Blogs tagged as ICTs

  • Local solutions to local problems

    July 30th, 2012
    Gwanda community meeting

    Gwanda community meeting

    The Secretary General of the FAO came to Harare today. According to the papers his most important message was that Zimbabwe should be seeking local solutions to local problems.

    This echoes a meeting I had with the FAO just a couple of days back. FAO are excited about our podcasting work. They are currently funding the creation of a post-harvest handbook for farmers and extension workers in the local Nbele language. Now we are talking about breaking down that manual into audio chunks – podcasts – which can be played to the local communities.

    Our meeting got exciting as I started to think about the Practical Answers website becoming a repository for podcasts in local languages from throughout the Southern African region. Part of our project is to capture the local knowledge – in danger of being lost as older generations die out. If we could harness the power of all our partner NGOs to capture this knowledge – upload it and then share it we could reach hundreds of thousands of people. To make the project sustainable we could even create a subscription service where NGOs and others contribute to the costs of the service but the information is made freely available to the people who need it.

     We’ll see how this one develops but it’s another sign of how powerful our knowledge sharing service already is, but also what the potential for further growth is.

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  • ICT outreach in Zimbabwe

    July 26th, 2012

    Gwanda knowledge nodeThe Ministry of ICT in Zimbabwe have three digital programmes. They want to encourage e-government (improving their own webistes etc.), e-learning (equipping schools) and they are interested in setting up Community Information Centres, where people can gain one stop access to a whole heap of services and information. It is this last initiative which Practical Action is interested in partnering with.

    Fibre is a relatively recent arrival in Zimbabwe – previous the only connection to the internet was via satellite and microwave links. In the last couple of years two new companies have brought the internet through fibre cable – and now all the major roads seem to have a recently completed trench at the side deomnstrating the progress of the fibre cable to different towns.

    The idea of the Ministry is to use a handful of public buildings (possibly Post Offices) to host these community information centres. Our contribution would be to create a technical information point for our Practical Answers service where people could view our technical briefs, ask questions of trained staff, view “how to” videos and listen to podcasts.

    Working with the government in Zimbabwe is of course fraught with challenges – nothing in Zimbabwe is apolitical. But equally you can’t build any kind of communications infrastructure without government endorsement. So as we go forwards we will need to ensure that whatever partnership we come to, our independence is assured.

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  • Technology everywhere…but will it reach the poor?








    As dawn breaks in 2012 we enter the season of technology forecasting.   What will new technologies bring us in 2012 and beyond?  Most of these forecasts seem to dwell on the fortunes of the developed world.   What about the majority of humanity (4 billion people live on less than US$5 per day)?

    IBM put forward five forecasts for 2016, ( one of these is that the digital divide will end.   Whilst it is likely that more people in Asia and Africa will be able to own a cell phone or connect to the Internet it would be stretching credulity to suggest that these same people will have a similar level of affordability of digital technologies as those living in the developed world.   Currently, in India there are 1.2 billion people who are not connected to the Internet.   Most of these people live in rural areas where there may be a lack of ability to pay and a lack of access to electricity.   So the digital divide in terms of affordable, accessible and appropriate devices is unlikely to be at an end by 2016.   More needs to be done on energy access and on education to build the capabilities needed to use the technology.

    In remote rural areas of developing countries few people have access to electricity.   So ownership of a mobile phone might be a measure of “connectedness” or even of “progress” but if the phone can only be charged after a walk of 10 kilometres we may argue that there is a lack of appropriate accessible technology.   A second important prediction relates to bio fuel cells ( reported by the BBC as “power from the people”.   Perhaps that could be re-phrased as “power to the people”.   Yet, in all likelyhood the applications of this new technology will be in medical appliances in developed countries.   What if resources were put into developing this technology as an alternative, local power supply for rural communities in developing countries?

    Technology will likely bring much that is new and exciting in 2012 and beyond.   What can we do to increase the probability that these technologies will be applied to real need in developing countries?   We need to work together with scientists to ensure that technologies are accessible, affordable and appropriate to the needs of people.   Only then can we approach a state of technology justice in the world.


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  • Local voices heard in Zimbabwe

    November 18th, 2011


    At a second community near Gwanda the loudspeakers, carefully placed on a wheelbarrow delivered messages about the local governance of the recently installed water pump.  The language was Sotho, so my Shona speaking colleague was unable to translate for me.
    However, it was clear that the borehole and pump were transforming the livelihoods of the community.  There was a very genuine desire to learn. The knowledge sharing in local voices was clearly owned by the community extensionist, an elected member of the community.
    Going beyond technology the digital extension service is building a community driven process of change.

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  • Can you repeat that?

    November 18th, 2011


    We visited communities in Gwanda south to discuss their information needs.  They told us that water was their biggest problem. We listened to a podcast about water, in their local language.
    We then asked them what they liked about the podcast and they said being able to listen again. This is something that all communities have welcomed.

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  • Can you repeat that?

    November 11th, 2011


    We visited communities in Gwanda south to discuss their information needs.  They told us that water was their biggest problem. We listened to a podcast about water, in their local language.
    We then asked them what they liked about the podcast and they said being able to listen again. This is something that all communities have welcomed.

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  • Resilience is a state of mind

    November 8th, 2011

    Today has been an adventure. Leaving Harare our mission was to reach Gwanda where we are doing podcasting with the local communities. It turned out not to be so simple… As we watched the radiator water boil over, my sympathy was with the vehicle, after all temperatures were over 35C.  But the only concern for Lawrence was “we can’t let the communities down”.  That is true resilience…that our staff show every minute of every day.

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  • Can the capabilities approach help us frame technology injustice?

    If you think this question is only of “academic interest” then read on.   At the Human Development and Capability Association conference in Den Haag, The Netherlands I put this question before a group of donors, practitioners, and academics.   I wanted to start a conversation about how we can move away from the traditional ways of thinking about development and economies.   How do we address the twin issues of sustainability and inter-generational equity?

    Sen[i] writes about social injustice and challenges much of the conventional approach to economics with his emphasis on well-being and capabilities.

    Practical Action has had a focus on the use of technology to challenge poverty for the past 40 years, inspired by the vision of the economist Schumacher[ii] and based on the notion of intermediate technology.   Currently Practical Action is considering how it can best use the idea of technology justice to form a campaign and movement for change.   How can the capabilities approach help us to frame technology injustice?

    Here are four practical advantages of using a capabilities approach to frame (and/or communicate) the idea of technology justice:

    1. It would allow us to challenge the assumptions of economic growth as a driver for human development.
    2. We could identify unanticipated outcomes (both positive and negative) of our interventions.
    3. It is a values based approach that promotes transparency.
    4. By using a process based approach we can learn about injustice that results from the negative impact of technologies.

    Overall a capabilities approach is normative which fits in with the notion of developing a movement against technology injustices in the world.   Let’s keep the conversation going…

    [i] Sen, A. (2009) The Idea of Justice, Allen Lane: London.

    [ii] Scumacher, E.F. (1973) Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Abacus Press: London.

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  • Text symrabies to 4321

    “Check this out”, Deepak, Nepal’s Head of the Markets and Livelihoods Programme called over to me. When I came over, he had his phone in his hand, texting ‘pai symrabies’ to 4321. Immediately he got a text back: ‘Aggressive, drooling, choking sound, sensitive to noise and movements, lack of appetite and excessive sleeping. SMS “treatrabies” to 4321 for treatment options’.

    Of course we texted ‘treatrabies’, and we got this message back: ‘Isolate animal. Do not touch or come in contact with Saliva. Call vet or para vet. SMS “vet” and your location number. E.g. “vet1” if you are in Dullu’.

    The next text had a couple of names, addresses and phone numbers.

    This text messaging service is part of a new project in Nepal called Access to Information (A2I). You can see that it’s new because Deepak’s demonstration is not completely ready. Shortly the service will have its own dedicated number and once that’s set up, you won’t have to put ‘pai’ in front of your requests. That just stands for ‘Practical Action Information’ and is required because 4321 is Focus One’s number. Focus One is the company behind text message horoscopes and dating compatibility tests in Nepal. Who better to partner with to deliver a virtual encyclopedia of information for agriculture, livestock-rearing, and foraging of non-timber forest products to the poor!?

    Each text costs 3 Nepali Rupees, that’s about 2 pence. Of that, 2 rupees go to NTC, the national mobile network. Half a rupee goes to Focus One, and half a rupee comes back to Practical Action. The reason for that half rupee coming back to us is that we hope the demand for the service will grow enough to pay for a permanent person to keep the system up to date. So this model is built for sustainability.

    And it’s built for scale. The service works anywhere in the country.

    Practical Action Nepal is drawing on its network of experts in agriculture in the government and private sector to feed the system with up-to-date information about market prices, disease outbreaks, local weather forecasts and much more.

    A lot of this information is already out there, publicly available, but the problem is that poor people out in the hills and mountains, who could really make use of it, can’t get hold of it. Like everything Practical Action does, the need came before the idea. Practical Action Nepal has drawn on a wealth of analysis conducted with the participation of poor farmers to find out what their biggest problems are. Lack of basic information is one of the biggest issues.

    All well and good, but what happens if you don’t have a phone. Good question. Although Nepal’s phone ownership has been growing nearly exponentially in the last few years, it’s still fairly low compared to other countries, including those in Africa. Furthermore the distribution of phones is heavily weighted towards the urban population, and in rural areas towards those in the service sector. That’s why for A2I, this mobile text messaging service and its sister Voice Messaging (VM) service are not intended to reach the last mile.

    (The last mile is part of Practical Action’s development-speak. It means that last distance (spatial, economic, social…) between those doing ok in difficult situations, and those that aren’t. Reaching those that aren’t – that last mile – is what Practical Action is all about.)

    A2I’s text messaging and VM services are designed for local animal health workers, agricultural service providers and community forest chairpersons to access useful information. In many places these are the only people reaching the last mile and providing them with advice. A2I’s services are designed to help them provide the last mile with much, much better, up-to-date, advice.

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  • Phones overtake radio in ownership by the poor

    May 31st, 2011

    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.

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