Posts tagged ‘Google’

ICT4D Twitter Chat, November

Wayan Vota at ICTWorks convened a lively chat today on information & communication technologies for development – or ICT4D. Expect to see another chat in December.

The hour flew by! After introductions we highlighted projects we admire, projects that have failed, and the problems with cloud computing in developing nations. (On that last point, I note that you can’t even get reliable access to the cloud in the US, depending on which smartphone you’re carrying or which highly-attended tech event you’re at.)

From the chatlog archive, here are some favorites:

The barrier is the carrier. (@jongos)

…we think lots of sun with intermittent rain then! offline needs to work seamlessly with infrequent on-line? (@meowtree)

My thoughts on cloud4d lately have steered toward a highly local, in-country cloud. Reliance on undersea cables too risky. (@downeym)

Donor agencies sobering up after being drunk on internet. (@travis_a)

…second hand, inexpensive, locally sourced equipment > new and shiney equipment that fails in dust and heat (@theresac)

Seems people still thinking, develop in West and take it to Africa who lags. Need to develop in Africa within resource & context (@africastrategy)

Technology is easy. Issues around geography, language, culture, true empowerment and paths to adoption are challenges. (@kiwanja)

Other discussion:

If you have a project that does originate in a developed country, how do you bridge the gap to the developing country? Several people pointed to stories of close on-site collaboration, even co-design, with local experts and users. Remote mentoring, say in the style of MicroMentor, is an additional tool.

How are people attracted to a new service, and what keeps them there? Agriculture, health, and education applications get the press – but it’s music, social media, sports, entertainment, and (yes) porn that have driven adoption in developing and developed nations. In terms of infrastructure, there was also criticism of mobile ICT buses (in India and Rwanda) as less effective, compared to stable ICT centers that become a predictable fixture in a community.

There are two more leads I’ll be watching. First, Cyclos, which provides free and open source banking and mobile payment tools. Second, Question Box, a project creating local information kiosks via mobile networks, has also gone open source.

Update: Take a look at Movirtu, a very smart mobile phone-sharing infrastructure for people earning less than $2 USD a day.  Users have a card plus PIN, and log into their mobile account using any phone on the same network as their account. The people who lend out the phones are rewarded with credits. And users can designate someone who is online more frequently to receive notifications, so they don’t miss important messages or money transfers.

November 13, 2009 at 1:00 pm Leave a comment

Tear down that (mobile garden) wall

Hear that rumble? It’s Wednesday’s big mobile announcement. Handset giant Nokia enters m-banking.

Nokia Money has been designed to be as simple and convenient as making a voice call or sending an SMS. It will enable consumers to send money to another person just by using the person’s mobile phone number, as well as to pay merchants for goods and services, pay their utility bills, or recharge their prepaid SIM cards (SIM top-up). The services can be accessed 24 hours a day from anywhere, meaning savings in travel costs and time. Nokia is building a wide network of Nokia Money agents, where consumers can deposit money in or withdraw cash from their accounts.

The service will be first demoed at Nokia World on the 2nd and 3rd of September 2009 in Stuttgart, Germany. It’s planned to be rolled out to selected markets beginning in early 2010. But given more than 4 billion mobile phone users and only 1.6 billion bank accounts, Nokia clearly sees enormous opportunity.

As CGAP notes, Nokia had already begun moving into services in developing countries.

This isn’t Nokia’s first move into providing content to a low-income clientele using the company’s handsets. In April, Nokia announced it completed trials of its Life Tools service. It’s icon-based, which Nokia says helps reduce language and literacy barriers. Its services are geared to farmers (customizable commodity prices, weather, seed and fertilizer availability) and students (English lessons, exam prep). It works on a new generation of handsets which Nokia has targeted at value-conscious customers who want browsing on the cheap. So far, that’s two Nokia phones running around USD 100, so there’s still a lot of distance to cover in cost and range of devices. But the idea behind Life Tools is exciting: browsing at a price affordable not to the economic elite, but hundreds of millions of more ordinary consumers.

Earlier this year Nokia invested $70 million USD in mobile payment company Obopay, which is providing the payment platform for Nokia Money. But Nokia intends the service to be open and interoperable with other payment services as well.

Ken Banks of kiwanja.net notes that this challenges the exclusivity many African m-banking operators enjoy, but may lock customers into a handset rather than a carrier.

This would be a direct challenge to many existing models which require users to switch networks, or to be on the same network as the mobile service they’re looking to use. In addition, it looks like Nokia Money users can sign-up without needing to swap out their SIM cards, making up-take of the service considerably more efficient logistically. If this thing were to grow, it could grow fast.

…As if (very) successfully designing and building low-cost handsets for emerging markets wasn’t enough, Nokia continue to increase their offering of emerging market-specific services through their low-cost phones. Last year it was agriculture and education. Today it’s financial services.

I’ve never been one for predictions, but this one has certainly come true. Again, writing last November:

“…So, what next? Nokia develop a mobile payments platform and embed the client into all of their emerging market handsets? Imagine, a single company controlling the entire mobile technology value chain would make interesting viewing. It could well be the answer to the age old fragmentation problems suffered by the ‘social mobile’ and ICT4D space, but would this give the Finnish giant Google-esque powers?”

And then there’s the cost of the voice calls or SMS messages to consider. African mobile analyst Steve Song has been fierce on this issue. Even in developed countries SMS charges are large compared to the incremental cost of providing them. But in Africa, SMS charges comprise a startling percentage of income. Poor Africans spend over 50 percent of their disposable income on communications. Why? Increasingly, you need a phone even to get a ditch-digging job.

Steve takes a critical look at Nathan Eagle’s txteagle micro-work service, in which small tasks are distributed via SMS and completed at piecework rates.

In [Nathan’s] talk he points out that the Kenyan incumbent, Safaricom, will earn a billion USD in revenue this year. Minutes later he highlights the fact that his initial attempts to establish SMS-based real time blood-bank monitoring in Mombasa failed because nurses were unwilling to pay the cost of an SMS to update the database. He says:

“… if you’re working at a local hospital, a text message is a substantial fraction of your day’s wage …”

Now put those two facts together. A billion dollars in revenue and an SMS is a substantial fraction of your day’s wage [emphasis added]. Hmmm.

Nathan had to resort to paying nurses the equivalent of three SMSes for every day they updated the blood-bank. I love the ingenious way he found to make the system work but it does highlight what a throttle to innovation the high cost of communication is.

Eventually, it may be data services to the rescue as Africa is better connected via undersea cables to broadband networks. Nokia is integrating Skype into its devices. Steve Song sorts through the issues in a series tagged WGSDIA, “What Google Should Do in Africa“; recommendations include offering web-based versions of Google’s SMS services, and lobbying for better SMS rates.

In the meantime, phone users are doing their own end run on the cost of voice calls and SMS messages. Many use:

…the practice of “beeping” or “missed calling” between mobile phone users, or calling a number and hanging up before the mobile’s owner can pick up the call. Most beeps are requests to call back immediately, but they can also send a pre-negotiated instrumental message such as “pick me up now” or a relational sign, such as “I’m thinking of you.” The practice itself is old, with roots in landline behaviors, but it has grown tremendously, particularly in the developing world.

This comes from Jonathan Donner’s delightful research article on the rules of beeping: who beeps whom, who’s expected to pay for the call back, and how not to beep too much.

August 27, 2009 at 12:58 am Leave a comment

Field research for SMS queries in Uganda

The Grameen Foundation, Google, and telecom provider MTN Uganda have launched a suite of mobile phone applications. These are the first products of nonprofit Grameen’s Application Laboratory (AppLab) effort. The SMS query-and-answer services are designed to work with basic mobile phones, and provide real-time health and agricultural information as well as a virtual marketplace.

Users can access the services at the time of their choosing and search relevant content on-demand, operating almost like the Internet.  The services include: Farmer’s Friend, a searchable database with both agricultural advice and targeted weather forecasts; Health Tips, which provides sexual and reproductive health information, paired with Clinic Finder, which helps locate nearby health clinics and their services; and Google Trader matches buyers and sellers of agricultural produce and commodities as well as other products.

Local organizations provide the knowledge base for each information service. Users enter a freeform text query, and Google’s algorithms identify keywords, search the appropriate knowledge base, and return the most relevant answer.

Agriculture query results

It’s worth noting what a huge opportunity there is for such services. Overall, 80% of new mobile users are coming from developing countries (CGAP). Google further points out that Africa has the world’s highest mobile growth rate, and mobile phone penetration is six times Internet penetration. One-third of the African population owns a mobile phone and many more have access to one. In Uganda agriculture employs over 80% of the workforce and only 13% of Ugandans live in urban areas, so using mobile phones to get information to rural populations meets a great need.

And that’s why it’s worth spending money and time to get the service right. How do you anticipate what questions people will ask, and what answers will be most useful? Enter the user experience team, taking a classic Wizard of Oz technique to Ugandan villages.

First, we trained a multilingual team to act as user researchers in 17 carefully selected locations across the country. In each place, they introduced themselves to a cross section of people they met and invited them to participate in a free study that would help create useful services for Ugandans. If the person agreed, the researcher handed them a mobile phone and encouraged them to write a text message containing a question they wanted to know the answer to. (If people had their own phone, we reimbursed them with phone credit.) The text message was then routed to a control room we’d set up in Kampala where a human expert read the text message, typed a response, and sent it back via SMS to the person who asked the question. In the meantime, the interviewer observed and recorded the participant’s user experience. This allowed us to record rich qualitative data from hundreds of interviews in just a few days, and to collect quantitative data from hundreds of search queries.

The team captured 280 queries in 4 days. Watch this great video; it really gives you a feel for the process. The sessions at the markets start at around 2:20. At 6:22 are visits to phone operators in rural villages, where phones are shared. (Get the feeling that the answer to the malaria query didn’t quite hit the mark?)

I’ll be interested in the longer term reports of social impact, to be conducted with Innovations for Poverty Action, plus Google.org support.

August 4, 2009 at 11:40 pm Leave a comment


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