A Q&A with Olivier Girard and Cliff Schmidt on Amplio's partnerships and technology for social and behavior change – Part 2
How does Amplio work with donors and implementing partners on social and behavior change projects? How did Amplio scale from a Talking Book pilot project in Northern Ghana to manufacturing? How does the community feedback loop work?
These are some of the questions Olivier Girard discussed with Cliff Schmidt, Amplio's founder and executive director, on OG's Smaller World Podcast.
This is part 2 of a three-part Q&A series based on their conversation in Episode 04: Cliff Schmidt and Amplio's Talking Book: Innovative Technology for Social & Behavior Change in Remote Communities. Read part 1 or listen to the full podcast.
How does Amplio work with implementing partners?
Olivier Girard: I have questions about the Amplio Talking Book device itself. But to lay the groundwork for the discussion, what’s your business model? How does Amplio work with donors or implementing partners?
Cliff Schmidt: Fifteen years ago, when we developed the Talking Book with rural communities in Ghana, we began working with partners such as UNICEF, CARE, and MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates), the Canadian organization. We deployed our Talking Book technology in a comprehensive program and our staff was responsible for every aspect of the work, including program design, content creation, social and behavior change approaches, formative research and evaluation planning, and deployment to remote communities. We also updated the Talking Book content, collected usage data, analyzed it, and created reports for our partners.
We continue to do this kind of work today, except now we have a country office in Ghana and partners in more than a dozen countries.
Aside from Ghana, where we have staff, most of our Talking Book partners purchase the devices, along with a basic service plan that includes technology training, configuration, and support, as well as quarterly data reports and conference calls with our team. Along the way, we also check in and offer guidance based on our 15 years of experience, to ensure they can run their programs independently in the future.
So, that’s our basic service model. But sometimes we’re asked to do everything, including the program design and SBC approach, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation strategy. And we can do that even in other countries besides Ghana.
Olivier Girard: So, you’re able to do a full, end-do-end social and behavior change communication program, or the partner will just purchase the device, conceive the content, and implement the program, etc.
Cliff Schmidt: That’s correct. We offer a basic service plan, as well as social and behavior change consulting and full range of program services.
How did Amplio scale from a pilot to manufacturing?
Olivier Girard: I wanted to geek out about the device for a moment. Developing a pilot is one thing, but getting to scale and manufacturing is a whole other process. How did that process develop and where are you making these devices?
Cliff Schmidt: Initially, we piloted the Talking Book as a literacy tool, and our name, Literacy Bridge, reflected that. However, when we field-tested the device with schools in Ghana, local development experts quickly saw the Talking Book's potential as an ICT for community outreach, health education, and agricultural extension training. In 2017, we changed our name to Amplio to reflect how we amplify program reach in rural areas. Of course, the device itself amplifies audio content through a built-in loud speaker and users can record their feedback, so we amplify communities voices, too.
UNESCO and the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), an initiative of the United Nations Foundation, each have produced detailed case studies about the Talking Book design and development process, with guidelines for digital inclusion. These include the UNESCO-Pearson case study, and DIAL's Digital Principles case study.
Today, the devices are being manufactured in the Philippines. In the past, we’ve manufactured in China. We own all of the intellectual property—which is all open source—but the device ends of up being produced by various contract manufacturers.
With manufacturing, there are always issues that come up. With covid, supply chain issues and finding enough chips was a problem. Also, even when we’re producing a few thousand devices, we are way down at the bottom of the manufacturer’s list, in terms of units, compared to Apple producing their new iPhone. Little things like that can come up, but in any given year, manufacturing is less than one percent of our work.
How does the Talking Book's feedback loop work?
Olivier Girard: You mentioned user feedback and the possibility for users to record. Do you have to go back to the communities and connect a laptop to collect feedback? How does that feedback mechanism work technically?
Cliff Schmidt: Great question. The Amplio Talking Book is an offline device that runs on rechargeable and locally available batteries. It’s designed that way because most of the rural communities where we implement projects lack internet access. They might have some mobile phone coverage, or they might not. In Sub-Saharan Africa, almost 200 million people live in areas without mobile broadband coverage.
Many of the communities we serve don’t even have radio reception.
So, yes, you have to go back to the communities to collect the feedback that people record directly onto the device. We have an app that allows program staff to connect an Android device to the Talking Book—usually an Android smartphone, but it could be a tablet or laptop—to update the audio content and collect usage data and user feedback at the same time, in places where there’s no internet. The app automatically sends the data to a cloud-based dashboard the next time their phone goes online.
Because we are working with rural areas, where there may not even be roads, it’s important to plan when and how the content updates and data collection will take place. Usually, this happens quarterly or every few months.
When working with new partners, we always say, 'First of all, tell us about your program and let's figure out how Talking Books fit in. Not only where should that happen, but also when do you go out and revisit these communities? Who does that? Let's make sure that they've got a Android phone in their pocket so that when they go out there, they can update the content and collect the usage data.'
And then when that device has an internet connection, it's uploaded to the cloud and all that data and user feedback is available.
[Editor’s note: According to GSMA research, 40% of the world’s population covered by mobile internet—3.2 billion people—face other barriers that prevent them from getting online, including digital skills, cost, safety and security issues, as well as gender inequality.]
Olivier Girard is an international development professional who has lived in West Africa for over a decade, working on and leading peace, security, and development programs for USAID and other donors. OG’s Smaller World Podcast is a personal project.