This is the graduate school capstone project for Carnegie Mellon & The University of Madeira's Master's in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) program. This project - research to working prototype - was developed over the course of 10 months.
/envision is a mentoring service hosted through WhatsApp for prospective international graduate students that pairs them with a mentor from their home country to improve their opportunities for attending school abroad. Mentors from their own country are said to understand the cultural aspects of their background and the education system they’ve gone through so they can better advise them on the challenges they may face. A bot, known as Unibot, plays a technical, supplementary role to the mentor by being called through commands to gather and provide factual information. Unibot is compatible with any operating system that’s supported by WhatsApp.
In order to reach our goal of equalizing opportunities for as many of these people as possible, we resisted the temptation to develop a standalone app or website, but instead built the technology on top of the most popular messaging service in the world: WhatsApp.
Having tested the proof of concept most often with Ugandans, to positive success, and developed a network of diaspora members, our plan is to pilot /envision in Uganda before expanding service coverage to other developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Though there will be country-to-country variance in terms of habits, cultures, and norms surrounding technology and education, we believe the fundamental offering of a network of like-minded professionals benefits individuals from more than one country and region. We’ve learned from conversations with students from other countries that a service like this would have supported them in their journey.
Uganda has many strong candidates, though they are only a fraction of the world’s prospective graduate application pool. Sub-Saharan Africa alone has 3MM tertiary, or university-level, students. The current rate of increase is the fastest in the world, doubling every five years. Out of 140,000 students enrolled in higher education each year, outgoing student mobility in Uganda is low at around 5,000 (likely to neighboring African countries). Annual university costs for an undergraduate year in Sub-Saharan Africa are 170% of per capita income; for graduate school and relocation, the cost can be much higher. Most competitive candidates in Uganda will have a couple years of work experience to demonstrate interest in a particular area of study and to save money for the move.
The adoption of /envision will be constrained by technological development within these countries. For example, less than one-quarter of Ugandan citizens have access to reliable electricity, let alone internet access. However mobile subscriptions hover closer to 50% and data plans are becoming more commonplace every day. Our research indicates that students are most comfortable with mentors who have gone through the application process within the last 1-2 years as application and visa rules change so frequently, which indicates a greater recruitment rate me be necessary.
From January to May 2015, we spoke to a couple dozen Ugandan diaspora members located in the US, UK, Netherlands, and Italy, looking for a role they could play in developing radio content at home (or contributing in other non-financial areas, given the openness of our client). Uganda is a young country, with 78% of its population under 30 years old. Most diaspora members are from this generation or the previous one, having left the country under the Idi Amin regime. Some moved with their families as refugees, while many left for better education and job opportunities abroad.
In those conversations, a model of a diasporan started to arise. Someone tenacious and hard-working; someone who moved abroad to invest in their education or career; someone who stayed in touch very closely with family and friends at home; someone who was already giving back to their community, through remittances, coaching, starting businesses, or working in development. Those who had moved abroad were already developing Uganda, from within the country or outside it. This ambition was common and deep.
What started as a mission for diasporans to develop Uganda from abroad ended as a mission for diasporans to directly help students at home. We saw an interest Ugandans had in personal growth, by having new experiences abroad, and an opportunity to support this growth by helping those who wanted to follow. We found that those who were successful had two major advantages: money and mentors.
One of the most direct methods of moving abroad is through graduate school. But this process isn’t all that straightforward. There’s the application process, which requires particular tests and essays that differ from those taken in their home countries. There are many types of fees: graduate school application fees, testing fees, travel to the embassy, calls to admissions staff, visa application fees, and plane tickets. Many are encountering foreign forms and diplomatic procedures for the first time, and have only one or two people to consult, at most. If one is so lucky to get in, there’s no security until the visa has been processed.
Through /envision, the mentor and Unibot work in conjunction to expose applicants to best practices and new options. Through the personalization of tips, reminders, scholarships, and the match itself, /envision seeks to customize its delivery to each application. It’s important to note that /envision aids the student through all the nuts and bolts of the application and visa process, but support is also provided post-move, in preparation for the move, and after arrival, e.g. help with finding housing.
We spent the spring doing exploratory research to define opportunity areas, before ideating 150 ideas. Through a speed dating session with the Uganda North America Association, we were able to narrow down from the three most promising ideas to one. We then used the fall to iteratively design, develop, and test our prototype, using tools such as customer journey maps, card sorting, remote tests, and usability tests.
Read more about our process and prototype in the book below or on our website http://wavesfm.org/
RootIO seeks to establish hyper-local, community-centered radio stations in rural Uganda with the use of a smartphone and FM Transmitter. Radio continues to be a powerful tool for community information as well as an everyday staple for much of the developing world. The idea is to allow communities to create, share, promote, and collaborate on their own content that is suited to their own personal needs. The goal of RootIO is not to become one large regional station; rather, to multiply across the country in the form of many micro-stations. RootIO was awarded the Knight Foundation challenge in 2013 and is the brainchild of Chris Csikszentmihályi. The project is being piloted in Uganda with the help of Uganda Radio Network, UNICEF Uganda, and UNICEF Innovation Unit. For more information on RootIO, read this and listen to this.
/envision was designed by a team of four Carnegie Mellon HCI graduate students: myself, Creative Lead; Nalena Santiago, Interaction Design Lead; Katie Ramp, Project Manager; and Juan Corzo, Tech Lead.