This month, we spoke to Yau Ben Or co-founder and managing director at Rural Senses.
Tell us about Rural Senses!
Rural Senses is all about putting people at the centre of decision-making. We are passionate about helping development and humanitarian practitioners take data-driven decisions based on what communities really care about. We use AI and empower local data collectors to shorten the time it takes to access quality data from months to days.
Rural Senses was part of the Pears Challenge 2019 on WASH in Humanitarian Settings and also joined the Microsoft for Startups - Tech for Good “AI for Good” Accelerator program in 2020.
Born out of frustration
Our story starts in 2010, when Stephanie Hirmer, Rural Senses’ co-founder, worked with one of the largest international development agencies. Stephanie was frustrated to see many expensive projects fail due to their low uptake. While Stephanie and her colleagues worked really hard “by the book” and many projects were registered as “successfully implemented”, she saw long-term impact was often limited.
At the same time, she realized that truly understanding rural communities’ needs and measuring long term impact would take too much time and money. And therefore did not fit with the typical tight budget and deadlines of international development projects.
To try and solve this, Stephanie conducted a 6-year research at the University of Cambridge to find the best way to efficiently and ethically capture data from rural communities – data that would give a true picture of their needs, concerns and desires. And it was also at Cambridge that Stephanie and I met, when I came there after working for several years at tech and AI startups.
In November 2019, Stephanie and I joined forces to place the needs of local communities at the center of project design and execution. We combined Stephanie’s research with advanced AI technology to create an innovative tool that enables on-demand high-quality data collection and analysis.
Today, Rural Senses’ team has grown and is now operating in East Africa and Israel. Our tools are already being used by several of the leading international NGOs, such as CLASP, Energy Saving Trust and more, to better understand local needs and rigorously measure impact.
What is your motivation to do what you do?
Development and humanitarian practitioners are inevitable - they dedicate their talents, skills and hard work to improve the lives of vulnerable communities. However, our analysis concludes that the majority of budget invested in development and humanitarian projects fails to create the intended long-term impact. We share the frustration practitioners feel when the invested efforts don’t result in a sustainable positive impact.
We want to fundamentally change this by providing project developers with the tools they need to make fast, reliable decisions that result in positive impact. We do this by offering insightful data on what is important in local communities.
COVID-19 has only made this need more pressing. In these times of global pandemic – when resources are more scarce – we must invest resources only into projects that are targeted to real needs and are most likely to achieve tangible impact.
What is special about your approach?
Thanks to local networks of data collectors, unique qualitative data collection techniques and AI-enhanced analysis, Rural Senses can provide deep unbiased insights faster and more cost effectively than other solutions. The insights provided include what is most important to vulnerable communities, what motivates them, their greatest challenges, cultural norms and traditional aspects. These insights are a unique and powerful tool for project planners, implementers and evaluators.
You have conducted a pilot in South Tel Aviv on mapping the needs of the Sudanese and Eritrean communities in Israel. Tell us what have you learned so far from your pilot?
Our results show that one of the most important elements in these communities is freedom of choice. Having the ability to choose what to do and where to go is a very strong need. It is understandable considering the past and future challenges these communities face.
This observation can have a very actionable outcome today when the Sudanese community members are requested to go and test for Covid-19. We notice that many of them refuse to go due to the obligation to comply with forced testing.
Applying the results of our analysis can help design a “call to test” that doesn’t threaten the freedom of choice and instead – empowers people to take an independent action. We invite organisations working with these communities in Israel to reach out to us and explore how to take these insights into action.
Thank you Yau for this inspiring story.
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