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Open-source software aids NPOs

The Washington Post

The Grameen Foundation was providing health care to pregnant women in Ghana in 2010 when it came up with a new idea: As cellphones become more widely available in developing nations, health information can be more quickly disseminated to poor patients in remote locations via voice and text messaging.

Three years later, the foundation’s thesis has given rise to an open-source software platform called Mobile Technology for Community Health (Motech), which an increasing number of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations and humanitarian groups are using to address pandemics such as tuberculosis and HIV.

“We’re a nonprofit developing software that we hope other nonprofits will build on top of,” said John Tippett, director of mobile health innovations. “It’s a pretty cool position to be in . . . because we can have an impact pretty broadly.”

Although many organizations use technology to carry out international development programs, a foundation-turned-software developer isn’t exactly a common occurrence. It is a niche that executives at the Grameen Foundation said has proven beneficial as development groups turn to information technology to improve the way they deliver aid.

Like any large enterprise, NPOs and NGOs have seen their operations affected by the rise of big data — the troves of digital information that can now be collected, stored and analyzed thanks to advances in computing.

“At the highest level, what we’re doing is helping these organizations be more efficient and more effective in the same way any well-funded business would be more efficient or effective with technology,” said Steve Wright, vice president of poverty tools and insights.

Embracing the latest information technology can come at an expense, though, one that may be difficult for smaller groups to afford. Organizations such as Grameen help ease the financial burden by developing technology that can be adapted for another organization, often at little or no cost.

“They can just take the software, and we don’t even know they have it,” Tippett said of the foundation’s Motech software. In other instances, he said, the foundation may act as a developer or consultant and tailor the software to the organization’s needs for a fee.

For Grameen, the price of developing the Motech platform has been offset in part by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made improving global health one of its central missions.

But Grameen has more recently expanded beyond just mobile health initiatives, developing a program called TaroWorks that allows any humanitarian organization to create customized surveys using technology from Salesforce.com and Google Android.

The organizations create questionnaires designed to gather information about the people they aim to help, whether they’re farmers, pregnant women or visually impaired. Field workers then use mobile phones or computers to conduct the surveys and submit responses.

Wright said the collection of data that TaroWorks facilitates means organizations can make decisions about the communities they serve and the development programs they offer based on tangible evidence.

“This is the kind of data that they’ve never been able to have outside of anecdotes. So they’re able to make decisions in real time,” Wright said. “We want them to build products and services that are useful to the poor, based on data.”

The VisionSpring NPO was among the first to use TaroWorks. The social enterprise sells low-cost eyeglasses to people in developing countries with the goal of improving individuals’ economic output and access to education.

VisionSpring now uses TaroWorks to collect information from its customers, including basic demographic information such as age or marital status as well as answers to more nuanced questions, such as why they don’t currently own spectacles.

“We know our community. We know our customers. We know our market. But this takes it to the next level of understanding, so much more so that now we can actually be proactive,” VisionSpring Chief Operating Officer Peter Eliassen said.