Author Archives: chasethefayce

Lessons from a Semester in ICT4D

 

Perhaps the most resonant lesson that I learned this semester is the line between donor facilitation and donor imposition. In the last few years, I have become increasingly disenchanted with the current digital society. I have watched everyone around me become more and more attached to technology. In response, I have clung to the bare essentials. I still have a flip-phone. I had never, before this class, even considered using Twitter or WordPress. Some people call me old-fashioned, others call me resistant to chance. Perhaps both are true.

When I think about this shift, this growing attachment disorder, I am hesitant to bring such a movement everyone. The fact is, individuals in less developed countries consistently report higher happiness than those in developed countries. There is something beautiful about living unplugged, living in close relationship to the natural world. At the beginning of this semester, I would often ask myself, “Is development inherently good? While technological advancement increases convenience of daily affairs, does it contribute, in the long run, to happiness? Do we truly want to saturate indigenous societies with technology? Would it truly increase welfare and/or enlightenment?” My inclination to all of these questions is…no.

What I have learned this semester, however, is that it is not my place to make these value judgments. In class, we had many debates on the subject of facilitation vs. imposition, and I was forced to reconsider my selfish desire to shield developing countries from technological over-stimulation. What I realized, in the end, was that I was attempting to integrate and impose my personal ideology into development. As a development practitioner, my priority should be facilitation, equipping those in need with valuable technologies. People have the right to use technologies as they see fit. The bottom line is that these technologies have vast potential for empowerment and social justice, and it is not ethical for me to withhold such technologies because of my personal interpretation of their side-effects. As a development expert, one should put the tools for success in the hands of the people and respect local sovereignty. The choice of how these tools are used is out of my hands.


Social Media in the Syrian Uprising

In ‘Why the Syrian Uprising is the First Social Media War,’ Patrick Howell-O’Neill describes the role of social media in the Syrian War. This uprising can be classified as the first social media war because, as Howell-O’Neill explains, social media has played a pivotal role since 2005, used as a means of dispersing information and organizing dissent. Howell-O’Neill focuses mainly on the impact of video (YouTube and LiveLeak) and picture (Instagram) platforms in mobilizing support.

What is perhaps most interesting in the article is the acknowledgment of social media activity on both sides of the conflict. On the rebel side, citizens are filming and documenting the injustices done to them by Assad’s forces, then broadcasting this information to a larger and more influential global audience through YouTube, or other less-filtered social media sites. The article tells of a man who, severely injured by an errant airstrike, was asked to be filmed. “I’m sure they regarded me as a potential propaganda machine,” he later said. “People would often approach the camera and make speeches or cite ‘facts’ that were not verifiable.” This footage will be placed in a video campaign for mass distribution. In this way, it appears to me that rebel actors will sometimes use ‘shock’ media to draw individuals to their cause. This type of media is not concerned with the injured or killed individual but, rather, the alarming message that his or her wounds send, which is fundamentally an appeal to the humanity in anyone watching from abroad.

See a successful rebel video campaign, documenting a rebel victory at a government checkpoint here

Meanwhile, al-Assad has his own personal uses for social media. I have noticed that the first, and most notable, influence which al-Assad exerts over the sphere of social media is that of containment. The Syrian Electronic Army, charged with monitoring information in Syria, continues to deactivate rebel websites and publications, in order to control what the outside world sees. Furthermore, al-Assad uses Instagram to distribute his own message, including convenient euphemisms for what is happening on the ground and also pictures of rebel chemical weaponry usage online.

I think that the usage of social media in modern warfare is fascinating. This technology can greatly increase the global audience for either cause, whichever most effectively uses social media for its aims. What is perhaps most challenging, however, is sifting through all of the social media information and determining the accuracy of this information. With strong, sensationalist rhetoric coming from both sides of the conflict, who can one believe?

Read the article here.


Tin Can: Connecting Individuals without Cell Service or the Internet

Tin Can, a new mobile phone application, allows mobile phones to communicate with each other without cell service or connection to the Internet. According to developer Mark Katakowski, Tin Can allows users to contact other participating mobile phones within 100 feet. While this range appears limited, the relay capability is actually much larger, given that all recipients can relay the message to phones within 100 feet, so the radius of information becomes larger with each recipient.

This application uses Wi-Fi radio capability to connect users, but ultimately does not require any Internet connection. Tin Can is currently available for smart phones only but Katakowski hopes to expand its potential in the near future.

Tin Can has the potential to revolutionize how individuals in the developing world communicate with each other. In areas where cell and Internet service is both expensive and unavailable, Tin Can can connect individuals through basic communication and even data sharing, which is largely unavailable in many areas of the world. This innovation could prove especially useful in organizing civil society events or mobilizing large groups of people, a task often reserved for Twitter when available. Protest efforts, such as those recently occurring in Egypt and Turkey, could have benefitted from this technology. This technology highlights the capability of collective data sharing in times of crisis, as outlined by Patrick Meier in his 2011 Ted Talk.

Tin Can could prove especially valuable for broadcasting in protest settings, where many individuals are in close proximity.

Tin Can faces one dominant criticism: it could potentially enable the spread of viruses or malware and, given the source anonymity of mass messages, these malicious hacks are virtually untraceable. Katakowski is currently examining solutions to this problem and recognizes that this weakness prevents Apple from sponsoring the app at the present moment.

Read the full article here.


Gene-Radar: The One Hour HIV/AIDS Test

Nanobiosym, an American company based out of Boston, has created an exciting new solution to accessible and expedited HIV/AIDS testing. Gene-Radar, a mobile device, can deliver HIV/AIDS test results in as little as one hour, at a fraction of conventional costs. CEO Anita Goel says, “What we’ve done at Gene-Radar is take that test that costs $200 and takes two weeks and make it accessible. So we’ve brought it almost 50 to 100 times cheaper.”

The article explains the vast potential of such a technology. There are various types of HIV/AIDS tests but the conventional testing, known as the ‘Gold Standard Test,’ can take up to six months to deliver results in many developing countries. This ‘Gold Standard Test,’ commonly used in Rwanda and many East African nations, represents a barrier to accessible, accurate, and timely health care to many. Even in the United States, the article explains, the ‘Gold Standard Test’ requires at least two weeks for results. With these conventional timeframes in mind, it is clear that a one-hour test would revolutionize how both doctors and patients approach HIV testing and awareness. Furthermore, the mobile nature of Gene-Radar significantly decreases the accessibility problems which many face in trying to arrange and acquire transportation to and from major health care centers. According to Goel, this device is currently undergoing modification to include other disease tests, such as those for E. coli and malaria.

Scientists using Gene-Radar for HIV/AIDS testing.

Beyond the testing itself, one innovative feature boasted by the Gene-Radar is the ability to upload these test results onto a community cloud. In other words, all test data would be available for statistical and epidemiological analysis. Such a forum would allow specialists to trace the source and scope of disease outbreaks, as well as propose solutions for containment.

Personally, I am very excited to see this device approved and utilized across the world. HIV/AIDS is a significant health and social problem found on a global scale, and an affordable, fast testing technology would seemingly reduce its spread. As long as patient confidentiality is respected, I am also encouraged by the cloud concept, as it would allow scientists to collaboratively analyze both isolated and patterned outbreaks.

 

Read the article here.


Assessing the Impact and Practicality of Mobile Learning in Kenya

Young mothers in Kenya face various social and economic pressures which drive them away from finishing secondary education.  As primary caregivers, many mothers must stay at home to care for their newborns, and this socially-reinforced role causes these mothers to drop out of school, at least temporarily. However, as Ronda Zelezny-Green explains, the period away from schooling is often permanent, even when the mother is physically able to attend school again.

This permanence is due to strong social stigmas against pregnant and young mothers, as well as a general unawareness of one’s civil rights.  ‘Although there is no policy in place that restricts a girl’s ability to rejoin her peers in school, many girls drop out or are sent home when the pregnancy is discovered, are turned away when they try to return to school after giving birth, or are refused the chance to try and return because of the stigma the pregnancy and subsequent birth places on the girl and her family.’

Mobile learning, however, presents a recent option for these marginalized, young mothers still interested in education. Mobile learning opportunities, through programs like Eneza, allow women a great degree of flexibility in their studies, permitting them to complete studies at times most convenient for their schedules. These devices also women to learn at home, away from the harmful physical and verbal harassment directed toward them at school. Furthermore, given that these programs do not require expensive smart phones, they present a cheap alternative to laptop and computer use, and provide a viable path to self-empowerment. Currently, the subjects available are math, HIV/AIDS education, life skills, linguistics, and general science. These subjects allow women to educate themselves for general well-being as well as future employment.

 

 

A Kenyan mother cares for her son under a mosquito net.

One valuable counter-argument which the article acknowledges, and with which I strongly agree, is that these mobile programs are often costly, in terms of both the software, the operating costs, and the phone itself. The author explains that many mothers go without food or basic necessities in order to own and maintain a phone. This presents a serious concern, given that mobile learning is intended to empower, not endanger women. If one’s health and safety are affected, perhaps this development project must consider ways to lessen the expense incurred by cell phone usage, possibly through a subsidy or grant of some sort. After all, holistic development as dictated by HDI mandates growth in education and income, as well as health. If women are sacrificing both personal and family health for education, holistic development is compromised.

Overall, however, I think that this initiative is a positive response to a pressing social problem, and am excited to see it progress.

Read the article here.


IT Systems for Effective MFI Activity in Rwanda

In his article ‘Rwanda: How MFI’s (Micro-Financing Institution) Can Develop Cost-Effective IT Systems,’ Saddiq Mwai explains the potential benefit of creating a transparent, cooperative IT framework between MFI’s, in order to cut costs and effectively address poverty reduction in Rwanda. As Mwai describes, a financial services sector is essential to the success of nearly all social and economic objectives. MFI’s in Rwanda currently incur large expenses when serving their target populations, which are often rural and remote. These logistical expenses hinder MFI’s from doing ‘the most good.’

What Mwai proposes is a ‘common information technology platform to reduce costs associated with the acquisition, operation and maintenance of information systems.’ In other words, MFI’s would collaborate in creating a shared platform, on which MFI’s could communicate and share both information and capital with each other on a regular basis. This network would be operated from a processing hub in Kigali, and would be available to any MFI with simple PC-access. MFI’s could be charged on a ‘per account’ or ‘per client’ basis to use this existing, communal software. This on-demand payment method outsources software development costs and is significantly cheaper than purchasing or creating new software altogether.

In addition to cost-sharing among fellow MFI’s, such a network would allow MFI clients to complete necessary transactions via mobile phone, which would significantly reduce transportation and logistics costs to the benefit of both MFI’s and the consumer.

 

 

Urwego Opportunity Bank, an agricultural MFI in Rwanda

 

This proposal represents a promising opportunity for micro-finance institutions in Rwanda. Technological advances have provided new, unprecedented methods of lowering lending and transaction costs  in the developing world, and Mwai’s proposal takes a collaborative, cost-sharing approach to poverty reduction. Micro-finance and micro-lending institutions have the principle goal of reducing poverty and fostering self-sustaining community development. Therefore, any measure that would increase transparency and cost-efficient access between client and provider would be a positive investment, even if it means partnering with other institutions. With the increased disposal income once used for software and maintenance of a personal platform, an MFI can increase the amount of social ‘good’ it provides. The more resources available, the more potential there is for poverty reduction.

Read the article here.


Telecommunications in the Senegalese Economy

Senegal is a leader in development among West African nations.  With an expanding ICT framework, the Senegalese economy is more globalized and connected with trade partners than ever before.

Senegal has placed great emphasis on expanding the telecommunications sector, as a means of both economic growth and self-empowerment. In 1998, mobile services were liberalized in Senegal and quality of life was impacted almost immediately. The Telecommunications Regulatory Agency reported in 2003 that advancements in telecommunications had contributed to unprecedented mobile subscriptions and the creation of over 20,000 new jobs (IST 90). In 2005, development leaders met to formulate a standardized national telecommunications policy, which continues upon early successes while addressing concerns in regulation and job creation:

  • Triple the number of telephone subscribers from 1 million (2003) to 3 million.
  • Increase the sector’s contribution to GDP.
  • Dramatically improve rural service by connecting 9 500 villages, with fixed and mobile networks covering all villages nationwide by 2010.
  • Democratize the Internet, consider it as part of universal service (phone + internet).

These objectives highlight the importance of telecommunications to policymakers in Senegal. The decentralization of network coverage seems to be a positive initiative, for it would encourage healthy competition in the market for telecommunication, possibly decreasing operating costs more than ever before.

The Result:

Within the context of the economic expansion, the role of ICTs is somewhat unclear.

According to World Bank reports, the ICT goods accounted for a mere 1% of total exports in 2011. When compared to the figures cited for the years 2007, 2008 and 2009 (4%, 5%, and 2% respectively), it is apparent that the emphasis on manufacturing ICT goods for export has lessened. Three possible explanations are:

  • Most ICT products manufactured in Senegal are consumed domestically.
  • Senegal can no longer produce at a quality or rate competitive in the ICT market.
  • Economic priorities have shifted.

Meanwhile, ICTs as a percentage of imports were cited at 3%, which has remained at this figure for the previous five years.

Interestingly enough, ICT service exports constituted 34% of total service exports in 2010-2011. In other words, of services offshore or globalized during the past year, over one-third of them were classified as ICT services. Senegal clearly depends upon these exported ICT services to remain integrated in the market, and perhaps these services are cheaper in and from Senegal than more developed countries.

While these statistics are not much to work with, there are some possible interpretations as to what they mean for ICTs in the larger, macro picture of the Senegalese economy. The small amount of ICT goods as a percentage of total good exports seems to indicate that Senegal is not a major ICT manufacturer. Importation of these products happens in greater proportion than their exportation. Rather, Senegal’s comparative advantage probably lies in ICT service exports, which can be offered at a lower price in developing nations. ICTs definitely matter for Senegalese development, as evidenced in the national policy measures. However, it would appear that the necessary technology is either imported, improvised from pre-existing technology, or produced and consumed domestically.

Read about the current telecommunications and ICT systems in Senegal and how they rank against neighboring nations or access the World Bank country report on Senegal.