Fatima, and the potential of flexible technologies for social impact organisations

  • October 2021

In spring last year when the pandemic began to take hold, we heard from a number of organisations struggling with the same problem - the sudden and complete inability to conduct qualitative research with marginalised communities.

Until this moment, the majority of qualitative research with marginalised people was conducted face-to-face, door-to-door, but social distancing demands meant this could no longer happen. Whilst the rest of the world seamlessly transitioned to Zoom, those without a smartphone, good digital literacy, and money for data credit were plunged into silence.

The makeshift solutions rapidly deployed were laborious and unethical - calling respondents with one phone, another pushed up against the speaker to record the conversation. Hundreds of (often indecipherable) audio files were sent via unsecured networks into the inboxes of researchers. All must be listened to in full before any conclusions or decisions could be made.

In partnership with CARE International, we decided to tackle this problem.

The output is Fatima, a research platform designed to remotely collect, securely store, and rapidly analyse qual data from the world’s marginalised. Fatima collects data via a simple phone call from any person with a basic phone, no matter their location, at no cost to them. No internet, smartphone, training or data credit is required. Using machine learning technology, the data is collected, programmatically segmented and analysed to enable faster action.

With Fatima, we were able to break the silence and critical qualitative research among marginalised communities was able to continue.

Fatima desktop - analysis

Soon we began hearing from other organisations wanting to use Fatima. Fatima met some, but not all of their needs. This is a typical scenario - especially in social impact: when an organisation identifies a need for a digital product or service, they have two options: utilise a third-party product (often built for commercial use), or build their own from scratch.

Both routes have pros and cons, the key ones outlined below:

Build from scratch:

Pros: the potential to create a product to exactly meet all needs

Cons: expensive to build, and the creators bear sole responsibility for all future maintenance and product development costs, takes time to create, pilot and scale.

Utilise third-party:

Pros: much cheaper, ready to go, no financial dependency to maintain / improve.

Cons: may not meet all needs, typically built for the commercial world, not suited to social impact organisations

Both routes can be viable, but often neither route is perfect.

Building and maintaining digital systems is an expensive, time-consuming business. This is fine if you live in the commercial world, the system will eventually sustain itself, and until then rounds of investment funding will keep the lights on. But what if you’re in the social impact sector and your ‘customers’ can’t afford to pay for this service? What if you don’t have the infinite budget to build and maintain a digital system? And the third-party options, probably designed for higher-income commercial use, don't meet all of your needs?

What then?

The good news is that there is another way. This year we proved it with Fatima.

We decided to make Fatima a ‘flexible technology’, allowing social impact organisations to build on top of Fatima, resulting in rapid access to a product that exactly meets all of their needs, but without the financial burden of creating a product from the ground up, or the ongoing costs to maintain it.

Our first partners to come on board and pioneer Fatima’s flexible technology approach were Malala Fund and Youth Endowment Fund. Both incredible social impact organisations. with needs to research marginalised young people. Finding like-minded, mission-aligned partners is critical to ensure the digital product remains coherent and focused, and does not evolve into a disjointed digital Frankenstein.

We embarked on separate discovery journeys with both partners, to ascertain the changes we needed to make. We selected changes that met both of the following two criteria:

  1. The change is required by the partner to ensure Fatima fulfills their needs
  2. The change will help Fatima to become a better research platform for researching marginalised communities and is therefore, a useful addition to the wider sector.

Several suitable changes were identified for each partner: for Malala Fund these included adding a feature to store guardian consent for safe, ethical research with minors, and adapting the platform so it can be used by smaller, local partners. To achieve this we built organisation level management and team separation of users, respondents and data; localised the platform interface by translating it into three new languages; and added auto-translation capabilities for interview transcripts.

Fatima - Malala Fund updates

For Youth Endowment Fund, the ability to conduct face-to-face research was important, so we built an app to make this happen, expanding the answer types for interviews to include multi-choice, single-choice and photo answers.

Fatima app - Youth Endowment Fund updates

In addition to the new changes, both partners have full access and usage of the existing capabilities of Fatima - including remote data collection and programmatic analysis of the data. These existing core features would be expensive and time-consuming for Malala Fund and Youth Endowment Fund to build from scratch, so are a huge benefit to them, alongside any future feature additions to the system.

Perhaps one of the most exciting moments of this flexible approach was the moment when Malala Fund - an organisation devoted to supporting girls who are likely to miss out on secondary education in countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria - and Youth Endowment Fund - a UK based organisation committed to tackling the causes of violence amongst children and young people in the UK - shared the changes each had made to Fatima, with each other. Despite tackling different issues in different countries, each partner's new changes excited the other. Both partners will benefit from each other's changes.

So why is this flexible technology right for social impact organisations and how can we make it happen more frequently?

Flexible technologies offer a fast, cost-efficient pathway to a bespoke technology that meets the unique needs of social impact organisations. At Here I Am, we build digital platforms for some of the biggest social impact organisations in the world, and we are committed to making this shared approach happen more often by identifying common needs among our partners, and as a result, shared costs and shared benefits.

If you would like to hear about Fatima, and the benefit of flexible technologies for social impact organisations, contact fatima@hereiamstudio.com. We would love to hear from you.

Special thanks to our partners, Isadora Quay, Laura Tashijan, William Ruff and Dan Schimmel at CARE, Gaya Butler, Amy Yu, Jean-Ann Ndow, Julisa Tambunan, Kim Miller, Lucia Fry and Maliha Khan at Malala Fund and Ellie Taylor, Peter Babudu, Franca Roeschert, Yasmin Jeddaoui and Colin Cliff at Youth Endowment Fund.

There are a huge number of people and organisations that have been involved in bringing Fatima to where it is now. We’d like to extend our thanks to everyone at the following organisations involved in the journey:

  • Young Foundation (UK)
  • CARE International teams in Philippines, Uganda, South Sudan, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, Honduras, Rwanda
  • Redes de Maré (Brazil)
  • Restless Development (India)
  • ACE Charity (Nigeria)
  • UCLAN (UK)

PS - why Fatima?

Fatima identity

Many people ask where the name came from. Here’s where:

We chose ‘Fatima’ for several reasons. Fatima transcends geographical and religious boundaries - it’s a prominent name in Islam and Christianity, and a popular name across the world, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Furthermore, the ‘Hand of Fatima’ features across all religions as a talismanic symbol, believed to give protection from harm, and bring goodness, abundance, fertility, luck, and good health.

But most importantly, we founded TEGA, our first marginalised digital research system in partnership with Fatima Sada, a Nigerian gender expert. The data TEGA has collected has been used to create new, and improve existing, programmes with a collective reach of 18 million. Without Fatima’s guidance, wisdom and wit, TEGA would not exist, and our lives, and the lives of many others would have taken a far less joyful path.

Sadly, Fatima died in 2019. We named this system after her to continue her amazing legacy.