Two years ago this month, my colleague Julia Firestone and I got an email from Zizwani Mhango, a Zambian living in the UK who came across our work and wanted to chat about it. By chance on this call, we mentioned a “pie in the sky” idea from one of our co-founders, Mike Weiss, to use fingerprint data to track attendance data at our schools.
The idea had come about a year after struggling through our attendance data and analyzing it. It had become painstaking to track our students over time – daily attendance records weren’t entered into data systems until the end of the term, and it took an immense amount of human-power to transcribe it, match students over time, and analyze the information. Students names would be spelled differently each term, dates of birth were unknown, addresses were non-existent, and often times the registers were dusty and dirty from the term and difficult to read. See an example photo below! And by the time the team in Zambia saw summary data on how each school and teacher was doing, the next term was already underway.
It was around this time that we started increasingly seeing smartphones unlocked with people’s fingerprints. We did some initial research – the units were expensive, they weren’t designed to be used in dusty, rural conditions, and they often needed to be connected to the internet, which wasn’t an option for us. We talked about this with Zizwani, and he mentioned a startup non-profit he knew that was working to solve this exact issue.
A week later, we were on a call with Alexandra Grigore from Simprints discussing their product and its development. They were still in early stages, field testing different sensors for local conditions in developing nations. A month later, the Simprints team was planning to visit Zambia to include our students and parents in their field testing. Two months later, Dan Stori, Alexandra, and Zizwani were at Kanyelele Community School working with our communities.
All of this brings us to the last two weeks, where Helen Lundebye, James Thomas and Julia Kraus from Simprints, and our very own Alex Schilling, travelled to Zambia to roll out our attendance pilot. It’s the first of its kind being used for education purposes, and their time here was incredible! It started with training our management staff on the system, answering questions, and adjusting the work flow to meet their needs. Then, the management staff trained the teachers in the two schools for the pilot, showing their mastery over the program. And on Monday and Tuesday, we enrolled close to 700 students across two schools using the new system. This week, our teachers have been using the scanners to take accurate attendance electronically – our students line up for school, and scan their fingerprint as they enter. Once the database creation is complete, management staff from New York to Joel village will be able to see the attendance in each teacher’s class (including teachers themselves) over the week. We’ll be able to troubleshoot issues, track down students who have been absent, and work more closely with our communities. We’ll have accurate data in real-time, rather than unreliable data at the end of the term or year.
Over the last week, I have thought a lot about all of the little steps that got us to this point. A chance email from a Zambian living abroad. A coincidental connection to a startup organization. The follow-through on any number of individuals to have calls and really talk about our work honestly. The openness to new ideas and working with other organizations towards a common goal. Opening our schools and communities up to visitors.
This is the power of partnership.
- Reshma Patel, Executive Director