Author: Sylvester Johnson & Abass Shaw, iDT Labs

“Finding a job is a full time job” depicts the cloud that existed between job seekers and job opportunities in Sierra Leone. This challenging scenario occurred in an economy experiencing spiral growth driven by the mining boom, agriculture and service sectors. Consequently, a plethora of jobs were created. Despite the plethora of jobs, 70% youths were either unemployed or underemployed (UNDP, 2010) with an estimated 800,000 youths actively searching for a job.

Before We Came In

In order to connect with jobs, youths had to travel long distances to get access to job information centralized in Freetown. Some migrated to mining areas where they could access job information or constantly gave calls to friends and family members having access to thinly circulated newspapers. Libraries with daily newspapers were often jam packed with graduates hunting for job information.

Apparently, jobs were mainly advertised via word of mouth and newspapers. Whereas the distribution ambit of jobs advertised via word of mouth was very narrow, only a minority of Sierra Leoneans read newspapers of which most are predominantly in the Western area. This factor deprived a large proportion of job seekers the ability to access job information.
Whilst the access to job information was puzzling, the cost of attaining job information was frustrating. The average income job seekers had to buy series of newspapers to access job information. The worst case scenario was experienced by poor job seekers, often in the majority, who resigned to faith and became non-active job seekers. This scenario created barriers to thousands of job seekers.
Employers on another hand were left with the no option to but advertise on daily newspapers. Using traditional media, employers mainly received applications from people that were no way near qualified for their positions. Without knowledge of the applications that meets the set requirement, employers had to go through each and every application to ensure that the ideal candidate is not missed. And that was a frustrating and tiresome task that often leads to some employers seeking foreign expatriates. In most cases, there were qualified Sierra Leoneans abroad being deprived of job opportunities home as job vacancies were only given a local audience.
From stories narrated from both sides of the coin, Job seekers & Employers, revealed there were both job opportunities and qualified candidates in the labor market; the reason for the seeming lack of both, we discovered, was in-existence of a centralized environment wherein both job-seekers and employers can fulfill their search requirements.

When We Came In

In response this scenario, we developed a centralized platform for job information. powers innovative and low-cost ways in bringing job-seekers and employers together. Making use of technological models like the Internet, WAP, and SMS, lowered the search cost and barrier to information for both job-seekers and employers, providing basic labor market information to them and a centralized meeting point wherein the two groups can interact. Sierra Leonean jobseekers around the world the first time had the opportunity to register and upload their Resumes and certificates, apply to job vacancies online and were contacted by potential employers. With over 10,000 followers and an average of 15 new jobs posted weekly, is Sierra Leones biggest job search engine.

Small and medium size enterprises constitute the backbone of the Sierra Leonean economy. SMEs generate jobs, they underpin service delivery whilst greatly impacting GDP growth. They are active in every sector, from retailing to services, healthcare and finance etc. They are in large cities, small towns, and even the most remote villages in the countryside, where they engage in a wide range of agricultural activities. Often stated by the Common Sierra Leone, the most remote communities have a Fula Shop.

Current state

Despite their centrality to the lifeblood of the Sierra Leonean economy, a significant number of SMEs continue to use manual methods in managing their sales, inventory, accounts, etc. They have books to record their finances, sales and inventory. A few sought to using basic applications like Excel, though a step in the right direction, they are vulnerable to duplicated data, limited queries capabilities and intelligence mining, weak business control and poor coordination in managing their business processes. This often leads to corresponding scenarios affecting their efficiency, productivity and competitiveness. Undertaking the Human Centered Design Approach, we recorded the story of a business man who narrated the difficulty he is facing to understand sales turnover. This business man often imports over 50 Containers of goods that are sold annually for which profits accrued he finds very discouraging. Highlighting the problems often faced, he further mentioned “as we approach the zakat (alms giving to the poor in Islam), I often find it difficult to evaluate to know the amount I should offer”

Several ICT companies in Sierra Leone provide Enterprise Resource Planning Software, Accounting and Human Resource packages with pricing beginning from $10,000 and climbing, effectively keeping them from the reach of all but companies in the big three, Mining, Mobile Network Operators, and Banks. As such SMEs cannot realize the intelligence, accountability and efficiency gained by computerizing their business processes.

Our direction

To help enable SMEs we have developed the iDT Cloud Software Service a SAAS offering enabling SMEs by providing access to high-powered mission critical software. This service gives SMEs access to accounting, human resource, warehouse management, fleet management and Point of Sale services via the cloud. With our new direction, in seconds, SMEs can have access to these software services, paying small monthly fees whilst also avoiding the significant upfront and

Author: Salton Massally, CTO, iDT Labs

West Africans generally associate open-source software that is freely available to use and modify as being inferior to commercial alternatives. This is a consequence of both their lack of understanding of the open-source model of software development, and a general consensus that whatever is free is usually of little or no value, as is the case with most commodities in West Africa. Compared to normal users, the governments in the region are even more distrustful of open-source software, since they erroneously believe that the closed nature of commercial software offers them increased security.

While we were planning on digitization of hazard payments to Ebola Response Workers (ERW) in Sierra Leone, which was a project funded by UNDP, some of the major criteria set forth to us were as follows:

  1. The solution had to be relatively inexpensive
  2. There was great emphasis on quick development of the system; we had two weeks to plan, develop, and deploy the system
  3. The solution had to be stable considering the consequences of major downtime or data corruption

With these criteria in our minds, we set out evaluating open-source projects that would not only help us to meet them, but would also be responsive enough for our functional requirements.

Naturally, realizing that finding a ready-made holistic solution meeting all of our specifications was improbable, we divided our scope and evaluated various options against these:

  • A Core database to house ERW records, generate pay lists, and to record payment history and payment issues.
  • An SMS interface through which alerts and status updates could be sent to ERWs and queries received and processed from them.
  • Deduplication of ERW records based on their profile
  • Deduplication of ERW records based on facial recognition
  • A process for field based data collection

Odoo, formerly known as OpenERP, is a suite of open-source enterprise management applications that easily emerged as the best fit for our core database requirements. It’s major attraction was the ease with which one could develop addons, while its large user base and browser-based user interface made it even more appealing. With Odoo and its PostgreSQL database engine forming the core of our solution, it was relatively simple to develop our extensions, with its webservice architecture integration with external components via its excellent XML-RPC interface being fairly straightforward. Another advantage was that Odoo already had a human resource addon whose design was not far away from what we wanted.

For SMS communications with the system, we decided on using the robust Kannel SMS gateway. We already had extensive experience with Kannel and so didn’t experience the configuration nightmare that first-time users typically go through.

Data Deduplication was to be an integral part of the system. With tens of thousands of record supplied to us via excel spreadsheets, we had to properly plan for a considerable amount of duplications in the records. Deduplicating data was particularly tricky because of the unlimited ways a person’s data can be represented. No convention existed for recording ERW data and so there was an absence of important fields like names, telephone numbers, address etc that we could use to deduplicate our dataset. Factor in the possibility of spelling mistakes and largely incomplete data, and the magnitude of the deduplication nightmare increased. For this problem of extracting, matching and resolving entity we had to turn to machine learning, natural language processing and statistical techniques. This ruled out using the power of postgresql alone as relational databases are not meant to handle complex entity resolutions. Instead, we turned to yet another open-source project, Dedupe.

Initially we flirted with using elasticsearch, an open-source search engine.However we quickly realized that this solution would take much more than the two weeks we had, so we settled with Dedupe, a python library that uses machine learning to quickly perform de-duplication and entity resolution on structured data. After adding some custom code, we got it firing exactly the way we wanted it to.

Deduplication using the passport pictures of ERWs, when available, was done with the help of OpenBR and OpenCV, a facial recognition library and computer vision project respectively.

A requirement of the project was the ability for data to be collected in the field using smartphones. For this we leveraged the excellent Open Data Kit project (ODK), a suite of tools that allows data collection using mobile devices and data submission to an online server, even without an internet connection or mobile carrier service at the time of data collection.

Adopting open source projects in our solution ensured that we finished well within our rather stringent timeframe and budget, putting together a robust solution that would have taken us years to develop if we were to do it from scratch. The works of thousands of excellent programmers in the open-source space ensured that Sierra Leone effectively and efficiently solved what was the most complex and easily volatile aspect of the Ebola response, the distribution of hazard payment. The only component we had to pay directly for was the SSL certificate used to secure communication with the server.

Seeing how successfully open source software was deployed in our context we hope to see this ideology embraced by West Africans. With billions of dollars being wasted by both Governments and the International Development Community operating in our sub-region on low-quality, non-functional software shelved after few months due to poor quality or low user adoption, it is imperative that we turn to the open source landscape for our software requirements. The billions being poured into commercial software licensing can easily be redirected at more pressing needs, such as poverty alleviation, HIV and Malaria prevention, to name a few.

It is no doubt that impactful innovation is not done in isolation of the problems it solves, surrounding processes and accompanying open space for exhibiting and building partnerships. Filling in these gaps that have existed in Sierra Leone, the UNDP Sierra Leone, led by Country Director Sudipto Mukherjee has been driving such innovative space for young people with different backgrounds, interests, ideas and initiatives for social good. This unique space UNDP leads, continues to drive young entrepreneurs and innovators all around the country. Not surprising, the impact of the innovative space being created by UNDP was acknowledged by Salton Massally, iDT Labs Chief Technology Officer and first winner of the award in 2013: “This award played a pivotal role in helping me develop. The youth innovation award organized by UNDP showed me the way and provided me with a platform to drive boundaries. Winning the first award was a turning point in my life.”

Sierra Leone’s population of 6 million people – 70 percent of whom are young — presents source of innovation, hope, resilience and power to transform communities. This sums up the transformative efforts of UNDP, its shrewd leadership Sudipto Mukherjee, iDT Lab’s Salton Massally, Deputy Vice Chancellor FBC and panelists in this year’s Social Good 2015 Summit held at the Mary Kinsley Auditorium, Fourah Bay College. This one day summit convened by the UNDP under the theme “Post Ebola Recovery and Sustainable Development: – brought together 12 participants and over 200 members of the audience.

In the words of Sudipto Mukherjee, in his welcoming note “Information Communication Technology is the combination of youth power and technology is extremely potent and if used for social good can be transformative”. He called on young people to innovate and solve problems in their communities. He reminded young people of their potential and how they could champion Sustainable Development Goals that Sierra Leone, an emerging nation, profoundly needs. Mr. Mukerjee noted that technology and new media plays a central role in young people’s lives, giving them voice where there was none before. He added that “‘while the good news is that they are using technology and new media – the challenge is to inspire them to use it to change their world in a positive way. In other words, using technology and new media to unleash the power and creative spirit of young girls and boys for Social Good.”

“Before we came in, the management of ERWs was in its simplest terms a challenging one. The management of ERWs and payroll was defined by weak access, delays, corruption, and general dissatisfaction. The system we developed automated every related ERWs record, contracts, previously manually managed and stored in shelves” were the words of Leslie Gordon Browne Project Manager, iDT Labs– sharing the role that iDT Labs played in digitizing the payroll of over 30,000 Ebola Response workers.

The climax of the summit woke up the innovative genius in young people from all over Sierra Leone presenting innovative ideas and inventions for a star prize of $2,000. Innovative solutions on energy, e-learning, techhubs, and alternative healthcare delivery were unleashed by energetic young people with an amputee Archippus T. Sesay from Makeni emerging as winner with his artificial low cost limbs for amputees using local materials.

The programme was splendid and indeed UNDP Sierra Leone with its astute Country Director Sudipto Mukherjee, is awaking the innovative genius in young people. We hope to see other actors in the International system emulating the impactful work of UNDP Sierra Leone.

Author: Abass Shaw, Lead Researcher, iDT Labs

Going through published healthcare literature, it is evident that the Common West African Person accesses one of the weakest health care systems in the world. The Common West African travels miles, crossing rivers and streams to access healthcare services that are often flawed. There is a far obvious divide between healthcare, facilities, practitioners available and persons in need (Sierra Leone 3 doctors- 100,000 persons, World Health Organization, 2013).

This challenging scenario we realized does not just require a readymade solution but one that is reflective of the needs of end users. Using the Human Centered Design Approach, we set ourselves the task of recording experiences of Common West African Persons, Medical Practitioners and Healthcare data users. This task drove us to visit slums, strolling streets and knocking on the door of offices in order to harvest a holistic view of all stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem, prototyping the solution, whilst understanding preferred delivery methods, and expectations of clients.

On the 26th August 2015, the sun rose shining on survey officers in the Slums of Kroobay and Susan’s bay thought to be ideal for locating representative of Common West African Persons earning less than $100. Going through the biggest slums in Sierra Leone, we interviewed 25 persons constituting street traders, tailors, and teachers. Amidst the low level of education of respondents, Survey officers were greeted with the challenge in harvesting required data even with the simplest form of explanation. The next day, we hopped through government offices, police stations, strolling in banks, business enterprises reaching Common West African Persons earning $200 and those above $500 respectively. Climbing steers and waiting in receptions, we were able to record the perspectives of 35 Common West African Persons earning $200 and $500 respectively.

A week after, we navigated the wheels of the exercise to reach medical practitioners on their professional perspectives. Going through several hospitals and pharmacies, we were able to record the participation of 25 medical practitioners who diagnosed the current state of the healthcare service delivery, presenting their views on delivery method, payment and expectations on the alternative that Welbodi brings.

Summary from key findings….

  • Generally, West African Persons are not satisfied with current healthcare mainly because of cost for those less than $100 and accessibility & quality issues for those earning $200 and above $500 respectively
  • Voice Calls was by far the chosen delivery methods with SMS, web and video being chosen based on literacy level, thus income.
  • A number of Common West African Persons visit Pharmacies as main source of medical care; they do visit medical doctors but rarely.
  • Network failure, wrong prescription and astronomical charges were the main criticisms levied against the solution.
  • Almost all respondents mentioned the prototype to be good with responses on simplicity and complexity of the solution depending on their income levels

Code 4 Salone is an all-inclusive, citizen-led grassroot movement which leverages the power of open source technologies to bring innovations in the public sector in Sierra Leone.” One the 7th of October, we had the first meeting with a talented group of young coders regarding the movement. Below is the presentation from that session, which highlights our main idea and the programs that we shall be offering.

As the Ebola recovery efforts are ramped up in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, cash transfers to citizens is going to be a major component of programs that need to either remunerate health workers or provide social security for affected groups. It is vital for the different cash transfer programs to collaborate amongst themselves to clamp down on the number of duplicate records of people that results in a substantial number of people receiving multiple payments. However, this process is currently carried out via manually cross-checking the excel-based payment records, which is a time-consuming and error prone process.

To solve this issue,we are working on the creation of an open cash transfer data platform that development sector organisations in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia can use to automatically identify duplicate payment records within both their own datasets as well as across datasets of other organisations and programs.

Our solution shall leverage a number of open source technologies.

  • The web portal shall be based on CKAN, a powerful open source data management system that would provide tools for streamlining the publishing,sharing,finding and using of datasets of the organizations.
  • This web portal would be integrated with Dedupe, a Python based machine learning system for performing similarity analysis and entity resolution on the structured datasets.
  • The web portal would also be integrated with ElasticSearch, an enterprise-scaled distributed, multi tenant capable for providing full-text search capabilities and advanced search features.

Using the functionalities of both Dedupe and ElasticSearch, our web based portal would enable the development sector organizations to upload their beneficiary datasets and to automatically detect duplicates and double dippers both within their own datasets as well as the shared datasets of other development organizations.