Ping: a Tool for Families and Groups to Check-in During Emergencies

It’s been a hectic 4 days in Nairobi. The Westgate siege is now over, so the President tells us, though there will be a lot of cleanup and forensics to do. Three days of national mourning start tomorrow.

The full Ushahidi team met yesterday (many virtually, of course), and we talked about many issues surrounding the Westgate siege. Not least amongst them was the fact that we had a hard time checking in with each other. And then found out that one of our team’s wife and 5 children were inside of the mall, while he was traveling out of country. They eventually got out a few hours later, to which we were relieved.

This lead us to then think through our skills and tools, and where we could be useful.

In an emergency, how do you find out quickly whether your family, your team, your friends are safe?

The Ping App - a group check-in tool for emergencies

The Ping App – a group check-in tool for emergencies

How About a Way to “Ping” Your Group?

There was a consistent problem in every disaster that happens, not just in Kenya, but everywhere. Small groups, families and companies need to quickly check in with each other. They need to “ping” one another to make sure they’re okay. It has to be something incredibly simple, that requires little thinking to use. People have been doing some stuff in this space in the past, the best like “I’m Ok” are focused on smartphone users, but we have a need to make it work for even the simplest phones. Our goal is to have this available for anyone globally to use.

“Ping” is basically a binary, multichannel check-in tool for groups. The idea is that families and organizations could use this for quick headcounts on how everyone was, then use it as an on-ramp into a Red Cross missing persons index or something like Google’s People Finder app.

We’re putting the first version of it up at Ping.Ushahidi.com – here’s how it works:

  • You create a list of your people (family, organization), and each person also adds another contact who is close to them (spouse, roommate, boy/girlfriend, etc).
  • When a disaster happens, you send out a message for everyone to check-in. The admin sends out a 120 character message that always has “are you ok?” appended to the end.
  • This goes out via text message and email (more channels can be added later).
  • The message goes out three times, once every 5 minutes. If there is a response, then that person is considered okay. If no response, then 3 messages get sent to their other contact.
  • We file each response into one of 3 areas: responded (verified), not responded, not okay.
  • Every message that comes back from someone in that group is saved into a big bucket of text, that the admin can add notes to if needed.
Ping Notes, Features

Ping Notes, Features

Ping Architecture - rough draft

Ping Architecture – rough draft

Yesterday we quickly wireframed out a list of needs, some design basics, and an architecture plan (images above), got a rough product going on it (code is on Github). We now need to make it look better, so some designers are working up some stuff to make it work well on both phones and computers.

Mockups of the Ping app, still undergoing some design tweeks

Mockups of the Ping app, still undergoing some design tweeks

Final touches are to add in:

  • Account creation, we’re using our CrowdmapID tool for this, since it’s already out
  • Message “send” page
  • Archive old campaigns feature
  • Wire into text messaging service (Nexmo or Twilio), and then testing it out internally
  • Designing it so it looks good (responsive design, so it works on mobiles and PCs)

If you’d like to help out, jump on the Github repo, and get in touch with us about what you can do. What we have here is a minimum viable product (MVP) right now, open source, so anyone can make it better by branching the code and adding in features, etc.

Finally, a HUGE thank you to the people who have been burning the midnight oil to make this all happen in 24 hours:

@udezekene (visiting from Nigeria)
@EmiliaMaj (visiting from Poland)
@gr2m (visiting from Germany)
@Dkobia (Ushahidi)
@LKamau (Ushahidi)
@bytebandit (Ushahidi)
@DigitalAfrican (Ushahidi)

Swimming with the Hippos in Botswana

This week finds me sitting in Botswana. I’ve talked to a couple startup entrepreneurs; Pule Mmolotsi who is testing out an Oyster-like payment card for public transportation in the country, and Katy Digovich who is creating mHealth apps for the Ministry of Health. While only a small sample, they do a good job of representing what I continue to see around the continent; a new generation in Africa trying new ideas and taking to technology to cut the way forward.

Five years ago in Tanzania we had TED Africa, where George Ayittey coined the term “cheetah” to represent the new, younger generation of Africans trying to make a new path. He contrasted them to the “hippo” generation, the slow and often-times corrupt individuals, whose primary role seems to be stifling growth and filling their own pockets. In this context, they are the ones who were (and many still are) in power within government, NGOs, academia and big corporations. It was a captivating talk, and you can watch it here.

While somewhat melodramatic, it framed the conversation. It has provided a good lens through which to think about who is doing what around the continent. More importantly it gives us a frame to realize the rift between the old and the new, not necessarily best delineated by age, but by mindset and approach.

Tackling Transportation Payments

Pule is an inventor and entrpreneur who’s had most of his success come from biometric devices. His new product, Olekard, is very similar to what Google is trying to do with the testing of their Beba Card in Kenya. Anyone familiar with traveling London’s tube system or buses doesn’t need an explanation of how this works. Basically, you get a card that you load money onto, this card is then waved over a terminal on the bus/matatu/combi/train and you’re done, you can take your seat as you’ve just paid.

Benefits include it being safer for people, as they’re not walking around with as much cash on them. It’s easier for the transportion owner to track revenue and decrease theft by driver and tout. For riders, they get a discount on the price from what they would normally pay in cash. Incentives are almost aligned.

The one final bit is how do you incentivize the drivers and touts to not sabotage the device in order to force cash usage. Afterall, that’s how they make good money on the side, by skimming off the surface of what’s due the owner. I’m not sure how that will be handled, but I’m wondering if paying a “bonus” to these staff based on revenue would help.

It’s a good idea, needs a moderate amount of funding ($25k) to go beyond it’s currently small prototype stage, and best of all he already has signed relationships with a route owner with 40 vehicles and a major bank to provide the float.

It’s a tough job, where Pule has to spend most of his time bringing together disparate communities, large corporate entities and old power brokers in order to become successful.

Mobile Health Partnerships

Katy is from the US and has lived in Botswana for the last 3 years, she currently heads a non-profit called Ping that does mobile health apps and also Develo, which does for-profit type work. (side note: put those two companies together and you get Develo-Ping)

Like her counterparts in Kenya, Ghana and elsewhere across the continent, she was attracted to the opportunities in Africa’s tech space. Katy has built up a team of young, energetic developers and they’ve had a good amount of success working within the aforementioned hippo pools, such as the Ministry of Health.

Fortunately for Katy, she’s in Botswana, where there is more wealth and fewer people. The government here seems more intent on actually solving problems with new ideas, and they have both the willpower and funds to make that happen (healthcare is free to all Botswanans). In conjunction with HP, U-Penn and Clinton Health Initiative, they’ve had success in getting the project off the ground.

I didn’t get to see this app first-hand, but I understand it’s made for Android phones and uses the Open Data Kit (ODK). Doctors and nurses in more remote areas can send in pictures of some malady, and have an expert give feedback on the probably issue and remedy needed.

Like any young company, Ping has to figure out service delivery and maintain quality control on their apps, all while working within a much larger and more bureaucratic institution. It’s not easy, and it means more meetings, great communication on managing expectations and real scope change management.

Swimming with the Hippos

I don’t envy Pule or Katy’s their jobs, it’s not easy being an entrepreneur.

It’s in this space where government, large organizations and startups meet that hope can be found. The larger organizations have the cards stacked against them to innovate on anything. The small organizations with great new ideas, find it hard to scale without partnerships.

When large organizations are open enough to bring in outsiders and revisit old laws or rules in order for change to happen, there is hope.

When small organizations are humble and patient enough to work with larger ones, then big change and big money are both possible.