Archive for September, 2008

New institute to explore how world’s poor use technology to spend, store and save money

Friday, September 26th, 2008 by

A new institute was officially launched on Thursday, 18 September 2008, funded (US$1.7m) by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to explore how the world’s poor use technology to spend, store, and save money.   The Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion will be housed in the University of California at Irvine’s School of Social Sciences.

You might be wondering why so much money should be spent on academic study of a phenomena that has largely grown out of the innovation of people themselves in developing countries.   But if you look at this intitiative from the point of view of collecting evidence and conducting rigorous research about the needs of poor people and how they adopt and adapt new technologies then it will be very worthwhile.   It is also encouraging to read in the official press release that some money is to be spent in developing countries to support local research.

Reflect also on the issue that in the past research about how people use mobile banking might have been focussed on the main consumer markets in the world.   Here it would be axiomatic that the research was connected with driving profit in high value markets.   The context of the research of the new institute is clearly the world’s poor.   Often, in the past technology has been driven by the needs of high value markets.   Now, perhaps there is the opportunity to enable the technology to deliver on the needs of the poor.   First there needs to be systematic research into their needs.

A final thought: it would be good to see this research effort engage with the multiple stakeholders that will be needed to translate the research into practice.

Data collection via mobile phone combats polio in Kenya

Friday, September 19th, 2008 by

Collecting accurate, timely data from remote rural areas is a challenging problem.   A BBC report claims that health authorities in Kenya have successfully done just this and furthermore, that there has been a significant health improvement.   By monitoring patient symptoms and treatments, health workers claim to have stopped a polio epidemic.  The system has won the prestigious Stockholm Challenge for Health.   DataDyne.org, a not-for-profit consultantcy creating mobile information and communications technologies to serve public health and development, was also named a 2008 Tech Awards Laureate, one of 25 global innovators recognized each year for applying technology to benefit humanity and spark global change.   The World Health Organisation has announced that it is taking this system to a further 20 countries in Africa.

So what is the technology behind this success story?   EpiSurveyor is an open source software package that can be downloaded free of charge and changed by anyone to make it even better.   It runs on a mobile phone or a PDA.   Given that the mobile phone has spread to many poor communities in remote locations this becomes an existing platform from which to use the health application.

The story shows two things.   First that using an existing technology platform provides a way of spreading new technologies; and second, that open source software allows for more rapid spread of technology that can be tailored to local circumstances.

Some nano progress towards targets on clean water

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008 by

According to a UN report on the Millenium Development Goals (2008) there are still nearly 1 billion people without access to an improved water source.   The report goes on to suggest that if current progress is maintained the target of 89% having access to improved water supplies will be reached by 2015.   However, the broad picture hides some particularly challenging problems such as arsenic contamination in the Bay of Bengal and mercury contamination in the Andes of Peru.

Many existing technologies for water filtration require chemicals, high pressure (for example, in reverse osmosis) and need electricity.   The claimed advantages of nanotechnology based filters is a high flow rate and low cost.   Yet not many developing countries have any capability with nanotechnology.   Some of the work that Practical Action has done in the past, and is continuing in Peru is attempting to change this through a process of dialogue with all key stakeholders.

Scientists in Mumbai, India (reported by Cleantech) are working on developing water filters based on nanotechnology.   The carbon nanotube could be used to remove arsenic, fluoride, heavy metals and toxic organic chemicals.   But to get technologies difussed to the people who need them will require some co-ordinated effort by all stakeholders, including communities, scientists and NGOs.

It will also be important to ensure that the nanotechnologies are used in a way which does not harm the environment or people.   Let us hope that the scientists in India will work together with emerging groups like the Responsible Nano Forum.

Leapfrogging connectivity for the other 3 billion

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008 by

Today the BBC have a story that “Africans are to benefit from web plan“.   It is now well known that there are many more mobile phones in Africa than there are landlines.   This is often quoted as an example of “leapfrogging” over old technology straight into the latest new technology.  So can this happen again with Internet access, which is generally very slow in developing countries?

A plan by o3b networks have a mission to make the Internet accessible to everyone on the planet – hence the name – the other 3 billion.   Some well known businesses are supporting the venture, including HSBC and Google.   At first sight then, this seems to be a force for good.

The venture should surely be welcomed as a sign that business is getting involved in the provision of solutions to poverty.   But is it all positive news?   There is an assumption behind this venture that information (of itself) is a good thing.   But information is not neutral.  People need knowledge or “know how” and this is much more complicated to provide than raw data or information.   Sometimes information can effect the power balance in a community and that in turn can affect the culture and traditions.

I hope that o3b networks will work together with communities, NGOs and other stakeholders to enable meaningful knowledge and appropriate technologies to flow along their “pipelines”.

To BEE solar powered or not to BEE

Monday, September 8th, 2008 by

Today the drums are beating about BEE and worker BEE a newly developed solar powered communications hub/system.   BEE has been “developed by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in conjunction with their partners, to provide connectivity, information, and opportunity to people and communities in remote or emergency situations”.   Queen BEE and Worker BEE come in a package that will cost approximately US$6,000, although it is said that costs will come down with production at scale.

It is good that the BEE uses Linux and a range of open source software.  But why is there a need to re-invent the hardware when there are existing alternatives, such as Aleutia’s 4.5 inch solar powered Linux computer, E1. E1 that runs on 8 watts of power and costs $400.   Not to mention the whole range of ultra-portable laptops (see previous post on lilliputers).

More positive news is that the specifications and designs of the system are to be available as creative commons and open source.  That is a very positve step that should enable a whole industry of third party developers and manufacturers to contribute to the aims of the project.

I guess the real test will be the flavour of the honey produced by using these systems in the real world.   To that end UNICEF are hoping to test in five different locations.   Please let me know if you have a “hive” in mind.