What difference does difference make?

Posted by on Jul 20, 2013 in Thesis

Written in Python and Django, RapidSMS is a free and open-source framework for building customized applications. One of the RapidSMS design philosophies is ‘Encourage Community Involvement.’ In the case of RapidSMS, this header is directed towards the open source coding community as the primary ‘user.’ RapidSMS is a uniquely extensible and customizable platform, initially used by developers to create applications for secondary ‘users.’ Applications developed tend to have one goal, such as polling, disease surveillance, drug tracking, birth registration, or pregnancy monitoring. These applications are ‘designed specifically to meet the needs and demands of their stakeholders.’

Ureport is a RapidSMS application that ‘uses a participatory crowd-sourcing approach to strengthen citizen-led social monitoring.’ The Ureport strategy largely consists of weekly poll questions and useful information sent out to 216,231 Ureporters across Uganda. By sending the text message, ‘join,’ to a toll-free number and submitting a few personal details, anyone with a mobile phone can become a volunteer ‘U-reporter’, sharing their observations and ideas on a wide range of development issues (taken from here). As stated in this blog post, ‘results are providing very useful information that helps UNICEF and partners better design development programs.’

frog has also developed SMS-based applications, ‘teaming up with Girl Effect and the Nike Foundation to explore the nature and value of digital connections for young women living in poverty.’ Prototyping a girl-led approach, frog hopes to work with girls to ‘build their own local girl communities, which could then be networked together globally via mobile technologies.’

FrontlineSMS is a ‘free open source software used by a variety of organizations to distribute and collect information via SMS’ (wikipedia). As stated on the Frontline SMS website. a’lack of communication can be a major barrier for grassroots non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in developing countries. FrontlineSMS is the first text messaging system created exclusively with this problem in mind.’

I critique all SMS-based projects, especially my own. At no point do I consider my project better than any other; but it is different. Every ICT4D project begins from certain premises, prioritizes a certain approach, and places value on certain outcomes. So let’s talk about it.

I’m interpreting other SMS-based projects through the lens of my thesis work involving the women of Bugolobi Market. As self-employed produce vendors, restaurateurs, and hair stylists, the women of Bugolobi Market have strategically diverse roles that enable them to build social and economic capital – savvy business owners, communication facilitators, savings association members, and local actors (to name a few). To me, encouraging community involvement (as stated by RapidSMS) requires learning how to integrate the diverse roles of women into the design process, incorporating their strengths as resources, and framing their relationship to technology development as bi-directional.

The applications that use RapidSMS as their platform generally have one goal or desired outcome. Since when does anyone have one, isolated goal? RapidSMS-MCH, an SMS-based alert system designed to monitor pregnancy and reduce maternal and child deaths in Rwanda, monitored 11,502 pregnancies from May 2010 to April 2011. I’m not sure what that means exactly for those pregnant mothers, but the meager 180 messages sent through the SMS platform I am designing – the Bugolobi Market Mailing List – quantifiably can’t even compete. However, a young, single pregnant mother traveling to a clinic and arriving on time for her pre-natal appointment might sound like one goal, but each word in that example points towards other impediments, strengths, or ambitions that contextualize that one goal amongst many. It seems trivial to consider achieving one isolated outcome as impactful without acknowledging the contributing factors that could either enable or disable that outcome along the way.

For example, I love receiving appointment reminders over SMS. I understand the importance of pre-natal care, but I’m a young mother and older sister to six others. Traveling to my pre-natal appointment demands that I leave my siblings unsupervised. And yesterday afternoon, we received a heavy rain. I haven’t seen a taxi successfully reach our village yet because of the thick mud. This SMS application isn’t designed to help me receive pre-natal care. It’s designed to capture data for its stakeholders.

Who are the stakeholders in such projects? And on what premises are such ICT4D projects built? Most are built on the premise that the user needs information. As stated previously, Ureport collects and sends useful information. Useful to whom? Oh, to UNICEF, its stakeholder. I get it now.

Ureport does a great job allowing young Ugandans to speak out on UNICEF’s questions, helping UNICEF gather relevant information to exert influence on local, regional, and national stakeholders. With all of the evaluation requirements, diversity of partners, national and international regulations, and donor demands, it’s a wonderful achievement for a large organization such as UNICEF to even be asking questions. But rather than all versions of ‘reply’ always going to UNICEF, what if Ureporters could share responses with Ureporters within their immediate community? What poll would youth from Soroti propose? What useful information could a youth from Mbarara share with the youth from Soroti? The youth I worked with during my fieldwork had remarkable skills in landscape design and wanted to learn more about the Wiki Leaks. Ureporters sending messages, responses, polls, questions, and useful information to each other sounds much more interesting and surprising than Ureporters replying to UNICEF. With this in mind, Ureport is a good demonstration of a top-down approach to technology design, development, implementation.

During my fieldwork in Uganda, I prototyped a market price application. The women market vendors were completely disinterested in a matter of minutes. Market prices are important to these women, but they only represent one aspect of a complex daily experience. Rather, how can an SMS application help women build a social and business network that facilitates the collection and circulation of best business practices, market prices, and supply chain updates? In addition to information sharing, how can creating such a network of vendors further support a woman’s capacity to act upon such information and expand her business? Through the Bugolobi Market Mailing List, I am exploring how technology can engage the totality of a woman’s daily experience, creating more holistic and women-led outcomes.

frog’s approach begins from the premise the ‘logic of lack’ (Mainwaring and Dourish 2012). Perfectly in line with development rhetoric, frog initially hypothesized that girls were physically isolated from one another. Through their fieldwork, they then determined that girls were also in need of information, lacking a ‘safe forum in local communities and institutions to get answers to the important questions in their lives.’ Possibly true.

Rather than starting with what girls lack, what if designers began with what girls love? What if designer researchers identified strengths – what a community does well – rather than its weaknesses? Starting from strengths requires a different orientation towards collaborators and participants. During my fieldwork, the women of Bugolobi Market did not define themselves in terms of their lack, but by what they were accomplishing for themselves and their families, despite their struggles. Defining women and girls by what they do well not only debunks the ‘poor and powerless’ myth, but it also works towards equalizing the relationship between designer and participant, creating an engagement where mutual learning is more likely to occur. If co-design is your approach, then designers must set up a relationship that affirms participants’ potential to actually make valuable contributions to the design process.

One of the premises of my thesis work is that ICT4D initiatives should start with the devices women already own and current use practices. As a result, I’m impressed that frog’s design outcome ‘blended in-person group collaboration with SMS-based communication via mobile phones that were owned by a few of the girls.’ Like most ICT4D initiatives, frog could have easily dropped-in a few smart phones and tablets. Rather, frog’s team ended up re-combining and building upon existing tools and skills. However, what frog lacks is criticality towards their own rhetoric, approach, and portrayal of girl vs. designer, developing vs. developed. For example, ‘the girls in Nairobi had little to no regular access to modern technologies.’ Modern? I hope frog at least read pages 31 – 34 of Global Shadows by James Ferguson before they chose to use that word. By using a loaded word like modern, frog immediately evokes the linear, Eurocentric progress narrative and reverts back to limiting girls to a role characterized by a deficit of technology, imagination, and agency.

frog used participatory methods in its design research process. But in addition to incorporating methods from other disciplines, it would serve design researchers well to borrow longer project time frames. Conducting fieldwork requires extensive relationship building. Fully understanding the complexity of a specific everyday requires time and presence. With this in mind, I mourn all that was missed by frog’s four-week-long design research engagement, even if it was participatory.

FrontlineSMS is my favorite SMS-based project based on the premises and ideology promoted by its Founder Ken Banks. FrontlineSMS is a platform meant to be customized based on contextual factors. The creators of FrontlineSMS seem to advocate for a development approach that creates a tight feedback loop with the local community. Ken Banks himself states that a top-down approach often results in minimal local ownership and engagement. Similarly, through my thesis work I am exploring how to combine a bottom-up design approach that builds upon local values and priorities with a use-up approach that incorporates pre-existing devices and use practices.

FrontlineSMS has been used to monitor national elections and report on-the-ground emergency information during national crises, assisting NGOs through the efficient collection and distribution of information. But I’d like to challenge FrontlineSMS because SMS is also a tool that can build and extend relationships. Strong social support networks play a key role in alleviating crises, independent of NGO involvement. Have any participants used FrontlineSMS to joke, relax, spread rumors, organize dinner parties, or send holiday greetings? Once again, what happens when ICTs aren’t limited to any form of the word ‘development,’ ‘education,’ or ‘information collection,’ but opened up to include ICT4Relaxation, ICT4Party, or ICT4Gossip?

I was excited to find Ken Banks’ ‘10 Tips for Successful ICT4D Interventions.’ Unknowingly, I’ve been building upon almost all of his points through my thesis work for the past five months. When women are making decisions that build upon their strengths, determining agendas that align with their ambitions, and directing design trajectories that reflect their everyday experience, I believe that more holistic and previously unconsidered opportunities for technology development will emerge. Using my thesis work as a launchpad, I hope to continue to explore how to intentionally involve a local community in a polyvocal design process that ‘thinks beyond the technology.’ Such an approach requires openness to unexpected trajectories, surprising (and sometimes disappointing) outcomes, and unintended uses. Sounds exciting to me.

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