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Thank you, CUMERC!

March 18, 2010

Wednesday was the last day to visit CUMERC (Columbia University Middle East Research Center). Our engagement with CUMERC dates back to February when my teammate found the website and contacted them via email. They responded immediately and the center has become our home base during our stay in Amman.

They not only provided us with office facilities, IT support, but also with valuable opportunities to network with the Jordan River Foundation and the Queen Rania Teachers’ Academy. Finally, we would also like to mention the incredibly warm hospitality all the staff showed us!

Maki (Iraq Team)

Jordan Education Initiative and 7iber.com

March 18, 2010

The Jordan Education Initiative is an organization that is a pioneer of ICT education in Jordan. Thursday afternoon we had a meeting with a monitoring and evaluation officer. The aim of our meeting was to learn from their experiences of introducing technology to schools and the successful website 7iber.com, the “youth-oriented”, “Jordanian-based” story-telling website. During the discussion, she presented us a lot of sharp analyses.

First of all, there is a hurdle in introducing mobile technology to schools. Generally speaking, cell phones are banned at school because they distract children’s attention.

Next, she depicted the “resistance of teachers to new technology”, sharing her experience of introducing the interactive whiteboard to classrooms: Children get enthused rather easily by new technology, but teachers tend to stick to the old way of doing things. That is why the process of convincing teachers about the usefulness of new technology is important.

The question that immediately follows is what is an effective way of convincing teachers? Her answer was “peer-learning”. According to her, familiarity with new technology depends largely on personal adaptability and previous exposure to new technology. The most effective way to get less motivated teachers involved is not to force them to use new technology, but to let them naturally feel the usefulness by observing other teachers, who already feel comfortable using the new technology.

So, before our field trip, our focus was the motivation of the government to support the poll. But during the trip, we clearly identified even more actors to be motivated: children (from discussion with JRF), teachers (this discussion), facilitators (from discussion with UNICEF staff in charge of user testing), and school principals (from discussion with Teacher Academy)!

She also gave us a big clue to convince them successfully. It is important to let them understand

not

Why this is important “for the project”

but

Why this is important “for them”!

These ingredients of success (“peer”, “people-oriented”) are fully utilized in the successful website 7iber.

7iber is a platform of information and discussion, where citizen journalists actively upload information. The main feature of this website is that it is focused on local context, and one of the main audiences is youths. People of the same age group can see the daily life of other people – this interaction is the largest source of motivation to participate.

Maki (Iraq Team)

SOHITCOM and the Royal Scientific Society

March 18, 2010

After a fascinating visit to the Jordan River Foundation in lively and much poorer Eastern Amman, we made it all the way across town to the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan. Passing the biggest soccer stadium and driving down a long road past the University of Jordan campus and past many vibrant cafes and lots of students, we arrived at the commanding gate of the RSS. The RSS is located on a large compound, which overlooks Amman and the vast campus of the University of Jordan. The German-Jordanian University is also in the neighborhood.

Once we entered the RSS grounds we immediately noticed its size. It is very big and with solar panels (a VERY rare sight in Amman), other experimental installations, and with the many different buildings, institutes and the academic atmosphere all around, one felt like one was walking around a Middle Eastern version of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At the RSS we met with Dr. Edward Jaser who is in charge of the RSS program on using mobile technologies for health services in rural communities. They have developed a project called “Social Health and IT for Rural Communities in Jordan” (SOHITCOM), which aims to connect rural communities in Jordan to specialized medical professionals in Amman and other urban centers. SOHITCOM offers a lot of functionalities both for the common citizen who owns only a simply mobile phone as well as for health centers, which may have access to more sophisticated JAVA-phones.

The simple user can access SOHITCOM via a national shortcode and submit a medical query via SMS.  After passing through the content supervision, which is a kind of human spam-filter, a medical professional will look at and respond to the query. Beyond this on-demand service, the SOHITCOM infrastructure can also be used for awareness raising and information dissemination. For example, people in a specific geographic area can be reminded of the fact that certain services will be rendered in their area during a specific time or families can be reminded of important medical appointments such as vaccinations.

A recent article in the FT (http://bit.ly/buf6YP) mentioned that similar text messaging services in Africa with HIV and tuberculosis patients have led to drastically increased drug adherence. Finally, health centers, using more sophisticated JAVA-based applications, can base part of their planning on information received via text message. For example, not only might a family receive an SMS reminder about a vaccination, but, at the same time, the health center will have been notified of the number of people coming in for a vaccination and is thus able to ensure that adequate amounts of vaccine are available.

Even though the service is still in the pilot phase we were able to play around and demo the project on site. I submitted a medical query, which popped up on the screen of the SOHITCOM web interface immediately. While there was no medical staff standing by to answer my query, Dr. Jaser was able to showcase the sending of an awareness message to my phone.

All in all, we were quite impressed with the project, which the RSS has developed so far. Yet, unsurprisingly, they are struggling with securing the necessary political buy-in. This is a long process. Instead of waiting for things to work out via a top-down approach, Dr. Jaser recommended creating demand for the product from the ground up. This has worked well for SOHITCOM and might work in other places as well!

Site Visit and Meeting with Jordan River Foundation

March 18, 2010

On Thursday, we had three meetings in a row to learn about regional good practices in Jordan that might be applicable to our project.

The first organization we visited was the Jordan River Foundation. This NGO is co-chaired by Queen Rania of Jordan and aims to empower communities, especially women and children, through various programs.

The aim of our visit was to learn lessons from their work with children and from the operation of the Child Helpline.

The JRF center in Eastern Amman is a place that is very lively and full of children and hums with activity. Role play and training for interns, class room activities for children, and vocational training for mothers – there is something going on everywhere. In the first class room we visited, girls were participating in a civic education class instructed by student interns from a local university in Jordan. In this class, they were learning their rights and responsibilities in their families. When they were asked about their rights, girls shyly but enthusiastically gave us answers such as “It is my right not to be hit at home.”

We learned later that the school capacity in Jordan does not allow children to fully express their opinion. The schools have large class sizes such as 45 students per class, operated in two shifts, and teachers have a lot of curriculum to cover. On the other hand, this center tries to encourage children to speak up about their opinion. According to JRF staff, the key is to create a safe environment where children are sure that they will not be attacked or criticized for what they say.

The next class was drama play. In this class, young boys about 10-12 years of age created a scene on the Palestinian struggle based on the script they prepared themselves. Many of the children in the neighborhood are of Palestinian descent. As can be seen in this class, this center uses “tools” to gauge the interest of children and give them voice. The “tools” include various media from puppes, color panels that help children express their emotions, drama, to computer graphics software. The statement by the staff was really impressive: “Children are savvy and honest. They don’t do activities that they don’t find interesting or if they don’t understand the meaning of doing them.”

color panes help children to express their emotions

Next, we met with the manager of the Family Support Unit that operates the Jordanian Child Helpline. Both adults and children can call the number for help and trained operators arrange necessary services. While our project’s current focus is more on “finding out what children want and need” and “raise awareness of these issues”, the focus of the Helpline is to provide immediate intervention-style services. We conceptualized this contrast as below:

Helpline

Needs –> Response (immediate individual service)

Poll

Needs –> Government and other organizations (policy, project) –> Response (more systematic service)

Considering that the biggest advantage of the mobile phone is its “rapidness”, our poll has the potential to lead to immediate improvements of service that are catered to specific needs.

Now we have got a lot of inspiration and a powerful source for practical lessons from this site visit. Here we would like to express our gratitude for Jordan River Foundation again, and would like to continue learning from them.

Maki (Iraq Team)

Mercy Corps

March 17, 2010

Today, we went to a very interesting site visit with the team of MercyCorps Jordan, a large international NGO which focuses specifically on working with Iraqi refugees in Jordan. We were interested in their work in order to get a better understanding of what the special needs of Iraqi children are, which they have observed, and which differentiates them from their regional peers. On top of their deep trauma from the violence, war, and economic hardships living as a refugee, Iraqis face a difficult situation in Jordan because their official guest status does not permit them to work.

In our discussion, we learned about MercyCorps’ vast portfolio of activities in working with the Iraqi refugee population in Jordan in partnership with UNHCR and UNICEF in particular. Their work comprises different aspects such as material assistance, counseling, and other intervention-like support as well as a comprehensive education and training program.

The aspect of a civil society organization working directly on issues surrounding training and education, including on issues such as ICT, was of particular interest to us. Two things struck us in particular. First of all, MercyCorps’s use of innovative pedagogical approaches, including in particular artistic means of expression such as painting, drama, and even an organization called clowns without borders, impressed us. Finally, far from a purely extrinsic incentive for participation, providing food and covering the cost of transportation has been a basic requirement in order to ensure the participation of Iraqi youths and children in any of its educational and training programs.

We thank the MercyCorps team for their warm welcome and for agreeing to meet with us at short notice!

Election and Awareness of Children’s Issues

March 17, 2010

picture: from news.bbc.co.uk

On Wednesday morning, we conducted another interview with a UNICEF staff member on user testing and the implementation of the poll. She was the only interviewee who is from Iraq, and we got a lot of insight about Iraq, a country which is inapproachable for us.

According to her, children’s issues were not referred to in the election campaign and it is hard to tell the stance of each political party on these issues. For me, this was something hard to believe considering Iraq is the country whose education system was considered to be one of the best in the Middle East and health indicators kept rising until the early 1980s.

This is where the importance of our project comes in. I remembered that the UNICEF team emphasized that they wanted to use this project to raise the awareness of children’s issues in Iraq and give impact on Iraq’s development agenda.

Another interesting insight about Iraq was that the fact that children watch TV a lot due to the long hours spent at home for security reasons. This implies a lot.

Children are aware of the life and culture of other countries: How will this affect on the measure of children’s  “happiness?” A lot of children enjoy watching soccer games on TV: can we use star soccer players to motivate children to participate the poll?

I hope that this attempt of collecting real-time information using mobile technology will reveal a lot of unknown “live” facts about children in Iraq, and help plan better policies and raise awareness of children’s issues in Iraq.

Maki (Iraq Team)

Concept of data-mapping and exciting brainstorming

March 16, 2010

In the late afternoon, we were invited to a meeting with a brilliant expert in data-mapping, who now works for MENARO (UNCEF Middle East and North Africa Regional Office). He clearly expressed the importance of relating “who, what, where” with “needs” on a one-stop map to target intervention. In addition to the discussion about technical aspects of mapping, fundamental issues such as incentives to participate in the survey, and the relation between anonymity and security were raised, and developed into a very exciting brainstorming.

Maki (Iraq Team)