Let me introduce you to my Granny:
She was born in Ireland in 1921. When she was a child, the passing of a car caused excitement and she had never seen an aeroplane. In summer she walked five miles to school in bare feet and stopped going altogether when she was in her early teens because she had to look after her six younger siblings. Dublin, 60 miles to the south, was a day away and people who had left for America to find work were rarely seen again.
Fast forward 80 years…
I am delighting in her reaction to my mobile phone (‘Bejesus’), my instantly emailed messages to friends around the world (Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’) and anything to do with the internet (‘I just don’t understand how it can work’).
My Granny died five years later and trying to understand the concept of wireless broadband and Skype would have made her brain explode anyway. But what makes me remember this conversation in particular is her question afterwards: “Why, despite all this, are there are still millions of poor people in the world (‘cos it’s disgusting’)?”
Fast forward ten more years…
I’m writing this while travelling on a train at more than 100 miles an hour. At this speed my home town of Coventry is an hour away from London and people travel more than 200 miles every day for eight hours’ work.
That alone is staggering, but a pint of strong cider (it is 10pm) combined with the fact I can simultaneously travel, blog and surf the internet fills me with awe.
My Granny was right, of course. It is disgusting that I can do all this while people elsewhere can’t feed their children. Yet her life gives me hope. Hope, because there are parallels to draw between some developing countries now and the Ireland of the 1920s. She was born into a civil war and poverty, but she gave her children a full education and got (what was then) a high-tech factory job. Her children, nieces and nephews became teachers, professors, doctors and nurses.
This is due to the technological progress made in her lifetime. The development of infrastructure and technology has made farming, travel and communications more efficient in Ireland and enabled the Irish to solve their political and economic problems and (banking aside) focus on what they do best.
Similar economic development has been repeated elsewhere – in Portugal, Turkey and China. And as I sit here I think if I can help enable us to achieve technology justice in every region Practical Action operates in, my Granny’s wide-eyed wonderment would finally be complete.No Comments » | Add your comment
“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.No Comments » | Add your comment
For a number of years now, we have been helping to give people access to electricity through small hydro-electric schemes, which take the water from a stream, channel it into pipes. A water jet coming from the pipe drives a turbine, which in turn generates electricity. After the water has driven the turbine, it can be returned to the stream, or in some cases then used for irrigation. Typically a scheme might give power to a small community of 40 or 50 households.
I’ve visited some of these schemes, and it’s amazing what a difference an electricity supply can make. I went to one village where, a few years after the scheme was installed, people talked to me about the difference it had made to their lives. Electric lights had replaced candles which was far better for school homework (important if school is a one hour walk away); lots of people had bought a mobile phone, since it was now possible to charge them; the clinic had lights for the labour ward, and a fridge for vaccines; the school had its first computer; and one villager had set up a small wood turning business.
We invest a lot of time and effort to ensure that schemes like this are well maintained, and so I am confident that they will still be going 20 or 30 years more.
It’s amazing that we can achieve all of this change from one simple piece of technology, and even more amazing that it’s all powered from water!1 Comment » | Add your comment
I’ll come clean: I was a very poor no-techy.
My No Tech Day endeavour was broken even before I woke up, when my radio alarm came on automatically (as it always does) and I spent a full hour pleasurably listening in for a snug Saturday morning – before remembering that this was breaking The Rules! I immediately felt the loss switching it off: the sounds and voices that emanate from my digital radio provide an accompaniment to my life – and source of information and engagement (Radio 4 all the way!).
I managed to do without my computer. Which, in many ways, was neither here nor there. I caught up on emails and internet banking on Sunday instead of Saturday; and was glad to be free from wasted hours surfing the net, watching Youtube and playing mindless games of solitaire. No, I have no trouble banishing my computer away into its case. For a day. A full weekend? That would be a different story!
I didn’t do so well on the mobile phone front. On Friday night, my aunt, uncle and small cousins made a short-notice suggestion to visit for the day on Sunday; there were arrangements to be made, and I had to postpone alternative plans for a visit to London. Nope, couldn’t do without my mobile phone that day: I am truly beholden. This is the real value of modern communications technologies: they’ve allowed us to make plans at the last minute, without much need for advanced forethought. Hurrah for that!
Finally, two technologies that – without intending to – I didn’t use on Saturday, but which I would never be without permanently:
- my bicycle;
- my washing machine!
After the wheel, possibly the two best inventions in the world, ever. Forget all the fancy gadgetry and flashing lights of consumer tech. These are the real practical technologies that make my life better. A life of walking 10 miles to work and washing by hand would be a real drudgery. In my opinion, that’s the kind of ‘intermediate’ technology that the founder of Practical Action knew is really transformative for people’s lives.No Comments » | Add your comment
Initially, I thought it would be extremely difficult as we cannot function without our mobiles and especially as I was planning a weekend away from my children. My daughter had run out of credit and asked for a top up so my response was that “it was no tech day so I wouldn’t be topping up for her”.
Normally when I spend time away from my children, my daughter would be texting/calling me constantly though out my time away (from a very early age!) so this is something that I had got use to so it felt really strange not hearing from my daughter all weekend !!!…
It was nice not to hear from her as her usual calls/texts are about making me feel guilty for not taking her !1 Comment » | Add your comment
View the presentation made by Dr David J. Grimshaw
Yesterday the Triple Helix Society at Cambridge University posed the intriguing question: “Would you prefer a mobile phone or a toilet?” The aparently simple question raised many important issues around the area of the use and role of technology in development. The question itself could be answered from many different perspectives, for example, empirically, gender based or in support of livelihoods.
Most of the evidence would suggest that people in developing countries would prefer a mobile phone, especially if you happened to ask a man rather than a woman. Whatever the “answer” to the question might be, the panel were united in the view that the preferences of people are at the heart of development. If you take the view that development is about freedom then choice is key to unlocking that freedom. But whose preferences are taken into account when development interventions are planned and implemented?
The debate after the short panel presentations was perhaps the most interesting part of the evening. Questions raised included the following: what is the role of technology in development?; what is the best way to introduce new technologies?; can open innovation models help “ownership” of technology development?; and are there some good examples of countries that have used a “technology route” to development?2 Comments » | Add your comment
This week’s Economist includes a Special Report on Telecoms in Emerging Markets. Some interesting trends are highlighted but care is needed when interpreting figures on teledensity. Nevertheless, mobile data networks may well produce a more cost effective impact on poverty than investment in other forms of broadband Internet access.
According to the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) mobile teledensity reached over 100% in 2007 (some people have more than one SIM and/or phone) in Western Europe. In Ghana the density reached 98% in January 2009 and is forecast to get to 100% in Kenya and Tanzania by 2013. But most of the traffic generated by this increased access will be voice – and voice is the most important means of communications for the poor who are more likely to have lower literacy levels. A major challenge remains: to upgrade the voice networks to allow fast data. Plans are in hand in most countries in Africa to improve the mobile data networks. But the reality is likely to be that fast connectivity such as 3G networks will be restricted to the urban areas. The costs of handsets is also an issue with a basic mobile phone down to around $15 but a smartphone costing over $100. Network provider charges for Internet access to use applications such as Google Maps are also likely to be high. In real terms probably many times higher than they are in the developed world.
Yet, amidst this context there are three encouraging signs for optimism:
- There is a growing “open source” sector of the mobile phone market. The Android operating system runs on mobile phones from various manufacturers. The source code is open so that applications developers can write programs that are tailor made for specific functions, languages, cultures, and geographies. These apps can then be downloaded free of charge by users.
- Some of the new applications are very relevant for use in developing countries. For example, epidemiologists and ecologists often collect data in the field and, on returning to their laboratory, enter their data into a database for further analysis. The recent introduction of mobile phones that utilise the open source Android operating system, and which include (among other features) both GPS and Google Maps, provide new opportunities for developing mobile phone applications, which in conjunction with web applications, allow two-way communication between field workers and their project databases. Source: Aanensen DM, Huntley DM, Feil EJ, al-Own F, Spratt BG, 2009 EpiCollect: Linking Smartphones to Web Applications for Epidemiology, Ecology and Community Data Collection. PLoS ONE 4(9): e6968. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006968
- Scientists are prepared to share their findings in open source journals such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS – see above). Thereby enabling scientists working in developing countries immediate access to good peer reviewed work.
The challenge is to upgrade the mobile phone networks to enable fast data traffic. Perhaps this is a candidate for applying advance market commitments that have been successful in the field of vaccines.
Smart phones, smart maps, and smart apps are all very well but they need to be enabled by smart markets.1 Comment » | Add your comment
This week two quite different approaches to the problem of how to provide Internet access in developing countries (in particular Africa) caught my attention because each comes at the problem from a different standpoint.
First, a small organisation called hotmouse has launched a rugged terminal running Ubuntu. This device is positioned to be more robust than standard hardware for the dusty heat of Africa.
Second, Microsoft has launched OneApp – software that will run on a range of basic mobile phones to allow the user to access applications such as Facebook and offer the potential to run mobile banking services.
These initiatives are to be welcomed. Yet some fundemental questions need to be thought through. Will access to the Internet improve the livelihoods of poor people living in remote rural areas? Would alternative solutions, such as voice based knowledge sharing, be more in tune with local culture, literacy levels, and availability of electricity?No Comments » | Add your comment
The latest “add on” for a mobile phone is not likely to appeal to the market of young affluent professionals who like the latest gadgets. But in many much less affluent parts of the globe the mobile phone is reaching out as one of the technologies offering the potential to change lives. For social conversations, for business transactions, remittances, and mobile banking the mobile phone is fast becoming a tool that connects people who live in remote rural locations in developing countries.
The needs of those people go beyond those uses named above, into areas such as health and education. A paper published earlier this week in the open access journal PLoS ONE holds out the hope that via the combination of a microscope and mobile phone health services might reach into rural areas. More about this can be read on the BBC Technology News site.
The research team say that: “We expect such a telemedicine system for global healthcare via mobile phone – offering inexpensive brightfield and fluorescence microscopy integrated with automated image analysis – to provide an important tool for disease diagnosis and screening, particularly in the developing world and rural areas where laboratory facilities are scarce but mobile phone infrastructure is extensive.” (Breslauer et al 2009). This is a welcome opportunity for new technology to help poor people in rural areas but to enable the technology to be used effectively it should also be remembered that there will need to be capacity building for local communities. The supply of the technology is a start so long as we also work to engage the potential users to gain their buy-in and ownership. Now is the right time to do that and certainly it should not wait until the researchers have “perfected” the technology.
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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.No Comments » | Add your comment