August 29, 2011

In the field: 15 traveller tips for Africa

kiwanjaWhenever I find myself in front of a group of students, or young people aspiring to work in development, I’m usually asked to share one piece of advice with them. I usually go with this: Get out there while you can and understand the context of the people you aspire to help. As you get older the reality is that it becomes harder to travel for extended periods, or to randomly go and live overseas.

In the early days of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) and m4d – and development more broadly – it may have been seen as a luxury to understand the context of your target users (many solutions were seen as “universal,” after all). Today I’d say it’s become a necessity.

In my earlier days I did a lot of travel, mostly to and around Africa. (One thing I regret never managing to do was walk across the continent, something I started tentatively planning a few years ago). As our organisation has grown and my role within it changed, I spend more time today travelling to conferences giving talks than actually doing the work. My last major piece of extended fieldwork (i.e. longer than a week) was back in the summer of 2007 when I spent a month in Uganda consulting with Grameen’s fledgling AppLab.

There’s more to it, though, than just getting out there. What you learn, sense, pick up and appreciate about the place you’re in and the people you’re with largely depends on the kind of traveller you are. The truth of the matter is you’ll rarely get a real sense of a place staying for just a few days in the capital city behind the walls of a four or five star hotel. Quite often the more you get out of your comfort zone, the more you learn.

I’ve been hugely fortunate to have lived and worked in many countries – mostly in Africa – since I set out to work in development 20 twenty years ago. And during that time I’ve developed quite a few “travel habits” to help me get the most out of my time there.

15 tips while doing volunteer work abroad

Here are my Top 15 tips for traveling abroad while doing volunteer work:

1. Stay in a locally owned or run hotel (or even better, guest house).
2. Spend as much time as possible on foot. Draw a map.
3. Get out of the city.
4. Check out the best places to watch Premiership football.
5. Ignore health warnings (within reason) and eat in local cafes/markets.
6. Buy local papers, listen to local radio, watch local TV, visit local cinemas.
7. Use public transport. Avoid being ‘chauffeured’ around.
8. Take a camera. Take your time taking pictures.
9. Go for at least a month.
10. Visit villages on market days. Continue reading

July 5, 2009

Observations: Mobile applications development

kiwanjaTechnology and democracy: both great in theory, a little harder in practice. One of the key challenges is that one successful model doesn’t — by default — work somewhere else. For mobile techies, if we can’t easily ‘transplant’ a solution from one place to another, where does our “figure out what works” mantra leave us? What relevance does it have? Have we ever managed to “figure out what works” and make it work somewhere else, geographically? Is it even possible, or is it just a good industry sound bite?

Progress in the social mobile field will come only when we think more about best practices in the thinking and design of mobile projects and applications, rather than obsessing over the end products themselves. By then most of the damage has usually already been done. In my experience, many social mobile projects fail in the early stages. Lack of basic reality-checking and a tendency to make major assumptions are lead culprits, yet they are relatively easy to avoid. I would argue that successful mobile projects — those aimed at developing countries in particular – have a better chance of succeeding if some or all of the following are considered from the outset.

Women queue for water in Bushbuckridge, South Africa (photo Ken Banks, kiwanja.net)

Firstly, think carefully if you’re about to build a solution to a problem you don’t fully understand.

Check to see if any similar tools to the one you want to build already exist and, if they do, consider partnering up. Despite the rhetoric, all too often people end up reinventing the wheel.

Be flexible enough in your approach to allow for changing circumstances, ideas and feedback. Don’t set out with too many fixed parameters if you can help it.

From the outset, try to build something that’s easy enough to use without the need for user training or a complex manual, and something which new users can easily and effortlessly replicate once news of your application begins to spread.

Think about rapid prototyping. Don’t spend too much time waiting to build the perfect solution, but instead get something out there quickly and let reality shape it. This is crucial if the application is to be relevant.

Continue reading

June 29, 2009

Socialbrite releases Creative Commons plug-in

Esteban Panzeri

JD LasicaWe’re happy to launch today with the news that our lead developer, Esteban Panzeri (above), is releasing a new WordPress plug-in to the WordPress community. It’s called Creative Commons Reloaded, and it lets individual blogs or group blogs assign Creative Commons licenses on a post-by-post basis.

That’s especially useful at sites like Socialbrite, where some of us (me, Beth, Ken) release our works under a CC Attribution license, while others (Amy, John, Katrin) use a CC Attribution Noncommercial Share-Alike license. Creative Commons lets you fine-tune your copyright, allowing others to reuse it as you specify.

I asked Esteban, a tech guru/analyst at Lenovo in Buenos Aires, why he developed the plug-in on his own time. “I think the old copyright model is outdated,” he said. “It does not fit the digital era. I’m convinced that it strangles creativity and it is bad for business. Creative Commons is a good step in the right direction. With so many excellent blogs out there, I thought it would be a nice way to help all those authors get a simple way to license their work. That and ‘giving back to the community’ that has helped me achieve so much.”

He cited Michael Geist’s recent post pointing to a new Harvard Business Chool working paper that suggests weaker copyright protection has benefited society.

Continue reading

April 9, 2009

Samasource enables socially responsible outsourcing


Samasource from JD Lasica on Vimeo.

JD LasicaLeila Chirayath, founder and CEO of Samasource, has been popping up at nonprofit events everywhere lately. Samasource is a nonprofit organization in Silicon Valley that connects small and mid-size businesses with individuals and firms in the developing world that can perform outsourcing work (such as data entry) in a socially responsible way.

They now have pilot programs in Kenya, Nepal and rural India, and their goal, as their website says, is “to catalyze sustainable economic development and poverty alleviation by creating a thriving, active market for socially responsible outsourcing to developing regions.”

The 4-minute interview was conducted on a very windy day at the 2008 Craigslist Nonprofit Bootcamp in San Mateo, Calif. (though I do need to get a fabric microphone cover). I caught up with Leila a few minutes before her jam-packed talk. As Leila says, there’s a lot of misinformation in the media about outsourcing, and Samasource can help you sort through the best options.

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January 30, 2009

Mobile phones join the rural radio mix

pcworld

kiwanjaA little over a year ago I found myself sitting in the San Francisco offices of an international humanitarian NGO. Their main focus at the time was a major human-rights treaty, and they wanted advice about mobilizing rural communities to lobby their governments to ratify it. There was clearly great potential for a mobile phone-based solution, and they wanted me to help them understand how text messaging – and FrontlineSMS in particular – could be of use.

So, it came as something of a surprise when I recommended they look more closely at rural radio instead. Although I’m a great fan of mobile phone technology, it isn’t by default the best tool for reaching out to rural communities. Radio – far from being outdated and irrelevant – remains a powerful, relevant and far-reaching medium. Unrivalled, in fact.

Radio stations existed in Africa long before many of its countries reached independence. Over the last twenty to thirty years, however, liberation of the airwaves in many of these countries has opened the door to a new wave of broadcasters including commercial, private, community and public radio stations. This expansion has created some new and exciting opportunities.”

kiwanja’s latest PC World article looks at the potential of mobile phones and rural radio stations to jointly deliver relevant, timely and useful information to rural populations in developing countries, and allow listeners to engage with radio programmes in a new way. Projects highlighted include initiatives in Africa by Farm Radio International and Developing Radio Partners.

Head on over to the PC World website for the full article.

This post originally appeared at Kiwanja.net.