Interview with the founding team
To give our audience a better understanding of VoxMapp and its history we carried out an interview with the first members of the VoxMapp team – the CEO and founder of VoxMapp Lorenzo Delesgues, and the co-founder and Research Manager Marta Trigo da Roza. Lorenzo and Marta introduced us to the work of VoxMapp, as well as discussed the role of data in decision-making, giving us a better understanding why tools and innovations like VoxMapp are crucial today.
- Lorenzo, you founded VoxMapp some years ago. Could you tell us about the history of VoxMapp? How was it founded and what was the main idea behind founding this enterprise?
L: VoxMapp initially was not the way we see it today. It started with the first app called ProxiBuzz that helped citizens to communicate their problems to city managers for better management of cities. After having such a participative solution in 2016, I started designing VoxInfra, because I realized that in Afghanistan there was this problem with infrastructure. From my experience of working in Afghanistan for over 20 years, it was very frustrating not to get information about infrastructure in Afghanistan, and through that we came up with a solution that was able to map all the infrastructure and help the decision-makers to make good decisions in their management of this infrastructure.
M: The idea was an app to be used by citizens, as a system of direct communication with their mayors; to rate public infrastructures and public services and alert on the more urgent matters. On their side the decision-makers would have a platform to manage the citizen feedbacks and prioritize actions and budgets. When I joined VoxMapp, this idea was not really working in practice as there was a lack of political willingness to absorb these direct democracy and participative accountability mechanisms.
L: After utilizing it in France we received positive feedback, especially by the Minister of Finance. He expressed his interest in doing a large survey on all the infrastructure and at that point I started visiting Afghanistan regularly. Unfortunately, this project didn’t progress. Then we decided to focus on one small district with VoxMapp and we started collecting this information. The results of this process were presented to SIGAR and this pilot was disseminated to the rest of Kapisa province. So now we have data on 4 districts.
M: Together with Lorenzo we decided to try out a similar idea in Afghanistan where the public infrastructures and services are a real issue, and citizens have overall little influence on public related decisions, but also there is very little information about these infrastructures. Where are they located? Are populations well served? Who built them? Who manages them? Do they have enough funding? Most of these questions could not be answered, and thus the need to generate reliable information on these matters was very clear. Plus, Afghanistan largely depends on foreign aid disbursements for the construction and maintenance of these infrastructures, but even among donors very little is known about WHERE these infrastructures are most needed. Lorenzo founded years ago a local NGO called Integrity Watch, as well as the innovative programs of Community Based Monitoring. It seemed very logical to work with Integrity Watch as an implementing partner, and we launched our first pilot in the district of Mahmoud-Raqi in the province of Kapisa, starting to map the district’s public infrastructures.
- The website of VoxMapp mentions that it is a social enterprise that collects and works with data in humanitarian and development settings. It also says that data is crucial in decision-making. Could you tell us more about it? Why is data necessary in decision-making?
L: Yes, indeed data is really crucial because we need to work with solid indicators. We can tell the influence of a certain decision by measuring its consequences. So, you are able to follow and track whether your decision has an impact or not, and if not then you can change your policy or strategy.
M: Data is crucial. Without data decision-making processes are based on opinions and ideologies. Decision-making must be based on evidence at every level. VoxMapp is extremely comprehensive in terms of the data that can be collected. It is also flexible and adjustable. You can collect cross-sectional data with GPS locations, any questionnaire, and media (photos, videos, audio snippets, computing distances, etc.) The same goes for panel-data, you can collect the same kind of data, and you can do so for the same point/person/place/area at multiple points in time. We also include the possibility of collecting meta-data such as survey duration so that the monitoring of data collections is made easier. The questionnaire can be anything you might want to ask, and it can be complex. That is, you can have logical constraints (e.g age<150 or it does not accept the answer), it also can include skip patterns (i.e when the answer to a previous question leads you to a specific question or set of questions), etc.
- Having this in mind, how does VoxMapp respond to these needs?
M: Today VoxMapp defines itself as a set of tools and methodologies for collecting high quality data in complex settings, ensuring communities remain at the center by building mechanisms for participation and keeping them at the center of all our projects. We created a decision-making tool that enables more informed decisions. And also, more generally, we are a consulting firm that provides tailored services to build community driven and digital driven development projects.
L: And this is all done by the 4 products we developed: First, its baseline – the tool that allows us to map, question and geo localize with associative data from media and information on how this data was collected. Second is feedback – an update of data that can come with the regular flow of information from any citizen or any enumerator and that can complete the baseline and third-party monitoring. Third, it is a management tool – allows us to track actions or track information based on the baseline. And the fourth are our services for organizations or groups that are interested in generating information for creating their own systems. For the moment we are working on services to create one of the first software in the world looking at artificial intelligence and corruption.
- Is there any element in particular that makes VoxMapp a unique and innovative solution? You probably had this in mind when starting VoxMapp.
L: We provide a system that allows us to track the tasks associated with some of the data. It’s not just a mapping tool, it is designed for decision-making too and that makes it quite unique, and complementary to the existing tools like the OpenStreetMap. It’s a participative mapping tool with the possibility to do decision-making and track those decisions.
M: Adding to what Lorenzo said, what makes VoxMapp different is first of all its community-based/participatory approach. We want that in our DNA because we firmly believe that people’s participation in the shaping of their communities / cities / public spaces is key for good governance, and overall for wellbeing. I also think we have a big creative and innovative DNA, and we want to bring new technologies and innovations to areas where usually they are not. Everyone has an Android nowadays, even in remote areas in Afghanistan. We want people to be able to use them for their benefit: a cell phone, an internet connection, are great tools for raising your voice and participating in shaping your community.
- The website of VoxMapp says that it is an award-winning social enterprise. Could you tell us more about the award and nomination?
L: In 2015, we won the Innovation Prize of the French Mayors Association for our initial Voxmapp solution that allowed citizens to directly participate in the public life of their neighborhoods. However this solution revealed itself not sustainable and the town halls didn’t seem ready for such a shift in their management culture consequent to an increased citizen’s scrutiny on their work.
- In your opinion, what is the main success-story of VoxMapp? Or when did you see the impact VoxMapp gave to the areas you worked on?
L: First, we did a comparative on the ground mapping and assessment of how development was conducted in Afghanistan. At least in the province that we cover. And that was the first time in 20 years that something complete and detailed was done in order to understand how different donors provided aid. It offered a way to compare the main priorities on how development should be conducted or could be conducted and it also helped to identify the zones where there is more development needs and zones where there is less. And it allows us to really have a good idea of what is the impact of development over one province. Additionally, it allows to put in contact and compare different fields that are not so isolated, such as comparison between health and education and irrigation. And you can see how people are actually receiving these services and this is very important.
- How do you see the future of development and humanitarian work with tools like VoxMapp and increasing availability of data?
L: It is important to design new strategies or to improve the strategies that are in use already. And today it is important to have a tool that provides different data on different thematics in one single vision. This tool we offer has a lot of potential, it can be adapted to different countries and places: such as poor countries, post-conflict zones etc.
M: If we go down the path of increasing availability of data, then the future certainly looks brighter! This is at the core of our mission, to bring data and information in places where it is not available. We want to be part of that success story, one where through quality data, transparent processes, and access to information for ALL, we can build more sustainable communities and services, better fitted to peoples’ real needs.