Author Archives: wstewar

Sugata Mitra

In 1999, Sugata Mitra traveled to an urban slum in New Delhi with a curious mission. He dug a hole in a wall, inserted an internet-connected personal computer, and walked away, leaving only a hidden camera to observe the results. Little by little, children began to approach this “Learning Station,” accidentally discovering various functions such as scrolling, clicking, and eventually becoming able to operate different programs. These children, ages 5-16, had little or no prior formal schooling and could not speak English (Thomas). However, this did not hinder the power of a child’s curiosity. After playing around and exploring, the children eventually became comfortable and proficient with various computer programs. Mitra and his colleagues observed children drawing with MS paint and browsing with Internet explorer. The kids even came up with their own computer language. For example, the word for needle, “sui,” was assigned to describe the cursor. Even more fascinating than the individual exploration of computer function was the exchange of information between children that occurred. Peer interaction served as the primary share of computer knowledge as children simultaneously observed and assisted their friends in using the computer. In the absence of teachers, children formed impromptu groups that worked together to learn and teach. Test scores between those who were actually interacting with the computer compared to those who were merely observing were identical. This interactive learning discovery was astonishing, and thus the success prompted Mitra to repeat the experiment across India in both urban and rural settings (Thomas.) After two years, children all over India began to Google their homework. Eventually, the project spread to countries across the world, including Italy and Cambodia. Despite location, the results were excitingly similar.

The Hole in the Wall experiment provides an important insight towards how children learn. Whereas traditional education settings assume that children need formal schooling, rigid curriculum, and a structured environment, Mitra’s experiment reveals that an environment that stimulates curiosity and peer are extremely important. Mitra learned that if a child wants to learn something, and is given the tools to do so, they couldn’t be stopped. When motivated by curiosity and peer interest, children are able to teach themselves and others even without direct adult supervision. However, the important understanding found in this experiment is that children must be in groups. The way the learning environment is set up is as such: One child is generally given the role of leader. This child navigates, browses, and explores the Internet. Two or three other children that serve as advisors surround the child. Because this environment involves social interaction rather than independent study, the children are much more likely to retain what they learn. These learnings can range from language acquisition to understanding of biotechnology.

Another interesting experiment that Mitra set up is called the “Granny Cloud.” In an effort to teach English to children in remote areas (whether geographically remote such as distant villages or socially remote such as urban slums,) Mitra recruited a group of grandmothers across the UK. These women log onto Skype once a week to talk with young Indian children and to take on the positive familiar role. These women not only coo over the daily experiences of children but also tell stories, stimulate fresh ideas, and offer new ways for the children to look at things. Mitra hopes to see a 25% increase in English attainment thanks to this coaching/feedback mechanism. (McIntosh) The Granny cloud has expanded recently, and now the name is a misnomer because most of the volunteers are young women (but not necessarily all women.)

Mitra is furthering his educational ideas by creating self-organized learning environments (SOLEs). Project Sole, created because of the findings from the Hole in the Wall Experiment, was begun in 10 locations in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesha. A typical SOLE consists of a glass-walled room that is visibly located on a school’s premises. The ideal location involves a lot of foot traffic, which will bring attention to the unit. Nine computers are set up in clusters of three. A pattern clearly emerges as groups of four children often gather around a single computer, surrounded by a larger group of purely observant children (Sole.)

In order for education initiatives to be successful, stakeholders must understand how people approach, interpret, and internalize new information. The Hole in the Wall experiment is one example of a successful study that explores the learning process in the minds of children. The success of this program is illustrated in a quote from Linux Journal, “Education-as-usual assumes that kids are empty vessels who need to be sat down in a room and filled with curricular content. Dr. Mitra’s experiments prove that wrong (Sugata Mitra.”) It opens the door for many opportunities. In an increasingly technological world, understanding how to use ICTs such as computers eliminates one large obstacle for underprivileged children. Today, the Hole in the Wall program has grown to more than a hundred computers at various locations in India and abroad (Thomas.) The benefits of this experiment are twofold; while the children are given the opportunity to learn about technology, researchers are provided with insight that can be applied to education models of the future.

Mitra has applied what he’s learned to other models of ICT4D across the field. For example, he believes that the One Laptop per Child initiative should really be OLP4C, because group learning has such effective results. Mitra has recently published an E book (available on Amazon’s Kindle) called Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning. He has spoken with TED talks multiple times and is continually involved in development initiatives. He is active on twitter, often posting thoughtful questions such as “Is the Internet conscious,” and “Will education become obsolete, like alchemy has?” He also keeps up a blog on BlogSpot. For those more interested in Mitra’s work, please check out his two videos on Self Organized Learning on

McIntosh, Ewan. Sugata Mitra: The Granny Cloud.

Soles and Some. A bit about SOLE and SOME

Sugata Mitra: Education Researcher. Ted: Ideas Worth Spreading. Accessed 3/20/12. Online.

Thomas. Sugata Mitra and Minimally Invasive Education. Open Education. Accessed 3/20/12. Online.

Sugata Mitra Blog Post

Hole in the Wall

Sugata Mitra’s Twitter

HCD Connect: Facebook with a Mission

A new project called HCD Connect is allowing problem solvers across the world to connect and share solutions. Designed by Ideo.og and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, HCD connect has been created to open up possibilities for human e-design in the fight against global poverty. A hard copy of the toolkit is available for $21.99, or as a free download. The program uses the format of an open access social network that will allow people across the world to bring tips, ideas, and strategies together. It even allows community members to link up to their Facebook (like just about every website out there today).

A brief look at the home page reveals a friendly, colorful display. The mission statement is “where optimists take on our world’s challenges by sharing stories, questions, and resources.” You are offered the option to connect with people in (fill in location) working on projects in (fill in focus area). Options at the top of the page include people, stories, methods, ask, and grants. In short, HCD Connect seems like Facebook with a mission. Especially with the right funding sources, this project has some potential.

One of the largest setbacks in the development world is the lack of shared information. This is mentioned countless times in Elke de Buhr’s Approaches to Sustainable Development Course. If those attempting to solve problems of poverty across the globe are easily able to share information about development projects and their results, hopefully others will be able to benefit from their learnt lessons.

The original article from can be found here. 

Selling You on Facebook

“Many popular Facebook apps are obtaining sensitive information about users—and users’ friends—so don’t be surprised if details about your religious, political and even sexual preferences start popping up in unexpected places. “

The Wall Street Journal’s Julia Angwin and Jeremy Singer-Vine have recently written an article exploring how third party apps may have much more access to information than even Facebook realizes. The increasing prevalence of mobile applications means more programs requesting to access personal data. The information requested can range from email address and birthday to sexual preference, religious background, and even current location.
Information sharing across applications initially means convenience. It is annoying to have to create separate user names and passwords and provide the same information multiple times. This is why information sharing has become so popular. However, personal information is valuable. Facebook uses the fortune of personal information that it has compiled in order to attract advertisers, application makers, and other business opportunities. Currently, Facebook, boasting a community of over 800 million people,  is valued at more than $100 billion on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The online advertising industry, fueled by the data collected by user’s online behavior and used to create customized ads, is valued at $28 billion, and in 2011 generated $20 billion. Zynga, the maker of popular apps such as Farmville and Cityville made $1.14 billion in 2011 (and it still wasn’t profitable!) The money at stake in the online advertising world is no small change.
Although Facebook requires apps to ask permission before accessing personal details, these apps do not provide notification if information about a user’s friends are used. Additionally, information that these applications gather through facebook are
sometimes stored in a new location for further use. This allows applications that are not approved by Facebook to access the information and also display advertisements that were not approved by Facebook. One example of this is how Google can now track users of applications.
An endless barrage of requests for information access has resulted in habituation- “a fundamental human tendency that occurs when people become accustomed to simply pressing the “yes” button when faced with an alert or warning.” The frequency of these warnings coupled with nothing bad happening in the average case means that people are less alarmed about sharing information.
Information is valuable though, and can be used in unexpected ways. One example articulates this point quite clearly:
An iPhone app called Girls Around Me used information from a location-based application called Foursquare to allow men to locate nearby women on a map and view their information from their Facebook profiles. Many were enraged because this application violated social norms against stalking women. Helen Nissenbaum, a NYU professor and author of the book “privacy in Context” says that this type of information sharing steps over a digital “fence” that in physicality would never be crossed.  In response to the uproar, the developer of the app responded taht the app “gives the user nothign more than the Foursquare app can provide itself.”
The White House is currently working on a blueprint for a Privacy Bill of Rights that would create guidelines for the use of personal data. These guidelines will call for more detailed explanation of how personal data will be used. Currently the US is lacking in legal comprehensive privacy protections.
Facebook’s privacy model is one of the more advanced of its day. It lists nearly every type of data sought and allows users to deny certain applications’ requests for data. However, smartphone applications that work independently from Facebook do not have to adhere to Facebook’s privacy policy once they are granted access to information.
“Facebook profiles are now set by default to let apps obtain all data from a user’s friends except sexual preference, religion and political views. That means, for instance, even if a user has set his or her birthday, location and “online status” messages to be private to friends, their friends can approve an app that will also obtain that information…about 40% didn’t understand that when an app  was allowed to get personal data, it could actually transfer that data out of Facebook and store it elsewhere.”
Children of the digital age have grown through various approaches towards public information. As a young child, I was instructed not to post information online about my full name, age, or hometown. Now, applications almost automatically post my GPS location and link to extended albums of my friends and family and provide information about what music, movies, and topics I am interested in. Personal information is valuable, but with increasing fluidity of personal information, people no longer have control over that information.
Personally, I doubt that this article will persuade me to disconnect from Facebook or from my iPhone. However, I think it is important to consider the implications of such generous information sharing. Whether coming from the standpoint of safety, privacy, or commercial interest, it is important to realize exactly what information you are providing to the global community and beyond.
A Further Readings:

Micro-Bias: New Study reveals Implicit Bias in Kiva Loans

Micro lending websites, such as, are a newly emerging tool that allow people to send money to people in developing countries. Kiva’s purpose has been summarized in an earlier blog post. However, the problem of potential bias has not yet been addressed in this blog.

According to an analysis released by researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, lenders on Kiva tend to favor attractive, light-skinned females. This is made possible by the profiles created on the site, which feature a picture of the person who is asking for aid. Internet users are able to browse through profiles on the website and search based on country or type of project. The researchers in the study found that in order to get money more quickly, “it is better to be pretty than ugly, female than male, skinny than fat, and, yes, light skinned-than dark-skinned.” The study used a skin color scale taken from research on bias against new immigrants. Conclusive evidence was found that light-skinned borrowers received money faster, and being attractive didn’t hurt.

Walter Theseira, Assistant Professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Walter Theseira, the lead author of the study, comments:

“This is why [NGOs] spend so much time choosing just the right photographs to illicit donations… why people do that… it’s a bit hard to say. Our hypothesis is that this is probably more a form of implicit discrimination than people acting on explicit bias.”

Interestingly, being from Africa helps when receiving loans. Loans to Kenya fund much faster than loans to Bulgaria. This geographic discrimination has been found to be much more influential than skin tone because many users believe that there is more need in poorer countries, which fits Africa’s stereotype. Some lenders also believe that their dollars will go farther in Africa than in other countries.

Researchers worry that “baked-in-bias in peer-to-peer choices could undermine the very idea of a financial solution to unfairness.” This bias is seen in other studies. For example, subconscious bias appears in a Stanford study that found that online shoppers were less trusting of an ipod for sale if the hand in the picture was black. Another study from Wharton found that black borrowers on were up to 35% less likely to get a loan at a similar interest rate when compared to white borrowers. Prosper responded to this by eliminating user photos. Review from P2P Lending News

One of the interesting elements of Kiva is the personal feel to it. By looking at a picture of a person in a different country, you get a sense of personal connection. You almost feel like you know them, that you could shake their hand after providing aid. Eliminating profile pictures may be a way to combat implicit bias, but it will eliminate this personal aspect of Kiva. This may hurt participation rates as people in developing countries search for new visual stimulation.

An important implication of this study is that online crowdfunding, microfinance, and lending websites need academic examination. The big question now is what the sites can do to fix the problem. Theseira suggests that the solution lies in regular Kiva users:

“What we found [on Kiva] are these patterns of discrimination are most evident in people who don’t lend much…In the case of the Kiva website itself, I think if we can try to establish more clearly whether it’s implicit discrimination or something else, it might be possible to use technology to address it.”

Theseira believes that those who habitually use Kiva are more strategic, businesslike, and less biased. These repeat users are interested in details that are relevant to loan-worthiness rather than irrelevant details such as attractiveness. His suggestion is to present a set of profile designed for newer users to counteract measured biases. Theseira also suggests that offering fewer choices or designign elements of the site to slow the decision-making process could help with users who feel overwhelmed by choices.

Theseira, like many academics in the field, is hungry for more information about why people prefer to fund light skinned, attractive people. Current research is at the tip of the iceberg. Theseira has expanded his research to, a European lending site where investors earn interest. This will help to better understand the incentives behind the decisions made when lending.

“You can lend directly to a small business in Africa”

Kiva’s leaders have been “admirably open” about the problem of biases and are eager to innovate ways to avoid micro-discrimination in regards to geography, industry, and male-female bias. With new information and published studies, hopefully these biases can be buried.

Crowdsourcing the Gulf oil Spill

In order to track the effects of the Gulf oil spill, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has launched a Ushahidi supported database. Combining text messages, calls, and e-mails into a visually mapped and searchable source of information allows help to be directed to areas of urgent need. PBS’s Sam Weber interviews Anne Rolfes, who founded the Bucket Brigade, about this project.

Rolfes actually learned about Ushahidi in a class attended at Tulane University! This tool filled her already felt need for a tool to place text messaged information on a map.  The decision to transition to using Ushahidi was swift (done in under a week) and successful (in the interest point of view.) One setback of Ushahidi in this situation is in the reliability of data. Rolfes says that verification is extremely important in making sure that the data is accurate and truthful.

In the specific case of the Gulf Oil Spill, the livelihoods of people who live along the Louisiana coast are the most apparently affected. Alabama and Pensacola fishermen are banned from their careers, often ones that have been passed down through generations. These effects can be reported, while most of the environmental damage that is out further in the gulf cannot be reported.

Rolfes hopes that this project will give people a voice, encourage regular people to share their story, and increase the availability of information about this catastrophe. “It enables that voice to merge with the thousands of other commercial fishermen who are out of work.” Not only are these stories shared and allow these people to connect with others, but it also demonstrates the magnitude of the catastrophe. Rolfes hopes that by the end thousands of stories will be compiled and this project will become a stable source of information for first response teams such as Health and Human Services, the Coast Guard, or Wildlife and Fisheries.

When asked about other applications of Ushahidi in other situations within America, Rolfes says that she can think of 10 other applications off the top of her head in New Orleans alone.

“Think about the complaints over corruption. Imagine if we had an Ushahidi map of New Orleans’ City Hall and residents were able to text in when they had problems with a permit or got the run around getting a particular kind of contract. The [possibilities] are endless. We are extremely proud to have what we believe is the very first use [of Ushahidi] in the U.S. for humanitarian purposes.”

When related to the checklist for planning strategic use of ICTs, this open source of data assists with several criteria. Texts from people who are affected by disasters is a direct supply of information about the context in that area. Problems are reported from the perspective of those in need. By posting information in casual text messages or emails, the content is provided in an easy to read and understand format. This provides additional insight on how to formulate solutions or strategies for problems. Ongoing updates will also aid the monitoring and evaluation of implemented strategies.  Finally, since all of this information is open to public access, other people dealing with disasters that are similar will be able to learn from previous experiences and mistakes.

Global Health, Farming, Education, or Climate Change: What Would Apple Do?

Observing Apple’s success in recent years due to innovative and intuitive technological advances, Ken Banks explores how the “Steve Jobs approach” might be applied to conservation and development. A series of blog posts from FrontlineSMS called Mobile Message discusses how mobile phones and other technologies are being used to improve, enrich, and empower billions of people’s lives across the world. Olivia O’Sullivan, the Media and Research Assistant of National Geographic’s news watch, comments on Banks’ approach in the (title mentioned above) article.

The article starts with a quote from Michael Noer’s Forbes article titled “The Stable Boy and the iPad,”

“Two weeks ago, I was staying at a working dairy farm sixty kilometers north of Bogotá, Colombia. I was fiddling around with my iPad when one of the kids that worked in the stables came up to me and started staring at it. He couldn’t have been more than six years old, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that he had never used a computer or even a cellular telephone before (Colombia has many attractions. The vast pool of illiterate poor is not one of them)

Curious, I handed him the device and a very small miracle happened. He started using it. I mean, really using it. Almost instantly, he was sliding around, opening and closing applications, playing a pinball game I had downloaded. All without a single word of instruction from me”

This observation is reminiscent of Sugata Mitra’s minimally invasive education idea as promoted by the Hole in the Wall experiment. If (only) there were funding to provide impoverished children with new technology such as the iPad, the curiosity inspired in the children would provoke incredible learning.

O’Sullivan asks two questions: What would happen if Apple turned a fraction of its attention to solving  conservation or development problems? And secondly, why doesn’t Apple work in conservation or development?

The answer, as presented later in the reading, is that Steve Jobs felt that he was contributing best to the world by focusing his energy on creating brilliant products. He “saw almost everything other than Apple’s mission as a distraction” Further, it is speculated that if Steve Jobs were to take up a philanthropic approach, he would have funded programs that worked in nutrition and vegetarianism rather than technology (according to Mark Vermillion.)

O’Sullivan presents five thoughts on where an Apple approach to ICT4D might be problematic:

1. Consult the User- Apple notoriously doesn’t consult its customers before designing products. Steve Jobs once said,

“Our job is to figure out what users are going to want before they do. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” 

This approach would most likely not fly with the various stakeholders involved in the ICT4D world.

2. Customer vs. beneficiary- Apple sees people as customers and carries out commercial transactions. However, in the ICT4D world, regular business rules don’t apply. Therefore, this mindset would lead to further complications.

3. Open vs Closed- Steve Jobs was against the open-source approach that most ICT4D project employ. Rather, he advocated for controlling all aspects of the user experience, including hardware and software. He believes that open source systems were fragmented while closed source ones were better integrated.

4. Time for the field- As a corporate megastar, Apple doesn’t have the time to get to know the individuals that they are trying to help. Understanding the worldview as well as needs of people in developing countries is extremely important in reaching a sustainable resolution.

5. Appropriate Technology- Apple’s products are generally expensive, power hungry, and reliant on computers. The closed source systems would make innovation around the platform difficult. Opening up the system, which Steve Jobs would (as mentioned above) never want, would most likely lower the standards of excellence in design and usability.

Thus, a Steve Jobs/Apple approach to the ICT4D world would definitely need some fixes. Perhaps a post-Steve Jobs Apple will develop a new philanthropic personality. They have capital, talent, and resources available that could reinvent ICT4D. However, this reinvention would likely have interesting unexpected results.

Telemedicine adoption “disappointing’ so far

February 17th, 2012

This article is a general overview of the disappointments of the slow adoption of telemedicine, a provision of healthcare or medical information/services through communication lines or broadband connection. This technology has been around for decades, and while it has great potential for solving problems of global healthcare (especially in developing countries) the adoption of this technology has been less rapid than hoped. Jamie Yap, the author of the article, discusses a few reasons for the slow adoption of telemedicine.

1. One of the most prevalent reasons for low adoption rates was the lack of official government support as well as insurance companies in reimbursing patients for the cost of telemedicine services and devices. Clinical reimbursement is one initiative that would provide motivation for people to use telemedicine services.

2. A lack of broadband penetration in emerging markets such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Limited availability of broadband networks is also serving as a large infrastructure related obstacles in large, rural populations such as India and China. Low broadband availability also means that there is less awareness among practitioners and patients towards the benefits of telemedicine. This awareness also creates obstacles in a legal sense as some practitioners are reluctant to use telemedicine because of legal issues surrounding possible medical indemnity issues.

3. Patients above the age of 65 experience hesitation or difficulty in adopting this new technology. However, the elderly is a group that could likely experience great benefits from the adoption of this technology.

4. Most telemedicine projects tend to be government-funded initiatives that lack private sector support. This leads to a lack of sustainability in the initiatives once government funds run out. There needs to be a unified effort between government and private sectors in order to promote sustainable telemedicine initiatives.

Hopefully the future of telemedicine will be bright. A new wave of medical school students are being educated in the areas of telemedicine. This new focus in education will help to promote awareness of the benefits and opportunities that telemedicine adoption presents.