Daily Archives: 25 October 2012

Anthropology, Development and ICTs: Do We Miss Out By Focusing on Quantitative Gains?

We’ve all seen how ICT4D projects can be derailed by poor planning and lack of follow up, but do we miss out on important “fuzzy” data by focusing on quantitative results? Attached is an anthropological case study of mobile phone use by teenagers growing up in Indian slums. The anthropologists, sponsored by Microsoft Research, looked into how youths living in a slum utilized mobile phones that they sought out on their own (absent any ICT4D initiative). As anthropologists, they focus on understanding what is happening and why, rather than seeking normative solutions. This focus gives anthropologists a different perspective than development workers, and I find it very useful in terms of providing context. By not focusing on what could be the researchers are able to develop a deeper understanding of the community as it is.

The youths overwhelmingly used mobiles for entertainment delivery, although in at least one case this sparked a love for technology that was parlayed into a business. The researchers assert that entertainment is a valid ICT use and that by looking at how marginalized communities integrate ICT without intervention, and what they rank as important, we can design better intervention programs. Although the anthropologists involved in the study at times seem hostile to ICT4D adherents I found their perspective on ICT4D and the dialog of what is given importance in ICT initiatives interesting.  Personally, I think it’s vital to strive for improvement, but I wonder if passing judgement on what ICT use is valid propagates an us and them mentality.

Full Publication and Related Article.



Divide or Provide? Mobile Phone Technology & Grain Markets in Niger

Jenny Aker of UC Berkeley published a case-study entitled “Does Digital Divide or Provide? The Impact of Cell Phones on Grain Markets in Niger.” The themes emerging from her research parallel those in the case study we covered in class on mobile phone use’s effect on fishermen in India.

“Cell phones have a greater impact on price dispersion where travel costs are higher, namely for        markets that are more remote and those connected by unpaved roads. The effect is heterogeneous across time as well: cell phones have a larger impact upon price dispersion once a higher percentage of markets have cell phone coverage. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that there are diminishing marginal returns to cell phones on price dispersion…We find that grain traders operating in markets with cell phone coverage search over a greater number of markets, have more contacts and sell in more markets. This underscores the fact that the primary mechanism by which cell phones affect market efficiency is a reduction in search costs and hence transaction costs (p. 4).”

Aker emphasizes that increased mobile phone use correlated with an increase in trader welfare and a reduction in grain prices for consumers, even in years of localized food crisis. However, as we saw in the fishermen example, it is not clear exactly how much the poorest producers benefit from the technology in comparison to the intermediaries. She writes,”…access to information technology can lead to welfare improvements, although how the gain is shared among traders, consumers and farmers is ambiguous (p. 5).”

This is a particularly important issue in terms of considering development throught ICT use in the  business and industry sector. As we have discussed many times in class, the fruits of economic growth do not always reach the marginalized poor. Because thriving business and industry is one of the most sustainable sources of capital and resources which create a favorable climate for development, the sector is clearly a high priority target for ICT4D intervention. But the digital divide, existing power structures, and insufficient labor laws and policy can lead to the sector’s growth  furthering income inequality instead of reducing it. In essence, mobile phone technology is clearly a great asset in providing information and stabilizing prices, but the division of benefits are not guaranteed to be fair.

Emergency.lu : ICT Aid Coordination After Disasters

The video featured here is from a TEDxLuxembourgCity event.  The speaker is Marc Bichler, who calls himself a “developmat,” since most of his work with the Luxembourg diplomatic service has involved development and humanitarian issues. As the Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Development and Humanitarian Affairs Department, Bichler has partnered with several private-sector companies to design, develop, and deploy “emergency.lu,” a platform intended to enable telecommunication after humanitarian and natural disasters.

Bichler references a well-known photo of then Haitian President Preval standing in the ravaged streets of Port-au-Prince immediately after the January 2010 earthquake, holding his cell phone, which he was unable to use to call for help. The next morning, Luxembourg sent two search and rescue teams to Haiti to help save lives during the first 72 crucial hours, only to find that the lack of coordination at the airport prevented them doing so.  The management that would have allowed for effective aid deployment was impossible because all telecommunications were down. Luxembourg’s government understood that telecommunications would need to be restored within several hours of a major disaster in order to improve aid coordination and effectiveness, and thus save lives. “It is a matter of life and death,” Bichler said. So Bichler’s team joined with several international companies to create “emergency.lu.”

“Emergency.lu” is a satellite-based system that enables high speed internet connectivity immediately after a disaster – it can be air-borne within two hours notification, and takes just one hour to setup once it reaches its destination. Aid workers can register their phones and laptops with “emergency.lu,” allowing them to better communicate and improve the delivery of critical services. “Emergency.lu” is completely paid for by Luxembourg’s government and is offered as a free global public good to the international community. Its potential to make a difference was seen in January 2012 in South Sudan, where it was used to help humanitarian aid workers helping refugees and internally displaced persons.

This technology has the capacity to change the way aid is coordinated in the wake of disasters. But its design is geared toward international aid workers, not locals trying to find missing persons or search for vital information. Do you think that it could be adapted to benefit the communication and information needs of locals impacted by disasters?

More from Dr. Robert Munro on Tracking Epidemics, Emergency Response, Crowdsourcing, and Natural Language Processing

Today in class, we had a guest lecturer – Dr. Robert Munro – that led the class via a telecommunications source.  His discussion of crowdsourcing and natural language processing was extremely interesting, but there were a few concepts that I did not fully understand.  I decided to do a little more research about these topics online, and  I found this short video that features a brief talk given by Dr. Munro, which gives a great overview of the topics discussed in today’s lectures.  Click here to watch it!

Today’s lecture was extremely insightful and provided us with an example of how ICTs can have a hugely positive impact on development, especially in regards to epidemics and disasters.  The video is a nice supplement to the classroom lecture and gives a brief overview of some of the important topics and an extremely helpful explanation of some of the key terms and concepts discussed in our lecture today.

Here is a video of another lecture given by Dr. Munro: click here to watch this video! This video is longer and provides a more in depth description of the topics discussed today, as well as some topics and examples that Dr. Munro did not have time to cover today.

I wanted to highlight these videos in my blog so that people who were  not able to be in class (ie. non-Tulane students who are interested in the material we cover in our ICT4D course) are able to learn about these interesting ICT4D topics.  This blog is meant to serve as a forum to share information and create a public forum for discussion of ICT4D initiatives.  These initiatives and ICT tools are amazingly interesting and innovative examples of how ICT can be used for development.  I think it is important that these tools and success stories be shared among the development community.

I also think that the fact that the lecture today was presented through telecommunications (which allowed Dr. Monru to present a lecture to our class from a distance location) and the fact that these videos are available to the public on youtube are excellent examples of how ICTs can be useful for education.  Telecomm improves communication capabilities, and forums like youtube allow for information and knowledge to be made available to anyone with internet access for free.  Lectures available on youtube are an excellent example of the democratization of information and knowledge.

Pakreport: Crowdsourcing for the Pakistan Floods

Pakreport is an ICT initiative that began in response to the 2010 Pakistani floods. The initiative’s case study describes the program as bringing together crowdsourcing companies, crisis mapping organizations, relief agencies, and engineers in a disaster management effort. Pakreport achieved this through utilizing Ushahidi software in two forms of crowdsourcing: the use of people to provide reports from the ground and use of people around the globe to translate, categorise and geolocate incoming messages. Once this information was processed it was displayed on pakreport.org in an online map for all to see.

As seen in Haiti’s Mission 4636 which we discussed in class, the main source of information for Pakreport was from on the ground assessments from local relief agencies. Similar to 4636, Pakreport set up a 3441 SMS code with the message “what you see about floods,” which was spread via the mass media and relief agency workers. This led to an exponential increase in data, most of which needed to be translated from Pashto or Urdu to English. As in Haiti, volunteers from around the world came together to help evaluate these messages. In the end Pakreport collected over 1,500 real time reports from people on the ground through SMS, while crowd volunteers completed over 2,500 categorizations of reports. Additionally, the initiative created general mapping knowledge and information in Pakistan that did not previously exist.

I think crowdsourcing is an amazing way to provide disaster management in the digital age. The ENTIRE cost of Pakreport’s project came to $7,000, all of which came from a fundraising campaign at globalgiving.org. The microtasking platform and technical services were provided by CrowdFlower for free, as well as the time and expertise of three independent engineers. The idea that an undefined public from around the world can spontaneously come together to help a foreign community in their time of need is a really unique concept, one that is endlessly relevant and important to our ditigal age.

Micro Grids & Mobile Phones

While some dismiss mobile phones as toys for entertainment, they are seen as more of a tool for subsistence in countries like India. Electricity is one of the most problematic barriers to mobile phone access in developing nations. Remote areas are not connected to the grid, and the closest area that is could be hundreds of miles away.  Rather than letting this lack of infrastructure deter development, an organization known as Mera Gao Power is helping one of the poorest states in India develop a micro-grid.

Rather than having one large, central plant produce all the power for a region and then distribute it, a micro-grid allows many small energy sources to produce energy for nearby facilities. This type of energy supply is very fitting for villages in Uttar Pradesh, because they typically require very little energy, so a relatively small setup is sufficient for two very important needs: lighting and phone charging.

In a village of 100 households, four solar panels produce enough energy to supply both light and mobile charging. Since they use very little of the energy that is produced during the day, it is fed back into the energy grid and stored in a bank of batteries so it can be used when it gets dark. This allows users to have lighting rather than relying on kerosene lamps at night, and to charge their phone at any time.

One point that should be made is that most developing countries lack conventional utilities (with power plants, a region-wide energy grid, etc.), so small to medium scale solar project make much more sense. It’s not going to be profitable for a company to take on the financial burden of connecting remote areas to the energy grid since those areas use so little energy.  The cost of building that infrastructure would take an extremely long time to be paid back since users in those areas simply won’t need (or be able to afford) a sizable power supply. Generation on a smaller scale, such as through solar setups, can provide a consistent power supply without a heavy investment in costly infrastructure.

While this setup may have some drawbacks (same inefficiency, investment, etc.), I think that it puts a fine point on how important mobile phones have become. This program and others like it tout a reliable energy supply as a means to having light and the ability to charge mobile phones. The fact that mobile phones were one of the primary considerations is very telling.

Link to article: “Indians villagers’ lives transformed by new energy delivery system

Mobile Phone Revolution

According to a new World Bank study, 75% of the plantet’s population now has access to mobile phones. As we have explored through various reports in this class, phones are used in myriad ways. Health and financial services are becoming inextricable from mobile phone technology, and the impact is being seen through employment and government sectors. While this study encapsulates a great deal of information, I would like to focus on something we have not directly covered in class–employment and the role for government involvement. According the this study (Information and Communications for Development 2012), the mobile phone industry has become a major source of employment opportunities on both the supply and demand side (Kelly and Minges pg. 8). Interestingly, one chapter of the work is focused on something referred to as business incubators or mobile labs (mLabs) for supporting entrepreneurial activity in the mobile industry, as well as new economic opportunities related to trading goods and services that exist only online. In an interest to learn more about this concept I found this site : mLab Southern Africa. MLab Southern Africa is classified as a “mobile solutions laboratory and startup accelerator” which provides entrepreneurs and mobile developers with the tools they need to develop innovative mobile applications and services. They work to build a sustainable technology business that will meet the demands of a growing base of mobile consumers in Africa and around the world.

We are witnessing an entire new app economy develop! According to the aforementioned study, more than 30 billion “apps,” were downloaded in 2011 –“software that extends the capabilities of phones, for instance to become mobile wallets, navigational aids, or price comparison tools”  (World Bank). As we have seen, new apps reshape and create new livelihoods for many individuals in the developing world–the very creators of that technology reflect a new economic sector.

If the larger goal at hand is to empower the poor, it can be seen that mobile phones are a critical platform for unleashing tools and services. But these platforms are problematized by cost, control, and barriers to innovation.  Those of us who are excited about opportunities for technology and development (and all these new Apps we have investigated) must recognize the tensions presented by any combination of technologies and social, governmental, and economic structures.