On Tuesday this week I attended a conference in London sponsored by DFID, the Omidyar Network (set up by the founder of the on line shopping empire eBay) and WIRED magazine. The topic of the conference was the use of new communications technology (social media, mobile phones and the web) to promote open government, transparency, participation and development. It was a high profile conference with a video message form the UK Prime Minister and a speech by the new UK Secretary of State for Development Justine Greening. More information on the conference itself can be found at www.openup12.org or on twitter at #OpenUp12 . DFID is clearly interested in this area and used the occasion to announce a new $50m fund created together with USAID and SIDA called Making All Voices Count to support the development of web and mobile technologies in developing countries that can empower citizens.
At the conference there were some interesting examples of social media being used to promote transparency. The Ushahidi platform which was initially developed after the violence of the 2008 Kenyan elections was one. It allows individuals to post information by SMS, MMS or via the web about election irregularities, intimidation, violence etc. to create a real time map of problems that is available on line and which can be used to force government to take action. Ushadhidi has since been used in the Ugandan and Congo elections and in various disasters including the Haitian earthquake. The Ushadhidi platform (and another simpler version called crowdmap which can be set up and used in a few minutes) are open source and can be downloaded and used for free and have the potential to be used for non-emergency situations as well where you want large numbers of people to contribute to information that could be displayed on a map (for example – latest market prices for tomatoes at different town centres or the location of broken water points or villages without electricity connections). There was also an interesting presentation on the use of Facebook and Twitter in Nigeria to co-ordinate political protest.
One thing that struck me during the many presentations and discussions was that, just as in the real work, in the digital world there are many technology injustices. For example, depending on whose statistics you believe, in Africa, out of a population of over 1 billion people, somewhere between 400 and 750 million people have access to a mobile phone. But the cost of use, the level of connectivity, and the availability of electricity to recharge phones means that 90% of those people use less than 1 MB of data a month (in comparison the average data consumption in Europe and the US is between 150 and 400MB per person per month). This means most people are not really able to use the technology to access and exchange information beyond the most basic level.
It also means that when we are talking about a new wave of political engagment through the use of social media, be it during the “Arab Spring” or the co-ordination of political protests in Nigeria, we are talking essentially about political engagment by a relatively small ‘middle class’ urban group, who has the connectivity and who can afford the telephone bills. There is a danger, as one participant of the conference noted during a question, that we overestimate the power of social media to change the balance of power and give voice to the marginsalised. Its use (at least at the moment) is just as likely to simply accrue more power and voice to those who already have it.
There is also a digital technology gender injustice to contend with as 300 million more men than women have access to mobile phones world-wide.
Practical Action is certainly not Luddite in its approach to new technology. Around the world we are increasingly using social media and the web in our programme work, most obviously in Practical Answers, where we see the use of the web and YouTube videos in Latin America to provide information to farmers, podcasting in Peru, Zimbabwe and Nepal to get recordings out beyond the reach of the internet, SMS messaging for agricultural help lines in Nepal and Bangladesh, and mobile phone networks being used to provide advanced warning of floods in Nepal.
But we need to remeber that social media technology alone is no panecea and cannot, without other parallel action, overcome the more fundamental causes of poverty. You can’t join a twitter protest campaign if you live in a place that has no electricity to charge your phone!No Comments » | Add your comment
Climate change for a long time now has stopped being a question of ‘if…’ and more a matter of ‘how much’ (and the answer to that currently isn’t very nice).
To deal with this, enter technologies. They fall into three categories:
1) Mitigation – reducing emission from human activities, from home efficiency devices to renewables and nuclear energy;
2) Adaptation – ways of dealing with the impacts of varying rainfall, temperature, sea level rise and increased frequency and magnitude of disaster events. Most urgent for the poorest groups and those in low lying states where the most vulnerability lies, but planning is also under way for London, Durban, and other developed cities.
3) Geo-engineering – large and unproven projects to remove carbon from the atmosphere or reflect the solar radiation. Includes; ocean iron fertilization projects; mirrors in space; pipes; dreams.
Arguably, the most iconic climate change related technology is the wind turbine, used for clean energy generation. Less is known about the possibility of mirrors in space, and probably for the best. But adaptation technologies are equally mysterious for many people in developed countries. This is springs from a lack of awareness that people in developing countries feel climate change most acutely – “first and worst”.
Nevertheless, adaptation is happening spontaneously as people respond to the altered conditions they find in their area. Technologies, whether used to diversify livelihoods or protect assets, can make this easier, but people will also have to adapt their technologies in order to keep them appropriate.
Enter climate uncertainty – not knowing precisely how climate change will manifest in a specific area over the next two-three decades – and you have a problem that requires new ways of thinking about technology and a new way of doing development.
Today’s Geek Club (Practical Action’s online discussion forum) from 10am to 4pm will discuss the issues of technology for adaptation. This is set against the back drop of the current round of climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, where countries are discussing proposals for ‘technology transfer’ to developing countries to support adaptation. Come and join us as we consider the how, what, and why not of adapting to climate change.No Comments » | Add your comment
Over the next strategy period the activities of Practical Action should lead us to being located in the top right hand quadrant of the grid. This would be consistent with the narrative. The diagram below shows that there are many routes to that position. The overall “space” in which we need to move is shown in blue as the technology strategy space. At one extreme, route A would launch debates about technologies while route B would increase the innovative use of technologies in projects. In reality both of these routes can be followed at the same time.
Let us know what you think by entering into the conversation…No Comments » | Add your comment
LirneASIA have just published a report based on survey data in South Asia which concludes that more people at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) own a phone than a radio. So the traditional channel of knowledge sharing with the poor has now been overtaken by the phone. Interestingly, most respondents had never heard or used the Internet. What is the implication for our knowledge sharing work?
Clearly we need to use a multi-channel approach. Information in local voices that might have been broadcast or podcast now needs to be supplemented with the mobile phone. This will increase the reach of our knowledge in both scale and geography. My hope is that we can work with the m:labs network to develop the mobile channel to our knowledge that currently resides in Practical Answers.3 Comments » | Add your comment
There is some skepticism about how mobile apps can really reach poor people. After all surely it is the market that decides what apps are developed and that essentially is a supply push approach. Also, as noted by some earlier commentators on this blog…many people do not have smartphones. This second concern is most easily dismissed: the end user may only need a phone capable of SMS messaging services. The newly launched m-farm service in Kenya relies on this “lowest common denominator” approach: the whole system uses web sites, smartphones, and SMS but the interface with farmers in the field is with SMS.
The first concern is more serious. How can we enable m-app development to be demand led? This is the conversation I have been having here in Helsinki with the leaders of the m:labs for east and southern africa. My suggestion is that workshops of stakeholders be convened. At such workshops there would be poor communities, computer software experts, NGO’s, and scientists. The focus of workshops would be on problems and how solutions might be designed. The potential business models would also be considered at this early stage. In this way we may have the opportunity to enable the development of m-apps to genuinely deliver benefits to poor people.1 Comment » | Add your comment
But as I watched teams on The Apprentice create some pretty pointless apps the other week, I wondered how we could harness the potential of apps to do something far more useful…like transforming the lives of poor people across the world!
I recently stumbled across “M-Farm”, a Kenyan initiative that aims to give rural farmers a fairer deal when selling their produce. It gives real-time market prices for crops and matches up farmers with buyers, cutting out costly brokers and middle-men. Some Kenyan farmers report that their profits have risen by half since subscribing to M-Farm.
Here’s another one: iCow, a voice-based mobile app that allows farmers to track the fertility stages of their cows in an effort to better manage breeding periods as well as monitor cow nutrition leading up to the calving day. Winner of last year’s Apps 4 Africa contest, an effort to encourage local developers to build apps to improve life quality in Africa, iCow uses a series of voice prompts and text messages to update farmers during the course of the yearly cow cycle.
Now imagine if we could create a ‘suite of apps’ that would provide people a kit that contains everything needed to successfully operate specific businesses appropriate to their area?
I could go on but I’m going to save it for the next Geek Club meetup on Wednesday 1st June because ‘How can mobile phone apps reduce poverty?’ is the topic of the month.
So,if you’re not familiar with the Geek Club, it’s an online monthly meetup to discuss different topics related to technology and how we can use it to transform the lives of poor people across the world. Come and join the conversation…we’re interested to hear your ideas!4 Comments » | Add your comment
I have just read an inspiring article on BBC News about a Chinese farmer who for decades was ridiculed by his neighbours for his obsession with building robots out of bits of broken farm machinery and other material he had to hand. Then he entered and won a competition for entrepreneurs, got backing for his business and now employs 50 people making custom build robots. His neighbours are impressed.
I loved the story because its great example of how ingenuity can be found everywhere, people have dreams they want to make their lives better and for some people at least all they lack is opportunity.
The people Practical Action works with are keen to work for a better future for themselves and their families. Often new ideas come from the communities sometimes from Practical Action – simple ideas can make a huge difference – zeer pot fridges, low smoke cook stoves, gravity ropeways cutting trecherous journeys from hours to a few minutes and a particular favourite technology of mine, hibiscus pickers (a simple way to protect the value of your crop). Like the robot man in China we too see lives transformed.
Let’s celebrate ingenuity!No Comments » | Add your comment
We use ‘gadgets’ to transform the lives of poor people across the world so we were thrilled to have been invited to appear at the Gadget Show Live 2011 – one of the UK’s biggest tech expos.
Anyone who’s ever been involved in a show like this will know how much hard work goes into it but somehow, miraculously, it all comes together at the 11th hour. The Practical Action stand was no different – it was like Challenge Anneka trying to get everything done from scratch in a month but the stress was worth it!
Almost from the moment the show opened its door, it was packed. Lots of people visited our stand each day, taking great interest in the technologies we had on display. Find out more about these technologies here.
”Really glad I stumbled across you. These (technical briefs) are the best thing I’ll take home with me today.” Engineer at the Gadget Show
Gadget Show presenter Ortis Deley has recently become a Practical Action supporter and spent quite a bit of time on our stand. He even made a video with us. You can watch it here.
We asked visitors to unite and help us ‘exterminate’ poverty using the innovative use of technology. The daleks even joined our call!
Our geek glasses went down a storm with lots of kids (and big kids!). Our geek quiz was also a big hit!
Despite the flocking crowds on the Practical Action stand, we managed to slip off and see what else was on offer. The answer – lots and lots of toys!
There was an overwhelming amount of gadgets, with varied prices and functions. So much choice that I found it hard to choose just one thing to buy! It made me realise that we’re lucky to have such a choice…not everyone has that luxury. How can we ensure that all of humanity can have a choice about the technology they use. We need to continue that conversation and we hope you will join us at the Geek Club, an online meet-up to talk about using technology to challenge poverty. It’s an opportunity to meet like-minded people, share ideas and learn more about our work. So why not give it a go?No Comments » | Add your comment
Last week we gave you the chance to win tickets to the Gadget Show Live in Birmingham.
To win a pair of tickets and see the latest and greatest gadgets around, we asked you to tell us “What is your favourite Practical Action technology and why?”
We had some fantastic answers, including lots of love for the floating gardens in Bangladesh:
“My favourite Practical Action technology has to be the floating gardens in Bangladesh. It’s simple and yet revolutionary for a group of people who are only able to choose between moving away for work or starving until the monsoon floods recede from their land. This technology not only uses locally sourced and totally eco-friendly materials, but it takes very little investment for a guaranteed source of food and possibly income. What was once an unavoidable vulnerability for these communities, and has the potential to only increase with climate change, has been greatly mitigated against by this brilliant little idea!”
“My favourite Practical Action technology is the floating gardens. I think that this is a fantastic solution – something which seems so easy when you think about it but it’s clear that without Practical Action this wouldn’t be in place, providing a key solution to counties such as Bangladesh in the monsoon season.”
Well done to Susan Corless and Jessica Mordue who won our competition!
If you’ve already got tickets for Sunday then come and see us at stand F32 in Hall 12. Join the Practical Action Geek Club www.practicalaction.org/geek and see some other examples of ‘gadgets’ we use to transform the lives of poor people across the world.
We’d love to hear your Gadget Show Live highlights and what you think about our presence. Send us a tweet to @practicalaction or leave a comment below.No Comments » | Add your comment
The gadget show live at the NEC is expecting 100,000 visitors. All, no doubt excited by the prospect of ever newer faster, smarter, smaller gadgets that will transform our daily lives. Or will they? To truly transform our lives there would have to be some quantum leap in functionality that the gadget could deliver. But this is unlikely to be the case with most of the gadgets at the show. Most of the visitors will, I imagine, already have a digital camera, a music player, and a mobile phone. So will the newly acquired gadget simply be a fashion accessory?
What would a gadget do for someone living in poverty in a rural area of Nepal or Zimbabwe without access to electricity? Here a gadget may enable a family to access clean drinking water, irrigate their crops or cook dinner without creating smoke that would damage their health. The key difference between “them and us” is that for “them” there is often no choice. There is either no money to buy a gadget or no gadget available. For “us” the choice is almost too much…overwhelming amounts of gadgets, with varied prices and functions.
My hope is that those who take an interest in gadgets will pause to think about “them” and ask “how can we make technology choices open to all in the world?”No Comments » | Add your comment