Technology and Social Justice in the Emerging World: an MCDMer’s Journey


Digital mapping and data visualization are key areas of growth in both online and mobile communications.  Since entering the Master of Communication in Digital Media program last summer, one of my primary interests has been the study of information communication technologies and how they relate to organizing resources around maps and corresponding data.

Earlier this year I was selected by Plan International to spend the summer interning as a Technical Advisor on their ‘Youth Empowerment Through Technology, Arts, and Media’ (YETAM) program in Cameroon. Plan International is an organization with projects in 48 countries, and has been working with youth in developing nations for over 70 years. Their emphasis is on promoting and protecting the safety and rights of children.

As an intern, I am helping on various activities related to YETAM– one of which is working on an online reporting system for youth, community members, and local Plan Staff to use to report incidents of violence against children in local communities.

This system will leverage three open source software applications: FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, and Open Street Maps. Using these platforms will allow incidents of youth violence and exploitation to be displayed on a map.  This gives the incidents greater context, and helps to create awareness.  Most importantly, it helps authorities and activists organize timely, effective and appropriate responses.

After arriving in Cameroon in early June and meeting the team involved in setting up the system, our first major discussion about the site centered on how reports should pass through the system. For obvious reasons the information contained within these reports is extremely sensitive, so each step of the workflow process needs to be determined with the best interests of the children involved.

Plan Cameroon already has in place an extensive offline system for reporting violence against children in the community. This existing system architecture was agreed upon after an exhaustive deliberation process with government, community, and local council members. A lot of hard work had already gone into creating something that all parties had agreed upon. We agreed that it would not only be negligent, but counterproductive not to use this as a blueprint. For this reason, everyone agrees that the system we are working on should respect, support and ultimately serve to expedite the current process, not replace it.

Under the current system, Plan serves in the capacity of witness in cases of child abuse. Plan Cameroon has partnered with several governmental agencies to investigate and respond to reports they receive–which agency this is depends upon the circumstances of the abuse.  Age, gender, and location are all factors in determining which agency will be responsible.

In practice this is a very complicated and delicate process. As an outsider, much of this session was taken up with trying to understand the rules, customs and regulations already in place. Thankfully I have Cameroonian colleagues in the local office to help me navigate and understand all of this.

Ushahidi is one of the pillars in our technology plan.  Formed as an open source crises management system in Kenya after election violence took place there in 2008, the online tools Ushahidi provides allow Plan operatives three methods for submitting reports: (1) Text Message, via Frontline SMS or another text messaging tool, (2) Email, and (3) Submitting a report directly through the site. These actions can be taken by individuals in the community or by Plan Staff if they are alerted of a particular incident.

Due to limited internet access throughout the country, we expect the primary means of reporting to the system will be through text messaging. In developing nations like Cameroon, the majority of people don’t have steady access to a personal computer, but almost all of them (even teenage youth) have cellular phones.

Based on the information that needs to be tracked and reported on, our current plan is to separate reports into four categories, each with several subcategories as follows:

Form of Violence

  • Physical
  • Sexual
  • Emotional/Psychological
  • Negligence

Gender of the Victim

  • Male
  • Female

Age of Victim

  • 0-9
  • 10-13
  • 14-18

Location of Incident

  • Home
  • Work
  • School
  • Community

Creating these reporting categories (and each of their subsequent subcategories) will allow this information to be tracked separately, or to be looked at in terms of how categories overlap. For example, by tracking Gender and Location of Incident separately we will be able to visualize how many incidents of abuse are taking place at schools in a certain community, how many of the victims are girls versus boys, and how each of those categories relates to reports from other regions.

This will be especially important information for the government who have different agencies in place for tracking violence against children and youth depending on the circumstances. It will also be useful for Plan staff who can then tailor programs and awareness campaigns in a specific community towards the issues that are most prevalent there.

On the Ushahidi ‘back end’, each report of an incident will also contain a description section that will allow information outside categorical parameters to be included in reports. This could be the body of a text message, a summary of a voicemail, or any other details that are deemed to fall outside the determined privacy boundaries (eg., this will allow us to keep identifying information and other details in the system, yet keep it from going public).

Over the course of my first week in the Cameroon capitol Yaounde, we had many discussions regarding how we could make the online information workflow match that of the offline system. The conclusion seemed to be that involving community members and Plan staff in initial approval of reports might be possible, but that expecting all six of the varying government agencies that currently respond to such reports to use this digital system would be problematic. At this point we are hoping that the official agreement can be reworked slightly so that only MINAS, the Ministry of Social Affairs would need to be involved in the system.

By week’s end we had drafted an initial proposal for what the workflow for the system could be. It is by no means final and will likely go through numerous revisions over the course of our work here, but it will provide us a good base to build from in the future.

Both myself, and fellow intern Rebecca Tapscott have now left Yaounde for Bamessing where we will be initiating our field work on the YETAM project. Here we will not only be helping to pilot the VAC website, but also working with youth in the community on creating short films about local issues, performing collaborative mapping, and training them on basic computer skills.

Needless to say, It’s going to be an interesting summer.



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