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Magpi: The Gmail of Mobile Data Collection

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, August 9 2013

Yellow-breasted Magpie, not to be confused with DataDyne's Magpi (Wikipedia)

Since 2005, organizations like the World Bank, the World Health Organization and USAid have used a program called Magpi to collect information on diverse subjects, everything from water quality to anti-malarial bednet distribution to the health of endangered species. Magpi, a program created by social enterprise DataDyne, operates on a 'freemium' model: the basic service is free but customization costs. Even paying for the more advanced service, however, is less expensive than developing an entirely new pilot program. Magpi should be a boon to nonprofits organizations, but instead the first adopters were all for-profit companies. This, a co-founder of DataDyne says, is due to a flaw in the NGO funding model.

Joel Selanikio, who co-founded DataDyne and developed Magpi (previously EpiSurveyor), explained the problem to The Guardian. "In international development almost every organisation [sic] is designed to promote solutions where they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop their own systems with almost no incentive to create something that lasts longer than a pilot project."

"The first one to sign up for the paid version of Magpi was JSI, one of the biggest recipients of USAid contracts, then Abt Associates, and Management Sciences for Health – all of them for-profit organisations. Why? Because it saves them money.”

Still, with more than 21,000 users in 170 countries, Magpi is the most widely used mobile data collection system in the international development sector. They boast that it is as easy to set up as Facebook, and it has won awards such as The Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Award for Healthcare IT and the Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability.

"Our target audience for Magpi is regular people,” Selanikio told The Guardian. “We are following the model of the web applications that we all know and love – Google Maps, Yahoo, Facebook, Flickr – that provide great free functionality." That's why he nicknamed it the Gmail model.

Making a product in the spirit of easy to use Facebook and Gmail is a good example of privileging user experience over all, and that, as we've seen before, is key.

That's not to say implementing Magpi is without its challenges. Organizations using the program and come up against illiteracy and problems with infrastructure (how to charge the phones or to find a signal). “Training times,” reported the Guardian, “depends on the extent of existing technology: in Sierra Leone the community health workers, already familiar with mobile phones, were up and running in a few hours. In Congo, training had to start from the very basics.”

These are problems that any mobile initiative will encounter, but at least with Magpi an organization isn't starting from scratch. That's why Magpi's creators say "spend your money on programs, not programmers!"

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.