Trinity Students Develop Android App to Aid Haitian Relief Efforts

Project Stems from Humanitarian Free and Open Software Program
HARTFORD, CT, August 8, 2011 – In yet another sign that the Humanitarian Free and Open Software (HFOSS) project has been hugely successful, a team of Trinity faculty and students has developed a mobile application for Android phones that will be used by a nonprofit organization to monitor and distribute food to needy women and children in Haiti.
 
A prototype was unveiled in Haiti in March by Ralph Morelli, professor of computer science and principal investigator of Trinity’s HFOSS program, and Trishan de Lanerolle, HFOSS project director. Six students who participated in the HFOSS Summer Institute Program, now in its fifth year, helped perfect the app, with three currently enrolled students and one who graduated in May visiting Haiti for 10 days (June 29 through July 8) to train local personnel in the use of the app and perform a series of field trials. The students recently presented their findings at Wesleyan University in Middletown.
 
“Prior to our application being used,” said Alexandre Zhang ‘14, “it took up to three months for Haitians to get registered and processed. The road conditions are really bad and in rural areas there’s no way to get the information to the main office fast enough.”

Click here to watch a short video about the application.

The new app will allow a message to be sent by phone and entered into a database by the end of the day, vastly improving the speed, accuracy and efficiency of the food delivery system. About 10,000 Haitians receive food rations through the current system, although women and children are being added monthly. Another 7,000 beneficiaries receive agricultural assistance in the form of seeds, plants and tools.
 
The HFOSS project is a collaborative three-college program – Trinity, Wesleyan and Connecticut College – that creates free open source software for the common good. Other institutions of higher learning also have participated thanks to two rounds of funding from the National Science Foundation under its Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education program (CPATH).
 
The goal of this particular project was to ensure that ACDI/VOCA program beneficiaries, who are primarily pregnant women, children two years and younger and malnourished children under the age of five, are instantly registered in a database so that they will receive their food rations. Based in Washington D.C., ACDI/VOCA is a private, nonprofit organization that has been managing a USAID-funded Food for Peace program in the Southeast Department of Haiti since 2008. Altogether, ACDI/VOCA has 90 projects in 40 countries and revenues of about $124 million.
 
The trip to Haiti by the Trinity team was made possible by a USAID grant of $54,000 that paid for its travel, the equipment and stipends for the students. After some “bugs” have been addressed, it’s expected that the app will be fully deployed shortly.
 
De Lanerolle said the March trip determined that the proposed system was feasible. A fully functional system was developed in June, including user guides and training materials that were translated into French and Haitian Creole by ACDI/VOCA staff. Also providing translation assistance was Leslie Demangles, professor of religion and international studies at Trinity, who helped narrate the user guide videos in Creole. (To see a video, please visit: http://vimeo.com/25729120.)
 
The Trinity team opted to develop an app for Android phones because it is the most widely used smart phone on the market. Twenty-five Android phones manufactured by Motorola were distributed to the workers in Haiti to facilitate the program. Those trained to use the new app included agronomists, medical personnel and food distributors in the field. At first, the field personnel found it difficult to use the smart phone, but they eventually caught on with help from fellow ACDI/VOCA staff and Trinity team members.
 
“We used our observations to make changes to the app and to fix any problems that we encountered,” said Sheena Elveus ‘12.
 
The monitoring system that has been used was long and laborious because most of the data collection was done by hand and manually entered into a database, leading to a backlog of information.
 
“If there are errors on the form, it has to be sent back to the field for correction. That contributes to delays in registering new people and contributes to absenteeism,” said Emmet Murphy, chief of party and country representative ACDI/VOCA Haiti. “If you show up twice and your name isn’t on the list, you probably won’t show up a third time after walking four hours, especially if you’re pregnant.”
 
Also, the road conditions in much of rural Haiti are poor, making it difficult to get the information from the main office in Jacmel to and from the food distribution centers in remote areas such as Belle Anse, Grand Gosier and Cotes de Fer, where the application was put through its paces during field trials.
 
The Android-based app uses Short Message System (SMS) text messages to transmit the data directly from the remote locations to the ACDI/VOCA server in Jacmel. Given the relatively large amount of data that must be entered, the system that was designed has a user interface that minimizes typing and keystrokes.
 
Also, in the remote rural areas, electricity and running water (or other infrastructure) was minimal or nonexistent. To give some idea of the logistical challenges faced in Haiti, the trip from Jacmel to Bell Anse, a distance of 40 kilometers, took more than four hours, de Lanerolle said.
 
Fortunately, cell service was detected at all of the registration and distribution sites. Where the signal was weak or fluctuating, the phones could save the data and be transmitted later in an area with cellular coverage. In some instances, that meant moving a few feet to a clearing.
 
In addition to Zhang and Elveus, other Trinity students who participated in the Haiti project were Tina Lipson ‘14, Christopher Nobile ’12, and Nyi Min Htet ‘13. Rachel Foecking graduated in May. Nobile and Htet did not visit Haiti, but stayed behind to work on the app in the computer lab.
 
The Trinity team also field tested two prototype mobile applications written by Megan Chiu ’14, Xu Huang ’14, and Jason Baird ’14, to assist in gathering rainfall data and commodity pricing information from rural markets to aid agronomists with their data gathering tasks in the field.
 
It’s possible that if the mobile phone app is successful -- and all indications point that way -- ACDI/VOCA could use it as it manages similar food distribution programs in other countries, including Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Burkina Faso.
 
The HFOSS program was inspired by the Sahana FOSS Disaster Management System, an information technology system that was created to aid in the recovery effort following the December 2004 tsunami in Asia.
 
Other humanitarian FOSS projects that HFOSS has collaborated with include OpenMRS, an open medical record system that was begun by Dr. Paul Farmer’s Partner in Health organization; the GNOME Accessibility Project, an effort to make user interfaces accessible to handicapped individuals; the TOR Project, an open source system used to protect the identities of journalists and human rights workers; and the RHM Homebase project, a volunteer scheduling system for Ronald McDonald Houses.
 
For more information about HFOSS, please visit: www.hfoss.org/