Archive for September, 2009

Solar Sisters: Barefoot women solar engineers

Illiterate, poor African women aged 35-55, many of them grandmothers, leave their families to spend 6 months training in India to be solar engineers. At the Barefoot College in rural Rajasthan they work with their hands, identifying parts by color and relying on oral instruction and sketchbooks. There’s not a lot of electrical theory.

But upon returning to their villages, these women have the skills to solar electrify tens, even hundreds, of houses. Across Africa, 60 engineers have electrified 40 villages at a cost of only 1.5 million USD.

Here’s the video (via ICTworks).

The Barefoot College model is one of radical self-reliance for the poorest of the poor. Management, control, and ownership of the technology lie with the community. The village decides how much to spend on electrification, and chooses the woman who will receive the training. And it is the community itself that certifies the woman as a solar engineer, acknowledging her training and supporting her ongoing work.

The Barefoot College video points out “universal lessons” from the African project.

  • Any illiterate woman from any part of Africa, even if she has never left home, can be trained in 6 months in India to be a confident and competent solar engineer. (There are Barefoot Colleges throughout India. It would be interesting to see how the model and code of conduct translate to Africa.)
  • Prepare the community first by having them make major decisions on behalf of the whole village, and only then bring in technology.
  • Keep urban based “paper-qualified” solar engineers out of the process. A top-down approach doesn’t work. External experts don’t have the vision, faith, or courage to train women as engineers. They also lack the communication tools to speak to villagers as equals.
  • No paper certificates are issued; experience shows that in programs where men are paper-certified, they immediately leave their villages for the cities. (I believe that by training older women, the Barefoot College designers are deliberately choosing a population that will be less likely to leave for the city, paper certificate or no.)
  • A partnership model, where initial training and materials are donated but expertise and ongoing expenses reside in the village, can work to reach the very poorest.

The video glosses over the process of choosing a woman to receive this training, and the effects on her life and her family’s life. In India women of differing ages have become barefoot solar engineers. This story of 19-year-old Kausalya hints at some of the difficulties.

Kausalya of Buharu village in Tilonia, presents another heartening story. All of 19, Kausalya is adept at fixing and maintaining solar energy systems. What she is also good at is local governance. She used to attend the village night school when Barefoot College introduced the Bal Sansad, or the Children’s Parliament. The concepts of local, state and central governments were explained to school students, who were encouraged to compete for the posts of ‘MLAs’ (legislators) for the Bal Sansad. Prompted by other girls who were too timid to take on male students, Kausalya filed her nomination. She was the token candidate of the entire female electorate, and bagged the post from her school.

Then followed the prime ministerial contest in which all the ‘MLAs’ from over 50 schools in Tilonia contested. Once again she got all the girl votes, while some infighting among others got her a substantial chunk of the boy votes. Kausalya became the prime minister of the Bal Sansad at the age of 13. In three years of heading the Sansad, Kausalya’s ‘cabinet’ solved a host of problems – from the lack of electricity in one village school, to the local sarpanch trying to usurp the land of another. At the end of her term, Kausalya’s parents discontinued her education, and she took up solar training at SWRC.

Life took another turn when she came of age and was packed off to her husband’s home (she had been married when just a few years old) in Jaipur’s Pandwa village. Here too, Kausalya worked on the infrastructure of Pandwa, including solar lights and a new water pipeline. Unhappy with her ‘activism’ to begin with, her husband and parents-in-law gradually came to admire her efforts. “My husband will never say it, but I know he’s very proud of me,” says Kausalya. “Now he asks me to maintain his accounts for him!”

September 23, 2009 at 10:43 am 4 comments

Who uses mobile broadband? Guess again.

Hispanic Broadband Access ReportHispanics trail other US populations in overall internet access, but rely heavily on mobile phones and even mobile broadband. A greater proportion of Hispanics and African Americans use mobile broadband (53% and 58% respectively), with both communities ahead of whites (33%).

These figures come from The Hispanic Institute and the Mobile Future coalition. Their short white paper highlights Hispanic market opportunities for mobile broadband access and applications. It’s a market 48 million strong, and also a community in which broadband access is key to economic opportunity and social benefits.

Some other highlights from the report:

  • Hispanics are more mobile than the general U.S. population and, thus, rely more on cell phones. In fact, compared to Americans generally, Hispanics account for more minutes used and for a higher percentage of cell-phone ownership despite their relatively low incomes.
  • Given that roughly 40% of U.S. Hispanics are born abroad, in countries where wireless service often is more common than landline phones, the American Hispanic community is more open to mobile broadband than many other population groups. This familiarity makes the leap to smartphones and other connected mobile devices a more intuitive step for many than turning to wired, home broadband adoption and computer usage.
  • In 2008, Hispanics outpaced the general population in accessing and downloading digital media (music, video, audio, movies, television programs, video games and podcasts), 42% to 35%.

September 22, 2009 at 5:44 pm Leave a comment

Carnival of Mobilists #190, plus events

Caroline Lewko from WIPJAM hosts Carnival of Mobilists #190. This week’s collection includes A Mobile Learning Roundup of Sorts with news from the (Northern Hemisphere) summer season. We also get a snapshot of the fragmented world of developing for mobile – proliferation of platforms, barriers to app acceptance, and the rise of the netbook.

And a WIPJam itself may be coming to your town.

WIP (Wireless Industry Partnership) is about connecting developers to the information, resources and people important for innovation, growing your business and getting to market faster. …

Jam Sessions are interactive and definitely not boring.  We mean it when we say No PPT, No Panels and No Ties! WIP Jam sessions are a unique format for mobile and wireless developers, where we blend ‘unpanels’, with intimate discussion groups led by industry leaders and developers alike.  And it’s really very interactive – we make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard.

There’s a WIPJAM @ OSIM (Open Source in Mobile World) in Amsterdam next week, September 16, and also WIPJAM @ CTIA in San Diego, CA on October 8.

I’ll be at an event closer to home next month: Mobile 2.0. It’s really two conferences in two locations: a business day in San Francisco October 15, and a developer day in Mountain View October 16. I’m registered for the latter… but if a free pass turned up for the biz day I’d take it in a shot.

September 8, 2009 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment

Wikipedia color-codes consensus

Starting this fall, an optional extension to Wikipedia will automatically color-code text backgrounds to indicate how “trusted” the text is.

WikiTrust (via Wired Science)Currently, text on a Wikipedia page is agglutinated from the contributions of multiple, anonymous authors. Anyone can contribute and over-write existing text. This leaves entries open to bias, vandalism, and editing wars.

The WikiTrust extension computes the author of every word of text and determines the author’s reputation based on previous, lasting, contributions. Less trusted text is backgrounded with an orange shade, which fades to white as the text survives later edits and is considered increasingly trustworthy.

Note that trust isn’t truth, it’s consensus. If you’re a new contributor to Wikipedia, your contributions will be colored with a bright orange shade. Established contributors’ new text is colored with a paler orange. But even as an established contributor, if you write something controversial that gets edited in and out, that text will also be flagged with color.

Readers won’t be facing a sea of orange, however. The overall levels of orange text-tagging are kept low in the interest of readability. And the entire trust mechanism will be a separate tab on the Wikipedia page, so you can choose whether to view your pages with or without it.

(via Wired Science)

September 1, 2009 at 5:00 pm Leave a comment


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