP camp in Monguno, Nigeria, a remote town about three hours by road from Maiduguri that was recently reopened by the military. Photo by Danielle Villasana

For international humanitarian aid organizations, this news could not come at a worse time. With the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and President Trump’s pledge to cut foreign aid, assistance is spread thin. The UN says they are billions of dollars short on funds in order to properly respond to the famine.

But, perhaps due to increased frustration with the bureaucracy of the international aid system, or perceived lack of coverage by the global media, an emerging group of young African tech entrepreneurs have turned their focus to the crises in their home countries in hopes of helping at a grassroots level. Because of their intimate knowledge of the region and the problems it faces, these innovators are able to pinpoint more precisely what communities need, and the best ways to act.

Credit: Chowberry

Chowberry Website

In a recent interview with CNN, Oscar Ekponimol, founder of the app Chowberry, reflected on his childhood in Nigeria.

“I remember most times there was little or no food [in the house],” he said. “I had to go to school without food and got by with snacks friends shared with me. I always said in the future I would do something to ensure others wouldn’t go through what I went through.”

Now a software engineer, his app connects grocery stores in Nigeria, NGOs and those below the poverty line and alerts users when food products are about to expire so they can buy them at a discount. Launched just earlier this year, Chowberry already sees roughly 3,000 daily visits.

“There have been requests and demand,” he said. “People tell me we really want this, we’re relying on what you guys are doing.”

Crisis Mapping, Abaaraha website

Mohammed Omer, who grew up in Somalia but now lives in Stockholm, was similarly drawn to action by the news coming out of his home country. Together with four of his friends, he launched the crowdsourcing platform Abaaraha, which translates to drought in Somali.

Described as a crisis mapping system, Abaaraha provides on-the-ground information and analysis to aid workers, collected from a range of sources including social media, text, and email.

Like Ekponimol, Omer saw a discrepancy in how organizations approached issues in his home country versus what really needed to be addressed. He is hoping his new platform will provide more transparency and allow aid workers to have a direct line of connection with drought victims.

“The international humanitarian system is at its breaking point,” Dominic MacSorley, chief executive of Concern Worldwide, noted recently.

This is obviously a disheartening statement, but it could act as a catalyst to encourage increased grassroots home-grown innovation. Companies with the ability to rely on direct contact with communities and skirt the tangled web of global politics may have more success in addressing issues head-on and providing local populations with tangible change.

And, that’s something to feel hopeful about.


An Egyptian woman waits with her baby to be seen by a doctor at a women’s health clinic, in Sayida Zeinab, a neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, April 18, 2013. Photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill for the New York Times

Reproductive apps — creative solutions to the global gag rule

By Tara Todras-Whitehill for Vignette Interactive| April 20, 2017

Global crises surrounding refugees, famine and climate change are on the rise, but so are grassroots solutions aimed at helping at-risk populations. As we discussed last week on this blog, there are already many tech solutions being implemented in Africa to help combat famine.

Another hot button issue is the implementation of the Mexico City Policy. This renewed US policy will impact reproductive rights organizations all over the world by de-funding any US-supported organizations that talk about abortion as an option, educate women about safe abortion or refer women to abortion providers.

Trump’s administration also recently withdrew funding for the UN Population Fund, which helps provide family planning in 150 countries. Consequently, women all over the world will have less access to family planning resources. In the past, the Mexico City Policy led to more unsafe abortions around the world, not less.

But there are tech companies trying to combat this impending crisis, and I wanted to take a look at some different ideas out there.

A company called Cycle Technologies has developed a number of different apps to help women tell when they are fertile. The first app, Dynamic Optical Timing (DOT), tells a woman her risk of getting pregnant each day, depending on where she is in her cycle. This way a couple can abstain from sex or use condoms if they don’t want to get pregnant on days when a potential pregnancy is the highest.

The company also created CycleBeads, which works as an app to identify the fertility window for women. They also have a physical necklace that can be used to keep track of a woman’s cycle, for places without smart phone access. The company believes that creating these free apps and low cost necklaces will give women and couples the knowledge they need to help them with family planning.

INGOs such as Ipas and Pathfinder International have been using mHealth (mobile health) technology to reach women by phones to give them information about abortions and maternity. Ipas started a program in South Africa in 2012 where they partnered with tech companies to send SMS messages to follow up with women who had gotten a medical abortion using pills.

Another NGO working in South Africa, Safe2Choose, recently started an SMS service where women can find a place to have a safe abortion by texting a number with the subject ‘FEM’.

These solutions, if implemented on a global scale, could help to keep women informed about their reproductive choices. This will require a monumental effort, and it doesn’t take the place of reproductive rights programs. But these are good potential first steps.


How smart devices are helping NGOs

By Sydney Guthrie for Vignette Interactive| February 13, 2017

As the world becomes more interconnected and tech-savvy, communities are becoming increasingly reliant on smartphones. Even in much of the developing world, owning a smartphone has become commonplace. It’s not just a fun electronic gadget — it’s often a lifeline.

Smartphone ownership in developing nations has risen exponentially, with nearly 40 percent of those populations reporting owning a smartphone and regularly accessing the internet. An overwhelming majority of citizens living in these countries report owning at least some sort of mobile device, if you take into account standard (non-smart) cell phone technology, according to the latest findings from Pew Research.

This advancement in connectivity has been huge for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on humanitarian relief projects in the developing world. These groups, often with the help of the tech industry, have capitalized on the accessibility cell phones allow. They are constantly working to develop new projects that rely on the stability of the cellular phone system.

Here are just a few of the many ways cell phone technology has advanced humanitarian relief efforts:

1. Providing information more efficiently

SMS texting, one of the most basic features on a mobile device, has become essential for humanitarian workers in crisis zones. Take the Ebola outbreak in western Africa for example: Researchers, using the surveying platform GeoPoll, were able to collect telling information on the well-being of communities affected by the pandemic.

Limiting face-to-face interactions can be imperative for workers safety, especially during a public health crises like the Ebola outbreak. Beyond that, SMS survey services are able to contact respondents when an area becomes entirely inaccessible. When forced Ebola quarantines in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea impeded workers ability to travel, weekly phone surveys conducted in these areas were able to measure the economic impact of the outbreak, specifically on the agricultural industry. Collected data assisted agencies such as USAID in discovering which communities had been hit the hardest and helped assess the long-term effects the virus would have on the region’s economic stability.

GeoPoll, and services like it, have successfully collected actionable data that provides key information about the socioeconomic functioning of developing nations. From tracking food security in Ebola-affected areas to assessing the political climate in South Africa, direct SMS texting administers on-the-ground analysis that can help organizations predict and cope with crises.

2. Connecting those in need with those who can help

Humanitarian groups have been eager to take advantage of global connectivity. Social media, paired with increased global access to data networks, has created an international community in which a young girl documenting life in the war-torn city of Aleppo can reach over 350 thousand people worldwide with one tweet. This type of connectedness creates direct lines between those suffering due to humanitarian crises with those eager to help even if they are oceans apart.

One of the many companies capitalizing on this concept is Kiva. The non-profit based out of San Francisco works to alleviate poverty by opening direct lines of communication between small business owners in need of support with those willing to provide loans. Armed with just a smartphone and access to the internet, citizens of more than 80 countries have the opportunity to grow a business with the help of donors thousands of miles away.

Kiva has been especially successful in conflict zones, where it partners with NGOs on the ground to fund local entrepreneurial initiatives. In areas of instability caused by internal fighting or political corruption, funding business ventures can be close to impossible. Kiva has created a communication network that safely supplies loans to those affected by local violence, encouraging development from El Salvador all the way to Pakistan.

3. Tracking migration patterns

Organizations have increasingly tapped into the benefits cell phones provide when it comes to tracking human migration. They have found that where traditional survey methods fail, mobile phone data can succeed.

One of the groups at the forefront of migration-tracking data collection is the Flowminder Foundation. Their most recent case study focuses on Bangladesh and the country’s increase in climate change-related migration. Flowminder argues that mobile tracking allows for a better understanding of behavior during severe weather events as it is able to more precisely pick up on individual actions that non-mobile surveys tend to miss.

Based on their findings, they are then able to redevelop future disaster preparation plans that are better suited to the area and, ultimately, save lives.


Vignette Interactive is a team of journalists, developers and designers
who are passionate about technology and pushing the boundaries of visual storytelling, software development, and media production.

Tara Todras-Whitehill, a contributor to Everyday Middle East, is Vignette Interactive’s cofounder and director of photography. Sydney Guthrie worked as Vignette Interactive’s intern this spring and is a video editor currently living in Brooklyn, New York. She is passionate about storytelling and its ability to influence positive change and hopes to continue a career in digital journalism with a focus on global affairs.