Mobile Life Kenya’s Journey: Lessons Learnt When Developing For The Greater Good

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Cyprian Kabia, Lead Developer for Mobile Life Kenya
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Cyprian Kabia, Lead Developer for Mobile Life Kenya

A young brilliant man with a brilliant idea sat across me last week with a lot of hope and excitement of the unlimited possibilities of his creation. You could tell from his demeanor that he is proud of the product he created with his team and cannot wait to have it used by the masses. As the interview went on, I realized that his was not(and still is not) a unique journey. It is a journey that many bright-faced young people embark on to change something that they feel is a miss in our society. With certain expectations, they set off and somewhere in the middle, things change up and the reality doesn’t entirely match expectation. Progress becomes a challenge. He shared his journey with us and as I share his story with you, I would also like to point out somethings that he learnt and is still learning while moving the idea from inception to a point where you can confidently see it going into the market.

The What, the Why and the How

“People who would have been saved or could have survived in similar situations in countries in Europe end up dying here due to poor response time. Time is of the essence..”

Allow me to introduce Cyprian Kabia, the brilliant mind that I was talking about earlier. He is an IT student at JKUAT, a subject that he said he wasn’t all too keen on. In fact, in his own words, he said “I really hated IT”. What then happened to change his perspective about IT so much that he is now the lead developer of Mobile Life?

“When my friend Prince Achim, a developer for Mobile Life told me of the idea that his friend, George Kosgey, the founder had been thinking about from 2012, it sparked my interest. I did some research on the field and really got inspired to help move that idea into actualization. This made me change my whole outlook on IT in order to find a solution to the problem, therefore a lot of self-learning and commitment followed and we started development of Mobile Life in April 2015.”

When I asked him why the change was so profound, he simply answered “Because of the gap in our emergency response system in Kenya. People who would have been saved or could have survived in similar situations in countries in Europe end up dying here due to poor response time. Time is of the essence.” As he said this, I asked myself, would an app really be the solution to this problem?

“Mobile Life is an emergency response application that creates a link to all the participatory parties during an emergency situation. This includes the person in distress, emergency personnel, the insurance company and the next of kin.” Says Cyprian Kabia.

He goes on to explain how it basically works. “On installation, the user is prompted to key in some important details that are crucial in times of need. These details include name, number, insurance details and next of kin contacts. The application has 3 pre-defined emergency situations, that is, security/police, ambulance and fire, each assigned to a button. In the case of any of these situations, the corresponding team can be alerted by the victim or witness at the tap of the button”

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In summary, when faced with any of the three, or when witnessing any of the above situations, you could immediately contact the corresponding ERT teams without having to memorize, save or dial any numbers. For this to work accurately, you need to have enabled both your Internet and GPS. You can chose to always have these two on. With the increased affordability of data bundles, I always have my internet enabled as I suspect many of you have that on too, however GPS, not so much. Wouldn’t the fact that a majority of people would not have these so enabled hinder the working of the application?

He said, “When on the application, you will be prompted to turn these two things on, something that doesn’t more than 10 seconds to do. They are important in order to accurately  pin point your location and reassign corresponding ERT teams to you.”

More questions arose from this. What exact problem is this application solving? Is it response time, or the entire process of responding and acting on an emergency? He answered these later on as we got deeper into the essence of Mobile Life, but first what can we gather from his interpretation of the purpose?

Knowing what your application is and what it is meant to do is very important for it to really be beneficial. You essentially need to live and breathe that app. The need to develop it comes from within.

Research is an important first step, novelty, a necessary advantage

For a project that is noble and sensitive as this, some extensive research has to be undertaken in order to be sure that you are solving the right problem. When asked what research was undertaken as this product was being developed, Cyprian said “George did ride- alongs with ambulances and had a feel of what happens during such situations. This really gave us an overview of the process and helped us understand how to make the situation more efficient.” However, being part of the process allowed them to identify points of weakness and widened their point of view in order to discover a problem they hadn’t necessary thought about when building the application.

Let me ask you guys a question, how will you notify anyone about an emergency, especially an accident, if the first thing that ‘first responders’ (guys walking by) do once they see an accident is rob the victim of everything, even identification documents? This is a problem Mobile Life didn’t hope to solve at first but one that they realized they had to and therefore came up with a clever solution. In here comes the novelty.

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“We patented a technology called Photosensitive Quick Response (PQR) code. This is a technology designed for car owners. What you do is fill in details on the app (these include next of kin and insurance detail) and a PQR code is generated. This code is unique to you and significantly lessens the time of identifying you and contacting both your insurance company and your next of kin in times of an accident. This code is printed with photosensitive ink, which is visible in low-light conditions, and you are advised to stick it behind your fuel cap door as this is the least damaged part of a car during an accident. From this, ERT teams can be quick to identify you and proceed appropriately in administering help to you.” He says

I can see a lot of uses of this. Your allergies and blood type should be encoded in this code I believe, making the care given to you all the more efficient and timely. Imagine the usefulness of such an approach. All the ERT has to do is open the fuel cap and you are no longer a nameless victim.

Researching a problem you want to solve is very important, otherwise you may develop a solution to a problem that does not exist. Having an open mind during that research is even better. They may have thought that the main problem is response time in times of an emergency but as they continued, they saw another problem in the process that they could solve too. This is what moves something from a simple, replicable and ‘just-okay’ product to something that deserves a second look. I think that it is necessary to think about that when creating anything. Research opens you up to more possibilities than you had first envisioned.

See your product from the user’s perspective

Making a product the way you want to can be quite easy. YOU know what YOU want and how YOU want it to work. This is all well and good but YOU are not going to be the primary user of the product. It is all about the user, therefore you need to put the user’s perspective first. This will help you identify some aspects of usability that you hadn’t considered.

Mobile Life is beautifully designed but a few things are not well thought out. Small things as icon placement and font size and spacing need work, something that I brought up during the interview. They may not have given that aspect too much thought and I think they should.

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In a situation of adrenaline rush and a strong instinct of survival, the last thing you want to do on an application that could better your chances of living is spend extra time on repeatedly tapping something that is too small for you to be accurate or trying to read something that at that moment, looks like a blur. In times of increased stress, visual stimuli is important in order to make quick and rational choices. That’s when you see the importance of putting the user first. When I asked on what kind of testing happened on this line of discussion, he admitted that not a lot happened, however some testing did go on.

“After we finished developing the product in November last year, we started testing out the communication from a user’s device to the controlling back-end, focusing on time of delivering the message. It was quick and effective on all the different devices we tested it on” Cyprian said.

Sure that testing is important but more has to be done before backing this application, a request that he took to heart. Testing the usability of the product you are creating for user is something that you need to be serious about. Put yourself in the moment that you are creating that application for and  to help you develop accordingly.

Figure out the future of your creation, not just the idea of it

“I don’t know what we will do. We will just continue making our application better and just wing it!”

Mobile Life is not available for use yet. The partners they hope to have on board, including but not limited to emergency response teams like St John’s ambulance, Red Cross and various insurance companies are not yet signed up to the system. This therefore makes it useless to have the application up, however according to Cyprian, they have a plan, and it is simply a matter of time. “Our strategy is to sell the license to use our technology. We have leads from various county governments and insurance companies who want to integrate our application into their systems. With a bit more refinement and negotiations, we will be able to offer this service to the public.” This statement made me curious, why would you want to talk about something that is not yet available and still has missing pieces?

He expressed that it is important to start a conversation around this in order to validate their work. This will help them refine their product because feedback from many other sources definitely goes into creating a better application for the intended market. Whether this approach will work, I am curious to see.

When asked if he is afraid that with all this talk, someone may come ahead of him and create something similar or better, he said laughingly “I don’t know what we will do. We will just continue making our application better and just wing it!”

What about competition, does he see any? “Honestly no, I do not see any competition, we have a unique product.” However true that statement is, there is always competition. You may be competing with the status quo, or competing with the fact that people do not know about your product. You are always competing against something.

Challenges they faced during this development. “Internet connection has been a hustle as most of the development happens at home. We also do not have a central meeting place, an office, therefore finding a place to be together has been an issue. In addition, balancing between school work and development has definitely been challenging but we did it.” he says

Our conversation went on for a long time (talked about his opinions on incubation, mentorship and investors) and sharing this here would take a while, therefore i’ll end it here. He was quick to mention that at the beginning they thought it would be an easy ride, however going through it, they have seen many more issues that need addressing (legal and financial) but they haven’t let that stop them.

So what is the story of Mobile Life? It is a great idea developed into a product by some young brilliant minds. Do they have everything sorted out? Not yet, but they are getting there. There is definitely a lot more to do but they are determined to make this work. I personally feel like there is something there. The point of this story is to show the journey that newbie developers take while joining the big leagues. This are the things they learn as they try to distinguish their creations from good-on-paper university projects to actual technologies to be used by the masses. I wish Mobile Life the best of luck as they move further along in their journey

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