Appropriateness, affordability and sustainability of technology

Since I started working as innovation and new media consultant I often find myself struggling on exactly should be and how to look at the assessment of environments for the implementation of projects involving the use or the introduction of the so called new technologies.

One of my main concerns is that often I will find a general focus on the evaluation of the infrastructure that allow the technology to work amd the quality of the technology in terms of functioning, and not on the qualitative background necessary for the technology to actually be used.

What I think it is extremely important here is not to focus on one or the other but to make sure that all of them are taken into consideration and understood in their complexity.

The technology

The functioning of the technology is pretty much straight forward. It does work or it does not work. On the other side that fact that a technology works does not mean that the technology is the right one for the goal you have. Increasingly people choose a technology because they like it and then try to fit it to their objectives. The reason is that often there is interest, from donors and NGOs in financing and trying new technologies as to show how innovative your organization or project is. In this context the main problem that emerges is that the technology itself, being it radio, mobile, wifii, computer based, can be working perfectly but not really adding anything to the original context. Other times the technology is working perfectly but the additional cost of it it is too high for the users.

I see this every time people approach me asking to help them in using a Ushahidi platform for their project. What often happen in this case is that people see Ushahidi as a powerful tool for crowd sourcing, but they forget that the platform is also a mapping tool. For instance, not necessarily all crowd sourced information is mappable, and more than that, not all mapped crowd sourced information is actually going to give an additional value to the the information itself. E same thing happen when people want to use the Ushahidi platform to map historical data, where most likely a GIS map or a static map will be more useful in term of visualization and also in terms of accessibility – allowing for offline, printable maps to be produced more easily.

Affordability of technology

The affordability of technology is something extremely important that is often linked to the sustainability of a project. One of the main issue here is that traditionally people have been focusing on how much does a technology equipment/ maintenance costs. This is indeed a problem, but not always the main one. Sometimes the cost a technology is not directly related to the money necessary to buy or to maintain it, but to the cost associated with the consequences of using it. I will make an example here:

Pamoja FM is a radio station in Kibera in the city of Nairobi. Pamoja FM decided some time ago to use a short code number agreed with Safaricom to increase it’s revenues. Since the radio receives a lot of SMS from its listenership they thought that having a short code would have allow them to get more money out of it, pne of the reason being that Pamoja is a community radio station and for this reason it is not allowed to do advertisements. Safaricom did an agreement with the radio and gave to them a 4 digit short code at an increased price so that part of the revenues from the short code could go to the radio station. The short code worked beautifully. The radio was getting 5 shillings per SMS and the number was easy to remember. The problem was that the increased price was really increased since the prices for one SMS on the user end was 10 shillings, compared to the normal price of 2 shillings. The number of messages that the radio was receiving decreased from 500 a day to almost 0. In this situation the technology was working and doing exactly what it was supposed to do, but the assumption that users would have paid such an amount of money to send an SMS to the radio was wrong.

Appropriateness of technology

This issue is strictly related to the how do u chose which technology is the best for your project and for the place where u are going to implement it. Some time ago I had a discussion with Laura Hudson from FLSMS about the necessity to have not only technical assessment but also “cultural behavior” assessment on the use of technology in a specific context.

One example is what happened to the Ushahidi Chile project when I was still finishing my Master at Columbia University and with a group of students, and the support of the Ushahidi team and a local organization, we set up 2 phone numbers to receive informations directly from afford communities in the country. In the first 2 month of the project the team in NYC was very surprised that very few people were actually reporting using those numbers and that we were receiving more messages asking us to answer the phone (which we could not do) than to report directly via SMS. Once we went to the country we discovered that Chileans normally do not use SMS, and that they are much more used to phone calls than to text. We could not find out what the reason was, but everyone we talked to confirmed to us that they were very rarely using text rather than calls. A similar example is the U-Shahid project in Egypt, where even if provided with an SMS system, people during the elections were reporting using much more twitter and Internet than their phone, simply because they were more used to that and because the Internet in their phone was comparatively cheaper than the SMS.

The appropriatness of techology is also related to the social aspects and role of that technology Ina given context. I will use as example one of the Radio stations we work with and it’s role in the community in Kenya. I am currently working on a project to use Mobile Money to create a system where listeners will be able to place greeting messages in the radio station by calling unique number and paying with their mWallet for the message. In choosing the radio stations to be involved in the pilot project we had to exclude some very interesting community radios. The reason behind this was not that they were not appropriate for the project but that they were such an important point of gathering for the community that the introduction of a remote system to place greetings could have jeopardize the important role that those radios are playing in their community. The introduction of a new technology here could have as secondary effect the distraction of a social system that is not only working but very important for the local population.

The true is that even if people do have technology, and use it, they use it in a very different way according to their culture, their life and the actual context they live in. Decide to use SMS in a country just because there is a high literacy rate and a good mobile penetration is not enough: we need to understand how people use mobile phones, why and in which context.

For this reason when doing an assessment for the use of technology cultural behaviors and social dynamics should be considered as one of the main important component.

So, how do I assess the use do technology?

I have been asked this question once and I answered by saying that I do two things: I go to the local market, and I take public transportation. Why?

Local market because in this way I can see how people do make transactions, how do they communicate, and how do they evaluate prices, and what social dynamics are present as related to gender, economical situation and information sharing. For instance, do people use mobile banking, and if yes, how often and frequently? Do people talk about politics and what is going on in the country in the market? Where do people in the market come from, and if from far, are they the once that share info with the others coming from other areas? Do people listen to the radio in the stands? Do they play with their phones? Do people compare prices? And if yes, how?

Public transportation for a very specific reason: people get bored when they do long trips, and they tend to find way to spend that time. This is when the driver may put up some music, and normally is the radio. And in the same time is when people will either read or play with their phones – if they have one. What do they read? Do they use their phones to send SMS? Do they go on Facebook? Do they tweet? Do they play games? And if the driver put the radio on, what programs is he listening to? Does the radio program have only music or also debates? …

Of course, this isn’t the only way I do assessment, but it is normally a very good start. Listen and observe before asking and drawing conclusions :-)

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One Response to Appropriateness, affordability and sustainability of technology

  1. Wonderful article. Very informative and relevant considering the current “mobile revolution” across Africa. I think it’s something that must be read over and over again so we don’t get carried away with the technology itself.

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