Hacking For Good: IDEO.org Cleans Up Kumasi With Twilio

Robin Bigio

Flying 7,500 miles from San Francisco to Ghana wasn’t new to Robin Bigio. He worked in Tanzania architecting new cookstoves and in Kenya building scalable water and hygiene businesses as part of IDEO.org’s Fellowship Program. But, Robin’s project in Kumasi, Ghana was a little different.

His team’s goal was to address public defecation with the help of community members, and a Twilio powered app. He used Twilio SMS and Voice, to collect information and organize Kumasi residents to “change the tide” on public defecation.

He had a prototype, he had a team, and he had a general idea of where they’d deploy the app. Over the course of ten days, Robin and his team would meet with assemblymen, community members, scrap their app prototype, rebuild that prototype, and get it running again. But first, let’s start at the beginning — the hackathon.

The Hackathon

IDEO.org hosted their first hackathon back in November, inviting developers, engineers and architects to brainstorm ways to combat public defecation. After a day of hammering out objectives, and framework, they had an idea they were ready to build into a prototype. Here’s how the prototype worked:

  • Residents text a Twilio Powered SMS number to report public defecation sites
  • The data is logged into a Google Spreadsheet, along with the numbers of residents who texted in
  • Each site gets a Facebook Page to raise awareness and post updates
  • IDEO.org organizes community meetings with app users to discuss next steps

That was the plan, and things did not go as planned.

Arriving In Ghana

mappShortly after arriving in Kumasi, Ghana, the IDEO.org team began preparing for the app’s launch. They talked with residents, and hung signs explaining what the app does and how to use it.

Just six days after arriving, the app they named “Cleaner Kumasi” was up and running. Texts were coming in, and Kumasi residents were talking. Four days after the launch, they called everyone who participated and organized a community meeting.

The Pivot

The Kumasi community made a few things abundantly clear: SMS wasn’t their preferred form of communication, and they did not want to pay to send texts. Some residents preferred to communicate in English, some preferred Twi, and some struggled with literacy. The IDEO.org team would need to change the app’s language and the signs to make them bilingual and graphical. Most importantly, residents didn’t see any point in reporting public defecation because it was everywhere. Reporting every incident seemed foolish to them.

The new app needed to focus on data collection and community organizing, not reporting. Robin and his team ran with the information, and quickly rewrote everything from the TwiML to the signs.


Twilio Cleaner KumasiThe IDEO.org team shipped new code, and transitioned their SMS app to become a Twilio Voice app. But, Kumasi residents didn’t want to call the app, they preferred to flash it. Flashing is a means of mobile communication where the caller dials a number and hangs up before it rings. The person on the other end receives a missed call, but the caller doesn’t get charged.

When residents flash the Cleaner Kumasi number, Twilio logs the number, and automatically calls them back. They’re asked if they’d like to take a survey in English or Twi. Then, they can report their location and answer questions about public defecation in their area.

Next Steps

With the app up and running, Robin and his IDEO.org team are now back in San Francisco. The app continues to be operated in Kumasi by IDEO.org’s on-the-ground project partner, Water + Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP). If the pilot is successful, the Clean Kumasi project could be granted additional funding by USAID, which would allow WSUP to scale the ap to other communities in Kumasi and potentially beyond.

Twilio is proud to sponsor and support IDEO.org’s fellowship program and their humanitarian work in Ghana. For more information on non-profit sponsorships email Community@twilio.com

For the latest updates on how IDEO.org cleans up Kumasi, stay tuned to the Twilio blog.
Visit IDEO.org here, and check out their recap of their work in Ghana here.

  • Israel Agyeman-Prempeh

    It is funny how as a Ghanaian and app developer I am rather considering making the next groundbreaking silicon-valley app when there are solutions like this that can be developed with the right people and technology…thanks Robin ‘wabie m’ani’ (you have enlightened me – in twi)