How TownTalk is using data intelligence to make life safer for ordinary Nigerians
What do you do with a successful election intelligence tool once the voting’s over? If you’re TownTalk founder Folake Edun, you use the tool’s data and intelligence gathering capabilities to build an app that helps make life safer for everyday Nigerians.
“In the run-up to an election, we built a risk-based model for one of the candidates that combined crowdsourcing and online data scraping,” she says. “Using the model, we were able to give the candidate guidance on how the election was going in specific states.”
After the election, Edun and her team noticed that 95% of the predictions they’d made were accurate. They realised that the intelligence-gathering tools they’d built had serious potential and it was just a matter of finding the right business model. It didn’t take them long to land on security.
“Being in Nigeria, security is always at the back of your mind, especially as a woman,” she says. “It’s not just about knowing what the situation is like where you are, you also find yourself asking questions like ‘what do I do when I’m in trouble?’, ‘who do I call?’, ‘and if I do call someone, how effective will their response be?’.”
In a bid to provide answers to these questions, the TownTalk team started building an app that not only gives people the data they need to make intelligent decisions about their security and report incidents around them, but also an SOS emergency button so they can send messages to pre-registered contacts, and access a database of emergency responders.
According to Edun, that means that if, for example, an employee calls in a fire at their workplace, they can be sure that they’ll find the fire service closest to them and that they’ll be able to call the right number (not always a guarantee in a country where numbers change frequently).
“To further guarantee the response app users get, we're building partnerships with security providers,” she says. “With that, we give you access to these security providers, and then you pay for their services to provide emergency support to you when you need it.”
As Edun points out, however, TownTalk wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective as it is if it relied solely on online information.
“We couldn't just build a tool to crunch data, we had to take a step back and figure out how to get the data that we need to feed into our system,” she says. “We don't have the luxury of being able to just pull information from online sources because everyone's online and everyone's active.”
As a result, TownTalk has had to adopt a hybrid model where it collects both online and offline data. Its in-house intelligence team, for example, has a network of people on the ground who feed them information. It also has a USSD offering that allows people to report incidents. According to Edun, however, the most effective route is to get more users of the app online.
“We've tried to develop an app that uses as little data as possible and we actually reward people for providing incident information by providing them with mobile data,” she says.
When it comes to refining the app, Edun says that Google Analytics has been particularly helpful.
“One of the tools we use for crowdsourcing data is our mobile application Area!. To encourage users to join and participate on the app we do a lot of digital marketing,” says Edun. “We use Google Analytics to help us understand how best to target that marketing to ensure we’re reaching the right audience.”
In addition to Analytics, several other Google products and tools are crucial to TownTalk’s operations.
“We also use Google Drive and Google Productivity Tools (Google Docs, Google Sheets) to co-work,” says Edun. “We currently work mostly remotely and so a lot of collaborative work via online documents is required.”
The TownTalk founder also says that fundraising has been a challenge, particularly during the pandemic. In order to overcome that, TownTalk took on project work to help further fund the development of its tools.
In spite of those challenges, Edun says that building a solution that can bring peace of mind to ordinary Nigerians has been massively rewarding, especially given that she was the victim of an armed robbery 15 years ago.
“People actually using the information we provide to make informed decisions about their own security is definitely one of the most rewarding aspects of what we're doing,” she says. I personally never thought I'd leave a nine to five, I'm extremely risk-averse, but it’s been very fulfilling working on a problem that everyone can relate to.”