Let us be honest with ourselves. Most of the shiny, flashy new technology is not designed for the developing world we care about.
Technology is designed for the rich
Hardware designers in rich countries are turning out super light laptops and tablets of glass to impress their rich peers. Software developers are creating apps for customers with credit cards and high-speed Internet. And it’s only the rare initiative that thinks beyond the BRICs when going global in product development.
But does it matter for ICT4D?
Even though most phones are not designed for Africans, cellular penetration will pass 80% in the first quarter of 2013. Africans are designing their own tablets, and if you believe the hype, Kenyans now manage their cattle herds via mobile phone. So with these two seemingly contradictory technology paths, we have to ask ourselves: What is holding us back from using technology in more ways, in more communities, to tackle even more pressing problems?
ICT is good, it could be better
At the first Nairobi Technology Salon, we asked ourselves what are the top technology constraints and how can we overcome them? Now beyond the obvious issues of power, access, bandwidth, cost, maintenance, and content, we did find a few challenges with technology as we find it now:
- Ease of use: Technology can be daunting to use, even for digital natives. No one ever learned how to program a VCR and today, many smart or even feature phones are only used for voice. To overcome this, some phones now come with a “Facebook button” to quicken adoption and usage. Even better would be a programmable button that could be directed to something more useful than a social network.
- Its all in the voice: Today, it seems like everyone is using SMS. And while “proximate literacy” – asking a friend to read the text – can work for general discussions, in international development we are often asking very personal questions. Focusing on voice communications and exploiting the anonymity of technology could allow for much greater depth in delicate data collection & dissemination.
- Data security: In the process of data collection, security is everything. Some organizations are still using 10-year old HP and Palm devices because they passed the security requirements of the FDA and other data-strict donors. So how can the current and next generation of mobile devices have data security protocols – at the hardware and software levels?
- Open interfaces: Right now, many mobile devices are black boxes. We can replace parts and write apps, but the core hardware and software are off limits. Thankfully, the Raspberry Pi is bringing hacking back to schools. While we wait for the next generation of programmers to appear, current technology should allow for more and better standardized input/output interfaces so we can have more feature phone EKGs
- Multi-modal data transfer: While we’re on I/O, right now mobile devices are either WiFi or 3G with only smartphones usually having both. Why limit the wireless spectrum? Each device should have the capacity to receive and transmit on as many standards as possible – yes, 3G and WiFi, but also Bluetooth, USB, NFC, and even old school AM/FM radio. Remember, FM radio still has the greatest penetration rate of any ICT in the world.
- It all comes down to price: What did we agree was the most effective way to increase ICT adoption? Reduce the cost of ownership. Mobile phones beat laptops and tablets in the mobile race to full adoption because the cost of ownership – purchase price plus ongoing costs – was the lowest for the most number of people. And this is why radio still has the lead – FM receivers are almost free. Yet, that’s a key point, to really scale, the technology cannot be free. There has to be enough value that people will pay for it. We cannot 100% subsidize our way to scale.
People are smart, empower them
Overall, while we did find a number of challenges, the Salon was very optimistic. We all believe in the power of technology to accelerate our development objectives, and we recognized that we – the collective development community – do not have all the answers.
In fact, we came back again and again to the user, the beneficiary, the field staff who face these challenges and more every day. They are innovating, they are adapting, and they are re-purposing even the most specialized technology in the most creative and practical ways. As much as we learned in the Salon, we all recognize we are but beginners on this voyage of technology discovery.