Photo via jackol
Recently, Changemakers reported on innovations in health, including Hilmi Quraishi’s mobile phone games that give teens points for knowing more about HIV/AIDS and prevention. Changemakers sat down with Quraishi to discuss his work founding and leading ZMQ Software Systems, which has created dozens of games and technology solutions for the social sector, including ones that raise awareness about climate change and that address the UN’s Millennium goals, such as sanitation, clean water, and children’s health.
Changemakers: What was the idea behind ZMQ?
Quraishi: ZMQ is almost 10 years old now. Around 2004 or 2005, India was experiencing an epidemic of HIV/AIDS. It was a huge issue then, and still is in both India and the developing world. In our search for how to reach people with information about the disease, we started developing mobile-based games on HIV/AIDS.
We realized that popular games, like cricket or Who Wants to be Millionaire, could be converted into simple, user-friendly mobile games that also carried messages about HIV/AIDS facts and prevention. The games were done in 16 different languages spoken in India (including Hindi and other regional languages).
Later on, we were able to partner with a popular mobile operator, Reliance, to have these games distributed for free to all their subscribers. We made it free, because our intent was to create mass awareness of a very serious health issue. After three years, we were reaching almost 42 million handsets.
Changemakers: How did you expand into Africa?
Quraishi: After our initial success, we replicated the model from India in East Africa — Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The games also dealt with HIV/AIDS awareness, and the project was a big hit there as well.
Since then, we have used mobile games (offered either at a very low cost or for free) as a medium of communication, and today we are a part of a number of government and social sector campaigns in India and Africa, including government campaigns dealing with tuberculosis, family planning, climate change, maternal health, child health, pollution, and hygiene.
We are now able to reach almost 115 million people with our various campaigns; these games can be played not only in India and East Africa, but also in West Africa, Mali, and Senegal.
Changemakers: Can you share a bit more about how these games work to spread awareness? What’s an example of a way that a game can be used to generate meaningful change?
Quraishi: Games embedded with messages are one way of really bombarding people with information about HIV/AIDS. We track the scores earned by users and their gaming behavior to determine whether the games have successfully changed their level of awareness.
In terms of the how the games work, some games are simple and fast, but addictive. These attract novice users. Other popular games like cricket, available on mobiles in India, or football for Africa, have strategic messaging connected to each of the user’s actions. In the cricket game, scoring a run also gets you a message about how you can prevent HIV/AIDS.
We even have roleplaying games that highlight decision-making and real-life learning. For example, a player might take on the character of a girl coming from a village to the city. Maybe she meets her cousins and invites them to go to a party, et cetera. Through the game, we can invite the user to roleplay decision-making in situations they might encounter in the real world.
And then through the mobile games, we are able to create and map what I call “virtual behavior change.” At the beginning of each game, the user must first answer a questionnaire with 5 yes-or-no questions on, for example, HIV/AIDS. Once you’ve play the game 10 times (or for a month), we are able to see how your answers have changed — whether you’ve gotten more questions right, etcetera.
It’s virtual learning. It’s difficult to gauge how a person would behave in real life, but in terms of knowledge, users do get information that makes them more aware, and the games do combat ignorance. It’s the first step to making positive behavioral changes.
Changemakers: Are there other ways that mobile technology can be used to deliver the information that people need?
Quraishi: Mobile applications are a new opportunity. For example, we are running a campaign in India targeting women who are expectant mothers. With support from the Ministry of Health, all expectant mothers who are mobile users and registered with the government health program will be getting messages on a weekly basis about the “dos and don’ts” of pregnancy, such as nutrition, medicine, and tests.
We also give them a very small graphical image of the baby growing inside on a weekly basis. It is another mode of giving information, where the majority of our content is basically in iconic language. You can download audio narration, because 80 to 85 percent of women in the villages are either illiterate or semi-literate. So icons can be very powerful tools to provide information on critical health issues.
Changemakers: What exciting changes are you seeing on the horizon or do you feel need to happen in the citizen media space?
Quraishi: Citizen media is a very powerful tool, although its usage has come under scrutiny. At the moment, we are seeing this as something very positive, but whether it could be used for something negative is uncertain. At this moment its power is that it can change anything in one instant — as happened in Morocco, Egypt, and also in Libya.
Mobile phones can really change the system. We’re also working on another game to help make people aware of the election process and their rights. It’s just a pilot on a district scale at the moment, but we are working on getting 75 ministers of India to participate to in a public-polling iniatitive. The game allows people to vote on the ministers’ performance. We also have a specialized campaign for women to encourage those in rural areas to vote from their homes using the mobile phones.
Changemakers: Thanks so much taking the time to speak. Do you have any final thoughts or hopes for our Citizen Media competition?
Quraishi: Citizen Media has huge potential. The Changemakers competition is going to surface a lot of newcomers – all new innovations happen basically at the lower end, by start-ups, so I am sure it will be a very good launching pad for those who are doing very innovative work which may not have been noticed yet. So this platform will be the chance for start-ups to debut their citizen media ideas and innovations in a global forum.