Simprints - Simple Fingerprint Identification for the Developing World

Tristram NormanTristram Norman is CTO of Simprints, a nonprofit that has created a simple, secure fingerprint identification system for a range of projects in developing countries. Tristram calls it "a social enterprise aimed at solving the identification gap in low resource settings." Simprints uses Balsamiq Mockups for quick, low-fidelity prototypes to test the software they develop with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) for their fingerprint scanner.

Simprints works like this:
Image credit: Simprints website.

Simprints is "the first fingerprint scanner designed for—and by—frontline workers [in developing countries]." It is rugged, yet affordable and has been validated by use in six countries across three continents in both urban and rural contexts.

One way it's being used is to encourage pregnant women to get pre-natal checkups by making it easier for them to provide proof of identity. You can read about this and other projects on their website.

Tristram was generous enough to answer some questions about his projects and experience. Read on...

Q&A with Tristram Norman

What industry do you work in, and what is your title or job description?

Software and hardware in the developing world. Specifically we build identity solutions for mobile health. I'm the CTO.

What are you working on right now?

We have two big projects currently; one in Nepal and one in Bangladesh. Both projects are working with pregnant mothers, about 30 thousand in each country. The objective is to increase the number and the accuracy of their visits. A pregnant woman is supposed to receive 4 pre-natal visits from a community health worker. They are incredibly important to spot early warning signs with the pregnancy. It's also incredibly important to have the previous records because things like blood pressure change during the pregnancy and you need to rate of change to make an accurate diagnosis.

What challenges do you face working in open source?

We have to think very carefully before we open source something.

Working in open source has many benefits, but it also comes with a large range of challenges as well. For us the biggest challenge is accountability. We have to think very carefully before we open source something about how could it be used for bad instead of good. This year ID4Africa was held in Rwanda to convey a powerful message; Identification is a key bottle neck in allowing people to improve the quality of their lives. But an identification system, such as the ID cards to distinguish Hutus and Tutsis, can be used for malicious purposes.

Simprints MockupsBalsamiq wireframes for the enrollment mobile app.

What challenges do you face working in developing countries with different views and experiences with technology?

Working in the developing world makes you think about technology very differently.

Working in the developing world makes you think about technology very differently. The first thing you notice immediately is that common things that we are used to do not mean the same thing for everyone. For example when we ran our first UI workshops in Nepal the Scanner had a thumbs up for GOOD and a thumbs down for BAD. This meant nothing to the Nepali community health workers.

What challenges do you face working with NGOs and governments?

Working with governments and NGOs can bring a lot of challenges to a startup. With governments/NGOs it's not always about cheaper and more efficient, there are many more factors at play. This makes it necessary to put a fair amount of time into making sure you have aligned strongly with what they are trying to accomplish before pitching or implementing a project. However the exchange here is you get a significant amount of transparency in return.

What suggestions do you have for someone looking to succeed in your role or industry?

Be genuine. It's an industry of people who want to help, but it's easy to lose track of all of that while trying to create a successful business.

What kinds of things are you excited about in your industry?

I am excited about the wide range of open source tools that are becoming available to the developing world.

Why and how do you use Balsamiq Mockups?

The key is to spend as little time as possible creating a wireframe so we can have a quick feedback cycle.

We use Balsamiq Mockups to rapidly prototype wireframe for tests. The key here is to spend as little time as possible creating a wireframe so we can have a quick feedback cycle before creating a rough draft of the screen itself. We use Balsamiq because it is one of the easiest wireframe tools we have found!

Do you have any feature ideas or suggestions for how we can improve our product(s)?

Yes. Balsamiq is great, but it's confusing having a web version and a native version. And they don't seem to link up so it took us a while to figure out who was working on what. The UI is amazing though. [Editor's note: We're working on it; not too much longer!]


Thank you, Tristram, for taking the time to answer our questions and share your lessons learned. We wish you continued success!

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