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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Paper: Strengthening citizen agency through ICT: an extrapolation for Eastern Africa

This is the summary of the paper “Strengthening citizen agency through ICT: an extrapolation for Eastern Africa” by Giacomo Zanello and Paul Maassen

It deals with ICT in support to citizen agency which includes to involve & inform communities and interact with and influence authorities

The paper focuses on what is already happening and where the potentials lie – how can active citizens interact with society & authorities with the use of ICT tools

The geographical area covered is Eastern Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda)

The research is based on an open questionnaire by Hivos

Key questions:

  • Which conditions enable citizen agency in developing countries?
  • How can ICT support citizen agency in order to influence the authorities?
  • Based on technological projections, how will ICT support the efficiency and effectiveness of citizen agency in 5 years time?



Civil society: seen as essential actor for promoting democracy in developing countries

Citizen agency: broader definition of civil society including NGOs, labour & student unions, …

The main reason why new ICT can help citizen agency

  • Bi- (or multi-) directional tools
  • Real time

The two main uses of ICT

  • Information and monitoring of authorities
  • Organize citizen actions

Examples for information and monitoring

  • Ushahidi: crowd-sourcing information on incidents and violence
  • Bunge SMS: tool to report to members of the parliament about the actions of the local government
  • Behind the mask: communication initiative for LGBTI activists
  • Global Voices Online: participatory news platform for developing countries
  • volunteer run project to keep an eye on the Kenyan parliament
  • East African platform for debates on various issues

Examples for organization

  • provides groups working in international development with email lists and webspace
  • Tactical Tech: international NGO providing human rights advocates with consultancy, tools, trainings & toolkits to increase the impact of their campaigns
  • FrontlineSMS: free software to turn a mobile with a modem into a communications hub
  • Nabuur: links online volunteers with local communities

Generally there is a big and vibrant civil society in East Africa and ICTs have huge potentials to assist these initiatives to reach their aim

It is no longer a question of technology – as technology is already there – but imagination, adaptability and time

The key is not complex devices, but usable and easy to understand technology – therefore it is important to focus on grass roots development instead of importing solutions

The prerequisites for a spread of ICTs in the next 5 years are

  • Energy – there is a need for alternative sources of energy such as solar power
  • Connectivity – the forecast in this study predicts a rise to about 70% coverage in Eastern Africa
  • Literacy – easy to use systems, voice command and local languages in applications can overcome the current problems
  • Income – new devices will cost less and be therefore better affordable

Another vital prerequisite is the need to find out about the desired use of ICTs for East African citizens – technology has to address the needs of the people

Therefore an interdisciplinary approach including anthropology would be useful

As seen above, for democracy and transparency ICTs have large potentials – including citizen journalism or election watch

The challenges of ICT in the near future are twofold

  • Networking between people with similar goals and for sharing experiences on a national or even global level
  • Give voice for global leaders and visionaries to give them visibility and connectivity


The original article Strengthening citizen agency through ICT: an extrapolation for Eastern Africa

I think the article is a good overview over the issues of civil society initiatives in East Africa in particular and the conclusions and predictions of it can even be extended to a larger geographical area.

It is once again underlined that real innovation always comes from bottom-up and ICT can release huge potentials when meeting the needs of the people.

I also definitely support the call for more interdisciplinary research on the ground to find out the real needs of the people – combined with collaborating with grass roots initiatives and empowering people by giving them possibilities to access to the world and connect with like-minded people.

I feel like the international research scene has given up the top-down approach already a while ago – but still there are way too many projects out there preaching not fitting imported solutions to citizens in developing countries and driving them into dependence of Western assistance.

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Paper: Strengthening citizen agency through ICT: an extrapolation for Eastern Africa
was published on 17.06.2009 by Florian Sturm. It files under east africa
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M-banking and economic development

Once more I would like to introduce some papers that I found interesting and insightful during writing my thesis.

Mobile banking and economic development: Linking adoption, impact, and use – by Jonathan Donner, Microsoft Research India and Camilo Andres Tellez, London School of Economics and Political Science. It was published this December in the Asian Journal of Communication.

In the following a short summary of the paper:

The paper is about research of the usage of m-banking and m-payment systems which are used by people without access to traditional banks. Specifically, small enterprises in urban India are observed.

Across the developing world, there are probably more people with mobile phones than with bank accounts. In countries like The Phillipines or Kenya services which provide banking services via mobile phone are very popular.

In the developing world, m-banking/m-payment applications are appreciated by the customers as well as the companies. Customers are happy that they get an affordable possibility to transfer money without handling cash, mobile phone companies see it as an easy service to offer and strengthen the bond to the customer, banks have identified it as a convenient method of “branchless banking”.

Most systems offer three services:

  • Store value in an account via a handset
  • Convert cash in and out of the stored value account
  • Transfer value between accounts

To date there is only few research on adoption and usage of m-banking/m-payment systems, especially the contextual factors have not been studied so far.

Three examples for important contextual factors:

  • Conceptualizing Electronic Money:
    interface to handle account services has to be easy and understandable
    “invisible money” has to be represented in an appropriate way
  • Existing Payment Mechanisms
    existing mechanisms and their functioning have to be kept in mind
  • The Social Embeddedness of Economic Transactions
    differences to whom the money is given
    woman empowerment through greater indepence?

When m-banking/m-payment is studied, there are doubtlessly many parallels to other ICTs. Considering it generally as an ICT4D, there are three cross-cutting themes which characterize the social structures underlying the usage of technology:

  • Bi-directionality of influence between communication technologies and the social structures in which they exist
  • Amplification and altering of existing social structures
  • Introduction of trust in the technology, in people, in own skills, …
Picture taken by Turkairo and uploaded on FlickR

Picture taken by Turkairo and uploaded on FlickR

Own study in urban India:

Despite the IT boom in India, most enterprises are still traditional, small and informal – without bank accounts. This study explores, how m-banking/m-payment systems might be used there. Business owners from Bangalore were interviewed for that purpose.

Three types of approaches were identified:

  • Relational businesses:
    no need for complex ICTs
    desire for mobile phone, but problems with affodability
  • Locational businesses:
    special relations to people in their business network
  • Formal enterprises:
    bigger companies
    active users of ICTs

Usage of ICTs has different motivations:

  • Getting new customers
  • Keeping better in contact with present customers
    issues with trust and user capabilities
    19 of 20 enterprises will for now stick to the face to face model for credits
  • Cost-savings are an important reason for using ICTs nowadys

More research concerning the conventions of using ICTs would be useful

  • This could explain the current usage of some services
  • the impact of providing the “unbanked” with a bank account have to be studies more closely


  • The emergence of m-banking/m-payment has implications for the whole social and economic sphere
    the borders between domestic/productive and social/transactional spheres are blurred
    both, social and economic spheres should be considered in further research
  • “the true measure of that importance [of m-banking/m-payment] will require multiple studies using multiple methodologies and multiple theoretical perspectives before our questions about adoption and impact will be answered [from the article]”

For the whole article I may refer here.

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M-banking and economic development
was published on 21.12.2008 by Florian Sturm. It files under south asia
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Africa and the Boom in Mobile Phone Subscription

Again I would like to introduce some papers that I found interesting and insightful during writing my thesis.

This time I will introduce the paper “Transforming Recent Gains In The Digital Divide Into Digital Opportunities: Africa And The Boom In Mobile Phone Subscription” from 2006. Based on recent developments it sums up the potential impact of the mobile phone on African society and economy. It was written by Peter A. Kwaku Kyem and Peter Kweku LeMaire (Central Connecticut State University, USA) for an issue of the online available journal “The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries” (EJISDC).

In the following a short summary of the paper:

In the past years mobile phone subscriptions, fixed lines and internet access have increased in Africa quicker than in any other region on earth.  The questions are now if this technological boost can be used for socioeconomic improvements and if, without accompanying measures, it is enough to raise the living standard.

Digital divide:

The gap results from socio-economic differences in the world that in turn affect their access to digital information. The digital divide thus reflects existing economic divisions in the world.“- from Dzidonu, C.K. (2001) – The Socio-Economic Development Implications of the Digital Divide within the context of African Countries

The digital divide was until 2004 decreased and the access to ICTs in developing countries is now catching up with the western world. A substantial task is now, not to focus just on the physical presence of the ICTs, but to have a clear vision of their use.

The mobile phone is unique in Africa, as it serves as the main communication device now and can take many hurdles, which conventional ICTs did not. Therefore it is the main ICT nowadays available (= becoming ubiquitous) and has a high economic potential.

Direct economic benefits:

  • microenterprises
  • outsourcing from developed countries is through ICTs possible
  • market information for rural and poor areas
  • organization and information – substitute for travels and person-to-person communication
  • improved banking services through M-banking

Socio-cultural impacts of mobile phones:

  • belonging to a communication network rahter than to a place
  • strengthen democracy (protests, elections)
  • status symbol
  • mixing of private and public life
  • increased sense of security

Other potential uses and impacts of mobile phones in Africa

  • improved health services
  • improved education
  • e-government

But overall, adoptions of the technology must come with improvements in other infrastructure areas, otherwise there will be no impact. Furthermore governments need to adapt appropriate ICT policies.


Although the paper doesn’t come up with the most surprising answers, it gives a good overview of the potentials of mobile phones in Africa. I think the main conclusions are still valid though a lot has happened in those two years since the paper was written. For the whole paper I may refer to EJISDC.

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Africa and the Boom in Mobile Phone Subscription
was published on 08.12.2008 by Florian Sturm. It files under middle east and north africa, sub saharan africa
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Village Pay Phone Project

As I am basically finished writing my Master thesis (hopefully my supervisor thinks like that too), I would like to introduce some papers that I found interesting and insightful.

This first on is “Village Pay Phones and Poverty Reduction: Insights from a Grameen Bank Initiative in Bangladesh” and is actually a classic.  It was written by Abdul Bayes (Professor of Economics, Jahangimagar University, Dhaka, Bangladesh), Joachim von Braun (Director at the Center for Development Research, Bonn, Germany) and Rasheda Akhter (Researcher, Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, Bangladesh) in 1999 for the Center for Development Research (ZEF) in Bonn.

I deals with the impact of the Village Pay Phone project of the Grameen Bank on the social and economic situation in the villages in Bangladesh where the project was implemented.

In the following a short summary of the paper:

The situation in Bangladesh 1999:

Village Pay Phone Lady - picture taken from Jeevs Sinclair

Village Pay Phone Lady - picture taken by Jeevs Sinclair

  • 80% of the population live in rural areas
  • 47% of the population live below the poverty line
  • Overall there is only few basic infrastructure

The telecom sector in Bangladesh:

  • 0.26 fixed lines per 100 people
  • Calls are expensive
  • Only 20% of calls are completed successfully
  • There are many complaints

Mobile phone operators entered the market some years ago and leapfrogged the fixed-line subscriptions almost immediately. The reason for this was also the competition between seven operators.

Village Pay Phones:

  • Based on an idea of the Grameen Bank
  • Provide mobile phones to the rural poor
  • Four international partners built an NGO and acquired the license for GSM
  • VPPs were only given to women with certain attributes
  • Call fees and the overall procedure were fixed

Phone owners were usually found to be poorer but socially more conscient than the phone users. Most of the people that made phone calls were non-poor (three-quarters) and male (two-third). Problems were for a lot of users the low connection quality which resulted in a wish for lower rates

The effects of Village Pay Phones:

Economic effects:

  • The VPP owners  gain a net profit of ~270 which accounts for about 1/5 to 1/4 of total income
  • The profit was mostly spent to installment payments, education and saving
  • The alternatives for VPPs would have involved transport costs
  • The consumer surplus is therefore quite high and for the poor it is higher than the not-poor
  • Farmers gain more money because they know about market prices
  • Supply of goods became smoother as the market can be better analysed with more information
  • Foreign exchange has been made more transparent
  • Livestock keepers are better informed of possible diseases and how to cure them
  • Poverty was reduced and people have more to eat
  • Dealing with disasters was made easier due to more communication

Socio-cultural effects:

  • Empowerment of women – more decisions are taken by women alone, mobility was raised
  • The owners of VPPs gain higher social status
  • Phone owners have more knowledge and confidence


So overall it can be said, that the whole project was a big success story and this guy has really earned his Nobel Prize. For the whole article I may refer to Google Scholar.

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Village Pay Phone Project
was published on 28.11.2008 by Florian Sturm. It files under south asia
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