Konbit: Using Mobile Tech (And Your Voice) for Local Jobs in Haiti

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on Mar 15, 2011.

Konbit is a service that aims to help communities rebuild themselves after a crisis by indexing the skill sets of local residents, allowing NGOs to find and employ them. Konbit development started after the earthquake in Haiti, and in response to complaints that NGOs were typically bringing in their own labor, rather than hiring locally. The service allows Haitians to describe their everyday skills and talents, in their own voice and language, over a mobile phone.

This audio content is then transcribed and translated into job skill categories that can be searched by NGOs and employers in the area. In this way, Konbit combines mobile and Internet technology with something more accessible to the Haitian community: their own voice.

MobileActive.org first spoke with Konbit founders Greg Elliott and Aaron Zinman last year for an article on how to work with mobile operators. Aside from being an example of a successful working relationship with mobile provider Digicel Haiti, the Konbit team has received over 3000 phone calls since a pilot in Haiti earlier this year.  Though Konbit struggles to keep up with translation and actual job placement, Elliott and Zinman see their role as breaking through both cultural and technological barriers. We checked in to see how things were going and what they are learning along the way.

Konbit’s Goals

The goal of Konbit is to make job distribution more equitable by ensuring that Haitian nationals get jobs. But to achieve this goal, employers need to be able to find the emlpoyee, which can be a challenge for many reasons. In addition, Elliott and Zinman identify three other goals:

  1. Break down the barriers that may prevent people from getting jobs. The theory is that if you can get more personable set of skills based on life experience rather than a professional resume or CV, this information would not only be more relevant but also more transparent.
  2. Reach out to people that are illiterate.
  3. Use Creole instead of French language. This is another way to reach the most disconnected people in the area, because Creole is the unofficial primary language of Haiti, Elliott said.

 Konbit as a Technical and Cultural Bridge

With Konbit, mobile provider Digicel Haiti offered to let the team bring equipment into the network center, where the data would be hosted. (Elliott and Zinman first configured and then shipped the server to Haiti.) For this, Digicel charged half price and added free incoming calls, SMS, and a shortcode. This allows the end user — Haitians looking for employment — to use the service for free.

The phone number was good only in Haiti and was free for up to 3000 people. Callers were also given a 15HTG credit to their Digicel account. “We paid for this in order to give them something even if we couldn’t find them a job,” Elliott said.

The Konbit system itself is based on integrated voice response, or IVR. Callers are greeted with an introduction explaining the service, including how long the call will take and expectations for getting a job. Then, the service asks about experiences with construction, first-aid, sewing, babysitting, and other areas, and examples of each are provided. If the caller has experience with one of these categories, they press one and record a message.

Elliott and Zinman shared the IVR script which includes close to 60 potential menu options, captured in both English and Creole.

Step One: Recording Job Skills

Haitian nationals call in, and, in their own words, describe their everyday skills or experiences which may translate into various job categories. In this sense, “we are a cultural bridge,” Elliott said. “Whereby we don’t require you to have ever had a job; we are instead looking for experiences that demonstrate skill sets. We don’t require you to be literate.” Everyday life experiences are translated into content that is more familiar from an outside NGO perspective.

Konbit is a technical bridge, too. The service allows the people who are the most disconnected in society — those that have access only to a telephone — to share their information and skills on the Internet, thereby making it easier to connect with others.

 Step Two: Translation

After messages are received, they must be translated into content and categories that can be searched by potential employers. Elliott and Zinman built a front-end that allows the service to crowd source translations. Translation occurs “all the time,” Elliott wrote in an e-mail to MobileActive.org — anyone with a Google account can login and begin translating messages. Messages are then validated by other translators, and show up on the Konbit search interface a few days later. At the time of writing, one-third of the around 15,000 messages had been translated.

But, this has proved to be a challenge for them, too. Translation is taking longer than expected, Elliot wrote. “We need to get more of the Haitian diaspora to participate in the translations,” he said. Konbit is working with AyiTeam to help spread the word, “but we have tens of thousands of messages to translate.”

Step Three: Making a Connection with NGO and Job Providers

This is another challenge for Konbit. As far as job providers, Konbit has reached out to OxFam, Partners in Health, RedCross, and Concern Worldwide. The groups are using the search interface to look at potential employees as well as to provide feedback on the system and the data.

Konbit Job Search SiteThe search is live and running, allowing organizations to find skills they need. Elliott and Zinman also created an internal interface which allows them to generate and create high-level categories to help describe the callers, such as “experienced,” “IT training,” and “has worked with NGOs.”

Of the NGOs, “they could call any of these people right now if they wanted to conduct an interview,” Elliott wrote. “That’s how close we are to finding our callers jobs.” Employers can sign up and search for workers for free.

 What Sort of Message do People Leave?

The average audio length for an answer is 15 seconds. At last chat, 3700 people called in to the  Konbit service, but not all calls were complete. Elliott and Zinman disabled the service when they reached their goal of 3000 valid callers, and per the agreement with Digical Haiti.

Here is an example of just one message, from a caller with repair experience:

I am a mechanic and I am a technician. I know fix Stator, alternator, I know repairing ovens, fans. And I do electric car very well, I often work in the “Caterpillar” cars, I also work at Joseph Reynolds business , a sand mining company “Laboule”, now at “Morne Cabri”. I have many experiences in the stator range, alternator, electrical. And I count on the work you are doing.  

It took Elliott and Zinman a little under 2 months to reach 3000 callers.  They worked with CECOSIDA to play Konbit public service announcements on radio stations in Haiti, and had representatives in Haiti answer questions on the radio as well. (Note from Konbit: The PSAs were graciously recorded for free by Bob Lemoine.)

Though translation and job placement are challenging factors with Konbit, there are notable successes. Elliott writes, “We managed to ship a server to Haiti, run a custom service without hiccups, get 3000 callers worth of great data, and begin talks with OxFam, Partners in Health, and Concern Worldwide. In that sense, we’ve already succeeded in breaking through technological and cultural barriers, and paved the way for future projects to do the same.”

The next measure of success, of course, is securing jobs for the callers.

One of the next steps for Elliott and Zinman includes improving the Konbit search interface by adding recruitment options (beyond just a contact phone number), and offering a version of a resume for each person.

Image above from Flickr user Cisco Pics.

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