Designing information and communication technologies for development

A few weeks ago I was invited to give a guest lecture on information and communication technologies for development in a course on political economy of development at the University of Sydney. The course is taught by Dr Elizabeth Hill, who has done very interesting research on work and care dynamics in the Indian economy.

In the talk I gave an overview of our ICT4D.at projects Hello Africa, Zanzicode, and the Seaweed farming study from a human-centred design perspective. Aspects that we discussed in the lecture included methods for understanding the context before doing a project in a development context and how to design for sustainable interventions. I referenced IDEO’s open source human-centred design toolkit which was developed for social enterprises and NGOs. The toolkit describes design techniques that consider the aspects of desirability, feasibility, and viability. The techniques are structured into the phases ‘hear’, ‘create’, and ‘deliver’. Similar to other design frameworks, these phases suggest to start with concrete observations about people in the beginning of a project, to move towards more abstract thinking in the phase of creating ideas, and then back to concrete solutions when delivering the project.

The message at the core of my talk was that focusing on the product or service alone won’t necessarily lead to a successful intervention even if it’s technologically really well delivered. The techniques covered in the toolkit support the consideration of other human-centred layers that will play an important role but might be easily overseen.

In that regard I recently read a very interesting article on why great technology alone is not the answer, as well as the even more interesting responses by Tim Brown from IDEO and Paul Polak from iDE. Tim points out the importance of focusing on the entire chain of how a product reaches and impacts people. Paul talks about the need of establishing an effective communication channel. If no one knows about your product or service no one will be able to benefit from it. Paul describes a case study where they trained local people to install pumps and hired village troubadours and theatre groups to write and perform songs about the pumps, which I think is an amazing story from which there is much to learn.

The slides from my talk are included below and published under CC on slideshare.

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Designing information and communication technologies for development
was published on 27.10.2011 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under global
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ICT4D sessions at CHI 2010

Thomas Smyth and others have shared some very valuable compilations of ICT4D-related sessions that will be held at CHI 2010, which starts tomorrow. Below is an edited summary of the events. If you are interested in HCI-related announcements and discussions, join the HCI4D Google group.

MONDAY
11:30-13:00 Panel: Addressing Challenges in Doing International Field Research

TUESDAY
9:00-10:30 HCI and India session, with three HCI4D papers, including one best paper
11:30-13:00 Panel: Computing Technology in International Development
14:30-16:00 Crisis Informatics with papers on Liberia and Iraq
16:30-18:00 HCI for All session with a very interesting paper on Post-colonial computing

WEDNESDAY
9:00-10:30 Storytelling session with some work from Gary Marsden‘s group; also the Social Impact Award session
14:30-16:00 Medical data session with a paper on health and persuasion (also a best paper); also Imagine all the people alt.chi session with paper on Rwanda
16:30-18:00 HCI, Communities, and Politics panel, which is not specific to HCI4D, but very relevant

THURSDAY
14:30-16:00 HCI and the Developing World session

FRIDAY
11.30-14.30 GVU research showcase in the Technology Square Research Building, demonstrating work by the Technologies and International Development lab

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ICT4D sessions at CHI 2010
was published on 09.04.2010 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under global
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Notes from the Workshop on Ethics, Roles and Relationships in Interaction Design in Developing Regions

Yesterday, the workshop Ethics, Roles and Relationships in Interaction Design in Developing Regions took place in Uppsala, Sweden and around the world, as people where joining presentations and discussions online including from the UK, Madeira, and Malaysia. The workshop is part of the INTERACT2009 conference, which takes place from 24-28 August.

Eight very interesting papers were presented and discussed during the workshop. For example, Andy Dearden raised the question of how to analyse the risks of unintended consequences; Maira Carvalho investigated different approaches for designing interactive systems at a distance, where researchers don’t have access to the users; Chu Yin Wong presented a user-centred design process for developing a mobile community service addressing the deaf in Malaysia; Eugene Danilkis and Sofia Nunes presented results from their field research on mobile banking in Mozambique; Pam McLean talked about the work she is doing at Dadamac, and how this can benefit researchers.

An important issue that Ida Horner raised in her presentation, and which we have also experienced during our work in Zanzibar, was the importance of doing research in the field and familiarising yourself with the environment, before implementing anything. Ida stressed that it is particularly important to understand how communities are organised. Otherwise researchers run into conflicts before they even started.

Overall, I expected the workshop to focus more on interaction design and experiences regarding methodologies, while most of the discussions that followed each presentation focused on ethical issues, often raising high-level problems that interaction designers might not always be able to solve. These issues were also reflected by the workshop themes, but the questions that remained for me where: what is the role of interaction designers in developing regions, how is it different to their role in more traditional contexts, and what are appropriate methodologies?

An interesting discussion emerged around problem solving, which seems to be a very engineering/technology-driven approach, and whether this approach is appropriate in a developing context. Are interaction designers solving problems? And are researchers bound to only generate new knowledge and understanding, but not supposed to solve problems? Although being an academic I personally don’t completely agree on that, but maybe that is only because I always had one foot in industry projects as well. I would be interested to hear others’ opinions on this.

We also presented our paper Designing an SMS-based application for seaweed farmers in Zanzibar (and why it failed for now) at the Workshop. In this paper we discuss a project that we started, while we were in Tanzania again last year, working on the Hello Africa movie. The project described in the paper was not successful measured by our initial goals. It was successful given the insights that we gained by applying a user-centred design approach in the field. The aim of the paper is to share our conclusions of why the project failed, since we believe that many projects in an African context might experience similar challenges. Below are the slides from our presentation.

All workshop papers are available from here. Many thanks to Andy Dearden and Niall Winters for organising this event! It’s a really valuable step towards better understanding the roles and ethical issues interaction designers need to be aware of in developing contexts.

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Notes from the Workshop on Ethics, Roles and Relationships in Interaction Design in Developing Regions
was published on 25.08.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under global
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New Journal of ICT Research and Development in Africa

The International Journal of ICT Research and Development in Africa (IJICTRDA) is a new journal on research, advanced analytical methods and techniques, leading e-innovations, and development policies in information and communication technology adoption and diffusion in Africa and around the globe.

Topics that will be covered in the journal include ICT applications in agriculture and rural development, agribusiness supply chain management, coordination and integration, food security, poverty alleviation, food and agricultural marketing linkages, and rural financial service delivery.

The Editor-in-Chief currently invites authors to consider submitting articles to be featured in the inaugural issue of the journal. Articles may report on empirical research investigations, theoretical frameworks, case studies and major trends in ICT applications in food and agriculture, and rural development.

Being member of the Editorial Advisory Board of IJICTRDA, I’m especially looking forward to seeing submissions on case studies with an emphasis on interaction design and the design process in general. We will also cover published articles on this weblog, once the first journal is out.

For more information visit the publisher website or see the journal brochure.

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New Journal of ICT Research and Development in Africa
was published on 28.05.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under sub saharan africa
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Mobile storytelling and shared village displays

Last week our students had to present a conference paper as part of their HCI class activities. The slides below are based on the paper “Mobile Digital Storytelling in a Developmental Context” by David Frohlich et al., which was presented at CHI this year.

The paper describes a field study that was conducted in an Indian village, where people received mobile camera phones to record non-textual stories, which were also presented on a village display.

Study participants rated the stories they created regarding their motivation, which was distributed between relevance for the community and personal interest. They further stated that most of the stories were created to be viewed by friends and family. Many of the stories were shown on the village display and often large groups of 15-20 people gathered around the 17″ monitor to watch stories.

In their study, which was organised in collaboration with local NGOs they discovered two different types of content and uses for custom mobile storytelling. On the one hand it can be used to help local organisations in creating and sharing information more easily, involving local people in the process. On the other hand they suggest that mass mobile storytelling applications could be deployed on a larger scale to create local cultural libraries. These libraries could complement conventional books, being represented as spoken word and video, instead of written text. Their vision is that stories could be checked out from the distance and played on mobile or public displays.

What I found most interesting when reading the paper was the high use of the public village display. This really shows the potential of such displays for shared communication in developing contexts. I doubt that similar uses of public displays would be emerge in the western world.

The complete paper is available from the ACM library.

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Mobile storytelling and shared village displays
was published on 21.05.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under south asia
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The downside of mobile technologies

We like to praise the availability of mobile technologies in African countries and to talk about the opportunities that emerged from the introduction of mobile phones. However, it is important to acknowledge that where there is much light, the shadow is deep. When we were in Africa last year to work on the UZI Africa project, we already encountered stories, where the mobile phone was responsible for family conflicts. For example somebody told us how a guy thought that his wife was cheating on him, because she was regularly calling a phone number he didn’t know.

Crystal Watley who lives in Kenya and works for Voices of Africa recently wrote about the negative consequences for family and social relationships at the MobileActive discussion group:

  1. Cell phones make it easier to cheat on your spouse.
  2. Cell phones GIVE away the secrets of the spouses that were already cheating thus causing household tension and domestic violence.
  3. African men tend to be very jealous and often use mobile phones as a way to control their women monitoring every message and call.
  4. Violence and jealousy is also caused between those who own phones and those who do not. Or between those with different model phones. Theft is rampant.

Surely this cannot be generalized, but it is important to keep the possibility of negative side effects in mind when designing technologies for the African market. Maybe technology can even be turned into a tool that helps to avoid and eventually eliminate such conflicts?

(Thanks to Crystal for sharing this.)

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The downside of mobile technologies
was published on 14.04.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under sub saharan africa
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MobileActive08 interview: Introducing Streetwise

For the time being this is the last video interview that we will introduce through the MobileActive08 podcast series. And we have saved a really exciting interview to conclude this series!

In the video below Chris Williamson from Psitek (a South Africa-based innovative product development company) introduces Streetwise – a mobile computing device that aims to to provide students with lean Internet services, like e-mail or news. The entire device was designed and engineered by Psitek. It comes with a replaceable, durable keyboard and a GPRS antenna that provides Internet access through a SIM card. The device runs on a standard mobile phone battery, but can also be driven on a car battery.

Make sure to watch the second part of the video, where Chris shows this ground-breaking device and explains its features in detail.

Streetwise has also been mentioned recently on WhiteAfrican.com.

This is the 20th and last interview from our MobileActive08 video podcast series, shot at the conference in Johannesburg (organized by MobileActive and sangonet).

Stay tuned for the next video podcast series, which will start soon!

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MobileActive08 interview: Introducing Streetwise
was published on 06.04.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under global
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MobileActive08: Jacob Mtalitinya (Tanzania)

In this week’s video interview Jacob Mtalitinya from the University of Dar Es Salaam gives us some insights into the usage and research of mobile technologies in Tanzania. He explains how the introduction of mobile phones has changed the way people in Tanzania communicate and why M-Pesa has become so popular. At the University of Dar Es Salaam Jacob Mtalitinya investigates the social impacts of mobile technologies. His group is also working together with international partners to push forward research in this area.

This is the 19th interview from our MobileActive08 video podcast series, shot at the conference in Johannesburg (organized by MobileActive and sangonet).

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MobileActive08: Jacob Mtalitinya (Tanzania)
was published on 30.03.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under sub saharan africa
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Ethnography and design (notes from a talk)

A few days ago I attended a talk by Jeanette Blomberg at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Jeanette worked at Xerox PARC in the 80s and is currently at IBM research. The talk was about ethnography and design, based on her experience from working as an ethnographer in a technology context for the last 25 years.

Since ethnographic research is really relevant for the design of ICT4D solutions and probably most of our readers have used ethnographic methods themselves in their work before, I decided to post a short summary of my notes here.

Jeanette started with a nice introduction about ethnographic research and presented the following principles of ethnography:

  • study activities in their everyday settings
  • focus on relations among activities and people (interactions) and not on single tasks or isolated individuals
  • descriptive accounts of activity
  • member’s point of view
  • focus on what people do

She further emphasized how ethnography should be seen as a collection of multiple methods for collecting data, including informal interviews, observations, self-reporting, video analysis, artifact analysis, etc. It’s also important to “adjust as you go”, since ethnography is a very improvisational approach, which requires iteration. This is a very important issue in my opinion and something that I personally often find difficult to implement in an academic context, where you have to define your research approach in detail beforehand.

Another interesting insight that I took away from this presentation was that participatory design (PD) is often used as ethnographic method, meaning that ethnographers don’t only observe people without interfering (one of the myths about ethnography), but also involve them in the design process. Apparently a joining of PD and ethnography happened in the middle 80s.

PD in an ICT4D context has been done (e.g. for developing community radios), but as Gary Marsden said during a session on mobile interaction design at last year’s MobileActive conference, it often doesn’t work to involve users for informing the design process in developing countries. Or more specific, the context and hence the requirements are different to developed countries, where PD and user-centered design (UCD) have been successfully applied and explored for many decades.

The talk ended with a discussion of how both technologies and goals have changed over time. Technology is currently developing towards an anytime/anywhere approach and technology-enabled services. (Very true for ICT4D.) Goals have changed from improving the quality of work life (in the 80s) to designing more usable and useful technologies, and more success products. Recent trends show that now the most important goal often is to design more sustainable (“green”) products. (Again, something that is very true for ICT4D, considering that resources are scarce in developing countries.)

Thanks to Jeanette Blomberg for this really insightful talk and thanks to UTS for organizing the event.

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Ethnography and design (notes from a talk)
was published on 28.03.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under global
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MobileActive08 interview: Matthias Wevelsiep (Plan Finland)

This week’s video from our MobileActive08 interview series features Matthias Wevelsiep, who is originally from Germany, but currently works as Senior Program Manager for Human Rights and ICT at Plan Finland. Plan Finland is an NGO that has projects in Africa, Asia and the Americas, where they work together with children, families, communities, and local organizations to develop programs at grassroots levels in fields such as health and education.

In the interview below (this week in German), Matthias talks about the impacts of digital technologies on social movements. He raises the interesting question whether the focus of such research is on digital social movements or on social movements who also employ digital channels. “I believe that that the social movement will totally naturally use digital channels more and more,” says Matthias and gives some examples, where Plan Finland was involved, such as the African Movement of Working Children and Youth. They operate in different countries and adapting digital communication and organization channels from country to country represents a big challenge.

Matthias concludes that the introduction of new technologies is not necessarily important, but that development rather happens on a different level, since existing technologies are often used in other ways than imagined or intended. – “People like to say, ‘well if it doesn’t work in Finland, why should it work anywhere else?’ but if you look closer, you would be surprised to see how well and economically things actually work, just in slightly different ways,” he says.

This is the 18th interview from our MobileActive08 video podcast series, shot at the conference in Johannesburg (organized by MobileActive and sangonet).

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MobileActive08 interview: Matthias Wevelsiep (Plan Finland)
was published on 23.03.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under sub saharan africa
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