Policy Making in the Digital Age: February 2010 Conference at Columbia

My biggest frustration with grad school so far has been how difficult it is to bring what’s happening in the real world of ICT and development into the classroom. With the exception of a few phenomenal professors, much of the SIPA academic world seems disconnected from the entire field. In my opinion, this is a sad mistake. It’s also why I am so excited about Policy Making in the Digital Age, a conference that The Morningside Post is sponsoring at Columbia in February.

My biggest frustration with grad school so far has been how difficult it is to bring what’s happening in the real world of ICT and development — mobile phones for health, Ushahidi, debates over what online privacy means for activists — into the classroom. With the exception of a few phenomenal professors, much of the SIPA academic world seems disconnected from the entire field. In my opinion, this is a sad mistake.

Photo from codiceinternet on Flickr.
Photo from codiceinternet on Flickr.

It’s also why I am so excited about Policy Making in the Digital Age, a conference that The Morningside Post is sponsoring at Columbia in February.

Policy Making in the Digital Age will bring together faculty and students at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs with the wider Columbia and New York City communities to explore trends and future implications in ICT and development, privacy issues, open governance, and humanitarian affairs.

We’re building a fantastic line-up of experts to discuss everything from how new media can help in crisis to the intersection of technology, business and culture in different countries. Know someone you think we should invite? Let us know at editor [at] themorningsidepost.com. Want to come? Mark your calendar for February 27, 2010, and check the conference site in late January for more details.

Beth Kolko: ICTs and their uses in resource constrained environments

Liveblogging Beth Kolko’s presentation on Form, Function and Fiction: ICTs and their uses in resource constrained environments at the Berkman Center. Please excuse misrepresentation, misinterpretation, typos and general stupidity.

The Design for Digital Inclusion group at the University of Washington, which Kolko heads, works on a variety of topics, including tech in Central Asia, the Global Impact Study, the impact of public access to ICTs, technologies for youth with autism, games for development, and more.

Kolko focuses on three main questions: what ICTs are adopted in diverse communities and why? What do people in these communities do with these ICTs? How can we design better technologies for these users?

We assume that ICTs have universal meanings across cultural contexts, but the functions of these technologies vary widely from culture to culture. We need to pay attention to this diversity because designing with it in mind makes systems stronger, less brittle.

Kolko approaches design from both the engineering and humanities perspectives: both form and function. The goal is to blur the boundaries between these two categories until they eventually collapse.

People tend to “get sleepy” when people talk about technology and development, but the findings from the ICT4D field are relevant to a number of communities. Geography is not the primary determiner of resource constraints — the technology developed in, say, Central Asia can be useful in Yakima Valley (in Washington state).

Resource constraints include not just money but also time, cultural capital, screen size, bandwidth.

Kolko’s work in Central Asia has both quantitative and qualitative components, including annual surveys, interviews and usability tests. The survey doesn’t focus on tech use (though it does have a tech use model) — Kolko’s interested in issues of trust, social networks and social institutions as well as technology.

[[Side note: Kolko apologizes for not having a LOLcat photo in her presentation.]]

Internet is weather-dependent: in some places, when it rains, the Internet goes down because rainclouds block satellite access. This intermittent connectivity happens in Central Asia and Cambodia, but also in the rural United States.

Patterns of Internet use (both frequency and duration of access) vary widely across cultures. In Central Asia, most users are online for an hour at a time. There are different pricing structures for chat and actual Internet use (accessing Web pages, etc.).

Mobile phones are particularly key in resource-constrained environments. Mobile phones weren’t created to transfer money, but they’re being used for banking. This, along with general mobile Internet access, brings up questions of mobile phone security. (Moral: if you have an iPhone, use a password.)

Why don’t people use the Internet? It’s too expensive, too hard to access, or too confusing. Also: many Central Asians think it’s “for young people” (though the definition of who’s young depends on who’s answering the question).

Kolko has conducted some design ethnography work focused on the exchange of goods and information via social network in Central Asia. Controlling for demographics, people who use their conventional social networks (face-to-face communication) more are more likely to use technology. These people are also more likely to have higher levels of trust in their friends and family.

Of Central Asian Internet users, more people use the Internet for research for school or job training than for any other purpose. The least common use is for online auctions.

Most Central Asians use their mobile phones several times a day (though only 2% of mobile phones are connected to the Internet). People use their phones not because landlines are particularly expensive or hard to get, but because they want to be able to be reached no matter where they are.

Mobiles aren’t always great: people are already using them for 419-type scams. But their role has been noticeable in the political sphere: after the 2008 revolution in Kyrgyzstan, phones were used to report rioting and looting, both to warn people to stay home and to rally friends and family to help protect businesses. In Kenya, SMS was used to spread rumors and incite violence.

Part of Kolko’s research focuses on games for development. Games are cheaper and, often, easier to use than the Internet. For many Central Asian kids, games provide an first introduction to ICT. This initial training in ICT may give these kids a leg up in terms of later educational and career opportunities.

All of the examples above help provide a better understanding of how ICTs are used in resource-constrained environments. But how to build better ICTs for these regions? You need to focus on design ethnography. For example, looking at how people use mobile phones, how they use their social networks, and the “pain points” of their everyday lives.

Researchers interviewed Central Asians in their homes and had them draw diagrams of their own social networks. Their research lead them to two projects: the Mobile Social Software (MoSoSo) directory addresses the lack of published information directories, working through SMS instead of Internet to list and rate businesses. The Starbus focuses on providing more information about public transportation, using GPS and traffic algorithms to track the location and estimated arrival time of a bus, then send this information via SMS to users who request it.

Interestingly, the initial Starbus design was as low-power as possible to maximize the battery life. They tested the system in Seattle and it worked, but when they brought it to Bishkek they realized that the cell phone towers there required the GPS to have more power. They had to rewire the whole thing — “a classic design approach that failed miserably.”

In order to design the best and most appropriate ICTs, you need to drill deeply to truly define what an “Internet user” is in a particular environment — you can’t assume all Internet users access or use the Internet in the same way.

mobile activism in african elections

A paper I wrote for Anne Nelson’s New Media in Development Communications class last semester was published this week on DigiActive and reviewed by Pambazuka News. The abstract:

The proliferation of mobile phones in Africa is transforming the political and social landscape of the developing world, empowering people to source and share their own information and to have a greater say in what comes to international attention. This paper compares the use and impact of mobile technology in three recent African elections: Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Kenya.

In Nigeria’s April 2007 presidential election, a local civil society organization used free software to collect over 10,000 text message reports from voters around the country, boosting citizen participation in a political process many Nigerians doubted. In Sierra Leone’s August-September 2007 elections, trained local monitors used mobile phones to collect data from designated polling sites, enabling the independent National Election Watch to compile and release an accurate, comprehensive analysis of the election almost two weeks before the official report. And in Kenya’s December 2007 election, a group of local digital activists developed and implemented a citizen reporting platform to allow Kenyans to report and track post-election violence during a month-long media blackout, collecting and publishing a comprehensive account of riots, displacement and human rights abuses that serves as one of the best available records of the crisis.

You can read the whole paper here.

Katrin Verclas posted a critique on MobileActive.org. Many of her comments are spot on, and she sheds valuable light on the role the December 2008 elections in Ghana play in this discussion.

Web 2.0 by farmers, for farmers

The Busoga Rural Open Source and Development Initiative is a local Ugandan non-profit that uses digital technology, including a blog, SMS and online forums and audio files in English and local languages, to help farmers in Uganda share information about health, agriculture and education. Check it out:

via Kabissa

jackfruit of the week (11.19.08)

Authentic Ugandan jackfruit via Tumwi

In all the election excitement and liveblogging frenzy, I missed a week. I’m making it up to you with a trip to Uganda.

That’s right, blogren. I’m coming back for two weeks in January, and if there’s not already a Uganda Bloggers’ Happy Hour planned (I’m looking at you and you and you), I’ll throw one.

In other news: elephants.

Elephants are cool in my book: big, adorable, seemingly genial. Except they’re not so friendly when they’re stomping over your crops, exacting revenge. Revenge! Who knew elephants were vengeful? (Even worse: drunken vengeful elephants.)

Apparently Ethan Zuckerman, who wrote last week about the perils of coming face-to-face with a vindictive pachyderm:

It’s a good idea to know whether elephants are enroute to your farm as one elephant can eat a year’s crops in a single evening. If you know that elephants are on the way, you can stand in your fields with torches and chase the animals off.

What you need (besides torches and the ability to outrun an angry elephant), Ethan says, is to know the elephant hordes are coming. Here’s where cool technology comes into play: Kenyan hackers are turning GSM phones into tracking systems. An organization called Save the Elephants has put GSM-powered collars on the animals. When the elephants cross a virtual fence separating them from humans, the collar sends a warning to villagers in the area via SMS.

Even better: since the villagers know they’re coming, they can use spotlights instead of torches and shouting to herd the elephants back to their home, a 90,000-acre conservancy.

In case any of you thought this whole mobile phone activism thing was just for politics geeks: remember the elephants.