Ken Banks of Kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS recently asked whether development projects using mobile technologies should be led by mobile technology experts or by development practitioners – Who’s best placed to run a successful “m4d” project – the m‘s or thed‘s?”.
This question has been sitting at the back of my mind over the last week as Ive been working with Panos and D-Net in Dhaka, developing an assessment and design tool to help people figure out how mobile phones can help development projects.
The idea behind the tool was to respond to issue underlying Kens question. In our experience too often development practitioners recognise that mobile technologies could help their programmes, but they dont have the technical expertise. Similarly, well meaning technologists often get frustrated because they dont have a clear sense of what the problem is, and we have all seen sophisticated solutions that don’t receive rapturous reception from development practitioners – leading to wasted efforts. As a result technologists feel frustrated by the lack of interest from the development community in new ways of approaching old problems.
So how to realise the potential that mobile technologies have for addressing intractable development problems? What came through so strongly in Dhaka was that ideas flowed best when both development practitioners and mobile technologists worked together. The trick was to recognise that both had different but equally important roles. Wayan’s Venn diagram outlines this well, showing how the two sectors can find common ground:
- The different worlds of mobile, ICT and Development
The role of the development specialist was to identify and keep focus on what the problem was, and what needed to change (and the tool we developed specifically identifies needs in a way that technology and communication specialists can engage with). It was also very helpful to give the technologists ideas a reality check and stress test their practicality.
It was an incredibly rich experience, with mutual learning and collaborative design at the heart of the process. Key to its success was technologists respect for the insights of the development specialists, and to recognise that they knew best what would work in a specific context. On the development practitioners side, being open minded to new ideas and tools was critical to fruitful discussion.
And at the end of it came a really simple yet potentially effective way of addressing a chronic problem in Bangladesh’s health care sector (which Ill share in detail once its up and running!
Good piece in the Guardian about how Bangladeshi women, armed with a netbook, GSM mobile, blood pressure monitor and pregnancy kit, are ‘champions’ by people who used to think it was a scandal. The project, run by D-Net (disclaimer – with Panos Im helping D-Net develop a tool for NGOs to work out how to use mobile phones in their work) aims to provide information people need in areas such as agriculture, health, sanitation and disaster management.
Its a particularly good piece, because it makes the point that these efforts are filling in where the State is failing:
“The success of the InfoLadies is making the failure of the state more noticeable. “We have corruption and political interference in every sector,” says Gullal Singha, a state executive officer of Sagatha sub-district. Sagatha is severely affected by soil erosion and is home to the poorest of the poor. “Even the ultra-poor entitled for food relief are segregated as Bangladesh Nationalist Party poor or Awami League poor,” says Aziz Mostafa, an elected representative of a local civic body.”
Its striking how much innovation in the area of communications in Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh, the BBC World Service Trust is delivering English language lessons through SMS:
BBC Janala (‘Window’) has turned the mobile phone into a low-cost education device by offering hundreds of 3 minute audio lessons and SMS quizzes through people’s handsets. By simply dialling 3000, almost anyone can learn with new classes each day ranging from: ‘Essential English’ for beginners, to ‘How to tell a story’ for those more advanced.
With 39% of callers returning to the service, BBC Janala has outperformed the majority of other value added mobile products in Bangladesh which typically achieve a 5% return of customers. The beginner’s content is experiencing a 69% repeat rate. To date 1,030,583 lessons have been accessed, with users engaging with Janala’s interactive services – including audio quizzes, English story recording and direct feedback – an additional 130,000 times.
In insecure environments, such tools offer useful ways to reach out to audiences and provide useful services directly. This could work in Afghanistan, in Somalia, Sudan and so on.