Saturday, December 21, 2013

Mobile Telephony in Rural Areas

 "Mobile phones are the success story of bridging the rural digital divide, bringing tangible economic benefits and acting as agents of social mobilization through improved communication." 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Team member profile: Chandana Jayathilake

I'd like to acknowledge team member Chandana Jayathilake, who is playing a key role working with community groups to plan and carry out knowledge mobilization campaigns using low cost information and communication technologies.

Chandana is a Lecturer in the ICT Centre at Wayamba University Sri Lanka. He obtained his first degree in Agriculture from University of Peradeniya and Masters in Information Technology from Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology.  He has recently commenced his doctoral studies at Wayamba University in the Dept. of Agribusiness Management under the co-supervision of Dr. Udith Jayasinghe, Dr. Rohana Perera and Dr. Gordon Gow.  

Chandana is Graduate Research Assistant to the ICT Rapid Prototyping Working Group under the lead Dr. Gow and Mr. Waidyanatha. Chandana’s doctoral research will examine the use of low cost communication technology for Knowledge mobilization in agricultural communities of practice in Sri Lanka.  Chandana joined the project in mid-2012 and has since become an invaluable contributor to our ongoing efforts.   He worked closely with Nuwan Waidyanatha to plan and manage a series of workshops, field visits and meetings from September 2012 to September 2013 and in those efforts has demonstrated excellent organizational skills, paying great attention to detail and always ensuring that preparations were in order.

Chandana also brings important ICT knowledge linked to his agriculture background, as well as invaluable local knowledge which has proven extremely important during our rapid prototyping sessions.  His current focus on planning and managing the community campaigns in the first half of 2014 will have many of its own challenges but I am confident that Chandana will continue to make tremendous contributions through his involvement in the project, which will form a key component of his doctoral studies at Wayamba University of Sri Lanka.

On behalf of the team, thank you Chandana!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Vacancy - Research Assistant - MSc/MPhil Agriculture

We are currently looking to fill the role of Research Assistant with a self-motivated, quality conscious individual with strong analytical and organizational skills. The candidate must already be enrolled or choose to enroll in a Master of Science (Msc) or Master of Philosophy (MPhil) program in Agriculture or a related program at a Sri Lankan Institute. Background knowledge and experience with one or more of the following related topics is required: agriculture economics, sustainable agriculture, agricultural extension, and rural sociology.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Supporting inclusive innovation with free and open source software

Among the key objectives of our partnership development project is to look at institutional arrangements that can support what is being called 'inclusive innovation'. The term has been around for a few years and is generally used to refer to an innovation systems approach that seeks to involve those who are otherwise excluded from the mainstream of development.  I think the concept has a lot to offer for our project, and for this entry I am working from Heeks' recent paper on the topic (available here).

The term inclusive innovation has two key elements, both with considerable latitude as to how they might be interpreted or acted upon:  On the one hand, 'inclusive'  begs the question what group(s) is to be the focus of attention (e.g., women, youth, disabled, poor).  On the other hand, 'innovation' has many possible interpretations but can be summarized into two basic categories:  innovation outcomes targeted at excluded groups or inclusive innovation processes.

Heeks provides a 'ladder of inclusive innovation' as a framework for considering the range of possibilities inherent in the term.

At the lowest rung of the ladder, innovation is inclusive if the idea is targeted to the needs of an excluded group.  Heeks makes the distinction here between abstract ideas and concrete instantiations of those ideas.  Moving from abstract to concrete, the second rung of the ladder innovation is considered inclusive if it is actually used by the excluded group. 

When considering the base of the pyramid (BOP) as an excluded group (those earning less than $2/day), we might point to the advent of prepaid credit for mobile phones as an inclusive innovation at the second rung of the ladder because it is used extensively by those in the BOP.  The LIRNEasia Teleuse@BOP surveys have documented the impact of prepaid on adoption and use of mobile telecom within this segment of the population. 

The third rung of the ladder is where the innovation is considered inclusive because it has made a positive impact on the livelihood of the excluded group.  The introduction of m-agriculture services like Dialog's Tradenet and others that provide farmers with real-time market prices might be placed in this category as innovations that have had a positive impact on livelihoods at the BOP by reducing the transaction costs associated with information seeking behaviour.

Moving into deeper levels of engagement, the fourth rung of the ladder is where the excluded group is directly involved in the innovation process.  This, in turn, requires us to further specify 'innovation processes' to consider the role of the excluded group, whether it be consultation or direct collaboration.  Moreover, it requires us to consider the stage of innovation from upstream invention to downstream distribution of an existing innovation.

An example in this case might be any of the Free and Open Source Software platforms that we are using in our project: FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, Freedom Fone.  These software applications were developed intentionally to support excluded groups (level 1 on the ladder) and have been used by those groups in countries around the world (level 2).  The software itself is highly configurable and open source, meaning that excluded groups are able to participate directly in design and implementation through customization suited to highly localized applications.

The fifth rung of the ladder says 'innovation is inclusive if it is created within a structure that is itself inclusive.'  This is deep inclusion and may require reform of existing or the introduction of new institutions, organizations, and social relations to take place.  Introducing Ushahidi for crowd mapping disease outbreaks in crops, for example, will introduce new social relations between farmers, agriculture experts, and government departments.  Inclusive innovation at this level would include changes to the social organization of the system to recognize the contribution of 'lay' knowledge to the process.  It might also require the formation of new peer-based communities of practice to curate and manage the knowledge generated in this innovative approach (Robin Mansell has a good discussion of the challenges in managing 'constitutive' versus 'adaptive' authority in crowdsourcing contexts).  

Finally the sixth rung of the ladder is where innovation happens within 'a frame of knowledge and discourse that is itself inclusive'.  Here we invoke philosophy of development with perspectives such as Dorothea Kleine's capabilities approach, which finds its deeper roots in Sen's theory of development as freedom.

Meeting with farmers in Batticaloa to exchange ideas.
They expressed interest in using text messages to provide 
seasonal flood alerts to the community.  FOSS software 
like FrontlineSMS makes it possible to involve them 
directly in the process of designing, running, and managing
the alert system for themselves.
So where does our project fit on the inclusive innovation ladder?  Or perhaps it is better to ask, what is our objective with respect to climbing the ladder?

We are working with Free and Open Source Software, highly configurable platforms FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, and Freedom Fone.  The idea behind adopting this software is because it is low cost, readily accessible, and relatively easy to use.  This positions it at the second rung of the ladder: as many other documented projects have shown, excluded groups can easily adopt and use this software.   We have focussed on the mobile phone and radio broadcasting as end user devices as well, given that we have good documentation to show that these simple ICTs have had positive impact on excluded groups livelihoods. 

Our rapid prototyping method and campaign approach to introducing the FOSS platforms into the communities is intended to move us up the ladder to levels 4 and 5.  In particular, we are working with communities to identify innovation intermediaries in the form of technology stewards who can work with the research team to start a process that we hope will lead to them taking increasing control over how the software will be implemented and used with and by the communities themselves.  

Working closely with sponsoring organizations, including government departments and NGOs, and in collaboration with Wayamba University of Sri Lanka, we are hoping to establish a foothold at level 5 on the ladder by identifying and working toward institutional arrangements that will facilitate sustainable inclusive innovation through the tech steward model.  The campaigns can provide firsthand experience, evidence, and insights as to the kinds of arrangements and requirements that may need to be addressed to achieve an inclusive institutional structure.  Among these we envision training of technology stewards as innovation intermediaries as a key activity in the near future.  In fact, we are in early stage discussions with Wayamba University on a Joint Training and Education Initiative for tech stewards to facilitate this step.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Considering the Social Mobile Long Tail

I was recently reminded of Ken Banks' blog post from 2008, where he introduces the idea of the social mobile long tail.  The idea is intimately associated with his pioneering work on FrontlineSMS and as a social entrepreneur who has been a tireless promoter of low cost ICTs and local innovation, particularly in the developing world.

Image of the social mobile long tail
Ken Banks' depiction of the social mobile long tail

Our project is situated in the green area on the social mobile Long Tail with our emphasis on low cost, low complexity deployments that are relatively easy to replicate.  Making the technology accessible and finding ways to give users the confidence to experiment and innovate on their own is a central objective of our work. - looking back and moving forward online discussion Nov 25th-Dec 6th

A special online conference on e-Agriculture: looking back and moving forward is starting on November 25th

To participate you need to be registered on the e-Agriculture Community platform. Registration is simple at

Over the last several years, there has been significant progress in improving communication and decision making in rural areas through the application of new technologies. Multi-stakeholder partnerships have formed, and time and money have been invested. Now more than ever there is a need to reflect on experiences and strategize for the future.

In 2014 and 2015 reviews of successes and failures in improving agricultural and rural development with ICT will be part of the WSIS+10 events and the MDG review. Multiple local, national and regional events will provide inputs. The e-Agriculture Community has been invited to make its own inputs, and Grameen Foundation has kindly offered to lead this activity.
Join the discussion from 25 November through 6 December in this important online discussion. Share your experiences and interact with our distinguished panel of Subject Matter Experts:

Md. Shahid Uddin Akbar, CEO, Bangladesh Institute of ICT for Development
Stephane Boyera, CEO, SB Consulting
Esteban Gallego, MANA Manager (Regional Food Security Program)
Kiringai Kamau, Value Chain Analyst, VACID Africa
Hillary Miller-Wise, VP, Information Services, Grameen Foundation
Pablo Ramirez, Ethical Sourcing Manager, Starbucks
Gerard Sylvester, FAO Asia-Pacific
John Tull, Director, Mobile Agriculture Innovation, Grameen Foundation

If you have questions or need assistance, contact


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Adoption and use of SMS at Bottom of the Pyramid

One of the key objectives of our project is to explore ways in which low cost ICTs can enhance knowledge mobilization by working within the context of everyday social practices.  Our view is that we need to find ways to introduce ICTs that will not be disruptive to existing KM-related activities but instead be seen to improve those practices in some tangible way.  Through this approach we believe we can increase the likelihood that an ICT-enhancement will be adopted and sustained over time because it will add real value to the community and to its knowledge mobilization activities.

Photo of Nokia phone showing Dialog Tradenet service
Dialog's Tradenet service uses SMS to help match buyers and sellers
of goods, including those involved in agriculture.

For this reason I am pleased to see that our thinking about the importance of understanding social practices as the context for ICT adoption seems to be reinforced in findings from 2012 study by Kang and Maity called "Texting Among the Bottom of the Pyramid: Facilitators and Barriers to SMS Use Among the Low-Income Mobile Users in Asia".  The study draws on extensive data collected through LIRNEasia's Teleuse@BOP survey completed in 2011.  The survey is part of a larger initiative launched by LIRNEasia a few years ago:
Teleuse at the bottom of the pyramid, or Teleuse@BOP, pioneered by LIRNEasia in 2005, is a unique series of cutting edge demand-side studies on ICT use among the BOP. It was one of the first large regional studies to assess demand for ICT services among emerging Asia’s BOP in a systematic way. The studies have proved useful in making government understand the significance of telecom, especially the mobile, at the Bottom of the Pyramid. [link to source] 
Teleuse@BOP4, conducted in 2011, concentrated on the use of mobile phones at the BOP, with an emphasis on how they generate value for this segment of the population in Asia.  Kang & Maity drew on the survey data to look specifically at text messaging to determine the users/non-users of SMS, the barriers to SMS adoption, and factors driving SMS use at the BOP.  They note the growing attention that SMS has received in the ICT4D community and challenge the assumption that widespread adoption of the mobile phone at the BOP is synonymous with (or otherwise) translates to similar rates of SMS-usage.  As result, ICT4D initiatives (not unlike our own) turn optimistically to SMS-based interventions:
This newly introduced connectivity at the BOP invites a hope that development intervention services can be delivered directly to the hands of the poor. Indeed, many development agencies and NGOs are exploring the potential of mobile phone as a cost-effective platform to carry development services such as education, healthcare, financial, agricultural programs. Spurred by the evidence of the mobile phone’s positive impact on economic activities ... and the successful cases like mobile banking service in Kenya ... mobile phones are increasingly perceived as a smart catalyst to development. (p. 2)
In our case, we are looking to platforms like FrontlineSMS to support community-based initiatives using text messaging for both peer-to-peer and broadcasting applications (see Helen Hambly's post on Radio Plus for the broadcasting application).  If the communities of practice with whom we are working do not use SMS then it would seem we have a fundamental obstacle to the success of the project.  The Kang & Maity study sheds some light on what we might expect when it comes to SMS usage in Sri Lanka.

For example, the study found that only 32 per cent of mobile owners contacted for the survey have ever used SMS either for sending or receiving information.  Of those who do use SMS there was little difference by gender, but they did tend to be younger (over 70 per cent are less than 35yrs of age), urban, with higher reported daily incomes and education levels.

However, among the SMS users, the study found that 66 per cent used it at least once or twice a day.  Most (70 per cent) were aware of various information services available through SMS but few actually used these services (17 per cent).

When non-users were asked about barriers, the study found that cost and language barriers ranked low. It seems the key factors reported by non-users are related to "technical usability" (i.e., difficulty with the interface, typing, etc.) and lack of understanding of the technical procedure in using SMS.    A few (17 per cent) were unaware that their phones had SMS capability.

The study concludes that adoption rate of SMS (as of 2012) was still low among the BOP in Asia and that adoption of information services beyond voice calls is "still limited" (p. 21).

The findings are important because they confirm in some ways what I could observe during our rapid prototyping sessions with the farmer communities I met during the recent field visits.  Many of those attending the sessions needed assistance with text messaging.  It reinforces our view that technology stewardship will be an important consideration in the use and adoption of low cost ICT services for knowledge mobilization.

When it comes to encouraging adoption and use of SMS within these communities of practice, Kang & Maity give support to our approach using rapid prototyping grounded in an understanding of everyday social practices:
... we found that the main drivers of SMS adoption is useful content and services that can appeal to the BOP by increasing efficiency in organizing and managing their everyday activities. … Rather than offering a package of information that is perceived as “useful” by the providers, it is important that the utility of the SMS-services be understood from a perspective of the users at the BOP. The design of such m-services also needs to be contextualized sufficiently to address the direct and visible benefits relating to the BOP’s everyday activities. To do so, we suggest that the ICTD practitioners should take a closer look at the everyday needs of the users at the BOP, and design services perceived as useful by them. (p. 22)
SMS is a particular technical implementation of a larger category of communication we can refer to as short messaging, which would also include various instant messenger tools and micro-blogging services like Twitter.  Short messaging clearly has an important and growing role as a low cost, practical communications method and one that could hold important benefits for enhancing knowledge mobilization.  

One of our tasks going forward is to work with organizations in Sri Lanka that comprise a community of practice that we can study more closely in terms of their current short messaging use as it relates to KM-related activities.  Social practices theory provides a backdrop for the methods we hope to introduce to help the technology steward understand and communicate the user perspective, while rapid prototyping with open source software tools like FrontlineSMS give them the means to quickly and cost-effectively deploy and test m-service ideas to determine their usefulness and "direct and visible benefits."  Bringing the user community into the innovation process is vital to the process and its ultimate success in providing real value to users, which seems to be the key to encouraging adoption of short messaging and other innovative methods of communication.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reconnaisance findings on Knowledge Mobilization and Communication Methods:

In addition to the workshop, Mary Beckie, Naomi Krogman and Suraya Hudson were able to hold interviews with people in the following organizations:

World University Services Canada

Sevalanka Foundation
Farmers’ Federation for the Conservation of Tradtional Seeds and Agri-Resources
Eco-Cultural Studies Centre
BioFoods (Pvt) Ltd. 

A general theme among our respondents was that communication with and among farmers is primarily face-to-face.  While almost all farmers have cell phones, very few farmers have computers. Powerpoint, audio and printed materials will, however, be used during training sessions. There is very little use of radio or television for sharing information on organic agriculture. Most printed material is pitched at a grade 8 level of education.  The most preferred way for farmers to learn is through demonstration.   

For us, this begs the question, how can demonstration of successful organic farming practices be facilitated by ICTs?  How can those who lead, teach, and who are privy to new information, be linked up with those who lead demonstrations, and gather farmers to take up these practices?  

We hypothesize that the use of low cost ICTs (as presented at the workshop) may be of most relevance to those stakeholders operating more at the meso-level: "social mobilizers" that Sevalanka uses at the district level to communicate with farmers, other community and farm leaders, NGOs, businesses, University offices coordinating training and other initiatives with the farmers.  The NGOs and business that we spoke with were very interested in trying out these low cost technologies within their own organization or business and felt that there was definitely potential for future use among farmers. There may be ways that farmers could use cell phones, for example, to communicate with each other about cooperative efforts to deal with a pest issue, pooling resources to buy a new piece of machinery, trading work for food and such when there is variable success with certain crops, and coordinating other work efforts. 

Climate change is a challenge for agricultural production and home gardening in Sri Lanka because of the increasing unpredictable variability in production conditions from year to year. Ushahidi might be a good method of showing production levels of the same crop/garden plant in different places, to learn where success was achieved and adaptations were tried, or to inform the buyer (e.g. BioFoods) about the levels of production that appear to be emerging over the season.  

We also could see text messages, Freedom Fone being of use there, to alert farmers to special video showings, meetings with key informants, or training that focuses on special techniques of interest to farmers.

Finally, we were made aware of difficulties for farmers to get registered as farmer societies from our WUSC informant, and their desires to empower farmers to control more of the production side of things, and the processing by companies.  There was interest there to see communication enhanced among farmer associations and groups in remote regions (via cell phones); a good potential for Bio Foods.

Naomi Krogman, Mary Beckie, and Suraya Hudson.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Rapid Prototyping and Tech Stewards: reflections on recent field work

Having made some excellent contacts during our recent meetings and workshops in Sri Lanka, the project team now needs to consider how those will translate into pilot projects using low cost ICTs.

At the heart of our project is the community of practice concept, which refers to a group of likeminded people connected through a process of social learning.  A CoP does not necessarily conform to organizational boundaries but rather to interests and interactions, and during our meetings we discovered some important relationships between organic farming movements in Sri Lanka and other organizations, including the Department of  Export Agriculture.  In the language of communities of practice, these groups share a common domain of interest.  To the extent that they engage in sustained interactions, we can talk about them as forming a learning community that seeks to improve its practices through mutual engagement and knowledge mobilization.  Our research is focussed on the question of how low cost ICTs can enhance knowledge mobilization and social learning within this learning community.

Nuwan assists participants with text messaging during a
rapid prototyping exercise in Melisiripura

Technology Stewards are important

Field work carried out in the past few weeks by the Rapid Prototyping Working Group confirmed that there is considerable interest in the use of low cost ICTs by various farming groups, including those affiliated with Dept. of Export Agriculture, CARE, and Practical Action.  However, it also became clear to us that farmers themselves may not be the right target group for rapid prototyping--at least at this stage of the process.  While many farmers and their families have access to a mobile phone or listen to farm radio broadcasts, they are not likely in a position to take on a stewardship role with the technology.  

This comes as no surprise, as we know from research into social learning that it is neither realistic nor practical to expect each individual to contribute equally in a learning community.  CoP practitioners refer to this as legitimate peripheral participation (although the concept has apparently been incorporated into a larger construct referred to as duality by Wenger).  Moreover, the so-called Long Tail phenomenon observed with open social media sites like Wikipedia, suggests that a few key individuals will be responsible for providing much of the content and leadership in any peer-to-peer based initiative.  Casual contributions from a wide user base are critically important but the role of the steward is instrumental in moving the initiative forward by connecting people and ideas together.  

Village coordinator assisting with rapid prototyping during
field visit to Maha Oya in NE Sri Lanka

So we ought not to be surprised by these observations.  More importantly, though,  on each of our demonstration cases we were able to identify at least one individual connected with the local group that was capable of serving a stewardship role.  In two cases, Chandana installed FrontlineSMS on laptops belonging to these individuals and will plan to do further follow up work with them in the coming weeks. 

The lesson learned here is that technology stewardship is fundamental consideration when it comes to deploying low cost ICTs.  Identifying a technology steward in the community ought to be part of the social practices investigation that takes place early in the rapid prototyping stage.

Training and ongoing support is necessary

Having identified a technology steward in the community, the next step is to provide them with necessary training and ongoing support.  This involves, at a minimum, training in the use of the open source software platform (e.g., FrontlineSMS) and some basic technical skills required to connect the platform to the cellular network, or Internet as the case may be.  But technology stewardship is also more than simply being technically capable, it also involves a leadership role with the community in terms of helping to identify knowledge mobilization practices and opportunities for enhancement of those practices.  Stewards work with the community members to introduce new ideas but also to take ideas and think about how they might be realized using the technology.  Stewards also play a key leaderhship role promoting and encouraging community members to use the new technology, as well as gathering and responding to feedback from the community based on its emerging experience with the technology.

A projection of FrontlineSMS for participants to see during our
rapid prototyping exercise with cinnamon farmers in Polgahawela
So a tech steward plays essentially a socio-technical leadership role within the community of practice and needs training and ongoing support for both technical skills as well as social skills related to knowledge mobilization practices, communication, and leadership. 

Resourcing remains uncertain

While our emphasis is on low-cost ICTs, there is always a resource issue to consider.  Basic setup and operation of something like FrontlineSMS can be done for relatively little expense if the community has access to a laptop or PC.  Ushahidi requires Internet access and GPS-capable handsets if it is to be most effective but these are becoming increasingly available to many individuals and communities. 

The research team meets with a group of farmers near Vakarai
Technology stewards need to be resourced to cover the costs associated with setting up and maintaining the ICT platforms.  They also need to be resourced for their time and training.  The question remains as to how these resources are provided.  If a technology steward carries out their role within the context of an organizational responsibility, then it is conceivable that resources are provided by the organization as part of its overall support for that individual.  In other cases, it is not clear where such resources might come from and whether they are sustainable over the long term.

One important question, for example, is with regard to training and ongoing support.  Wayamba University and the project team have discussed the idea of establishing a certification program that would train technology stewards for the field.  However, the program would run on a cost recovery basis, meaning a cost to those taking the course.  Who will be willing and able to pay for such training remains uncertain at this time.

A campaign model is worth considering

One of the insights that has come from our recent field work is that in some instances, the need for text messaging or crowdmapping is situational and/or seasonal.  Pepper farmers, for instance, talked to us about the need for access to market prices during harvest seasons (twice a year).  Text messaging is a cheap and effective way to provide these prices as a critical input for the community about the value of its product.  It suggested to us that in some cases, the technology is needed only for brief periods of time during the year to enhance KM for a particular activity.  Perhaps, FrontlineSMS is needed only for several weeks out of the year to provide information to farmers during harvest and market periods.

This insight led us to what we are calling a "campaign model" or situational use of low cost ICTs for these communities.  A campaign model is established around a specific event or recurring seasonal activity, such as harvest.  The technology is set up and used for that period of time and then is taken down and put away for the next time.  For example, with the pepper farmers we met, it might be the case where FrontlineSMS is used for several weeks during each harvest season, then put away for the remainder of the year.

Nuwan and Chandana carrying out a rapid prototyping exercise
with a community group in Melsiripura, near Kurunegala

A "campaign" involves more than technology, however.  The campaign includes awareness building, promotion use of the system, ongoing evaluation and adjustment of the system, and a wind-down or concluding stage.  Campaigns could involve key actors in the process as part of a wider initiative that happens in conjunction with the activity or event.  For example, with pepper farmers, a campaign could involve the Dept. of Export Agriculture and other stakeholders working together to mobilize a wide range of knowledge about harvesting and selling pepper.  The text messaging component becomes part of the wider initiative linked to improving harvesting and selling of the product.

Resources could be allocated for that particular campaign rather than having to be dedicated year round for an ICT service that may not be necessary or useful.  In addition, the campaign being a specific event could provide a helpful framework for evaluating the value of the ICT service in relation to its contribution to a larger outcome objective (e.g., prices for pepper, or reduced transaction costs associated with harvesting and selling the product).

How a campaign plays out in practice is uncertain at this time but worthy of further exploration and piloting.

The key point here is that low cost ICTs involve low overhead in terms of set up and training, making it feasible to operate on an ad hoc or situational basis.  The technology is available at any time and can be invoked at a moment's notice to support opportunities as they arise.  Campaigns are not simple to design or manage but one contribution we could make with the project is to develop a model that could act as a template to simplify and streamline the process.

Next steps

The field work has provided us with a wealth of insight into rapid prototyping and some of the key considerations for introducing low cost ICTs into these communities of practice.  Our next steps involve doing further iterations of our rapid prototyping and working toward an extended pilot project along the lines of the campaign model.  Training and capacity building will be an ongoing focus for the team and we are exploring the possibility of working with Wayamba University to develop training materials and delivery model to support technology stewards.

This partnership development project is made possible with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

The free and open source software platforms being used in the project have been developed by FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, and Freedom Fone.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

turnkey enhancements, lessons from sept Kuru-Batti prototyping

Gordon, Chandana, and I drove across Sri Lanka (nearly 820km) mainly testing the FrontlineSMS software. At the Wayamba University Workshop, we had the opportunity to test the Ushahid mapping and FreedomFone interactive voice software.

From those prototyping and workshop lessons, the points below should be considered for future improvements, in relation to the turnkey solution:
  1. localized mobile phones - we noticed many farmers to carry phones with keypad and screens in Sinhala and Tamil. It was evident that SMS text from these mobile phones in Sinhala or Tamil would not trigger keyword enabled FrontlineSMS message forwards. Hence, FrontlineSMS would need to be improved to handle those utf-8 characters. Perhaps GUIs may need to be localized as well with features to transliterate with any non-latin scripting language.
  2. Freedom Fone - must be properly tested in; especially, with the dongles to make it cost-effective. The content upload feature must be simplified by introducing a well developed menu for instructional information.This is a high prioroty because both the Radio stations and the Department of Export Agriculture are keen in using it for localized (Sinhala & Tamil) large vocabulary continuous speech (descriptive) messaging to campaign with farmers.
  3. Bundle Ushahidi - would mean to include Ushahidi with FreedomFone and FrontlineSMS boxes. Ushahidi instance should function as a local-host with fixed maps. Ushahidi and Freedom Fone (exceptional to FrontlineSMS 2.0) should be accessible through the Mini-PC wifi with the Mini-PC serving as a localhost.
  4. Solar charger - farmers in Vakarai live on in the farm lands that are 10 - 20 KM away from their homes. They carry two batteries and charge the dead batteries when they go to town or visit home. We need to design a solar powered battery that can power the 20 Watt Mini-PC for daily use over 12 hours and an additional 5 Watts that can be used to charge phones when that capacity is not used to power the Monitor or other add-ons.
  5. Grab-n-Go Box - Although all the equipment can be easily fit in a tiny back-pack; it is ideal to fit them all in to a tool box type plastic container for easy-of-use and rapid operationalization.
While  improvement no. 1 with localization would be more of a subsequent phase longer term activity, the remaining improvements 2 - 5 can be achieved during this phase of the project.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Project team members meet in Sri Lanka

The Canada/Sri Lanka partnership development team gathered in Sri Lanka on Sept. 7-11 for planning meetings and a workshop at Wayamba University.

The gathering was an important opportunity for team members to get to know one another and to share ideas and insights about ICT use in agricultural communities of practice.

Some of the highlights include a practitioners workshop held at Wayamba University, a Canada/Sri Lanka friendship dinner, and mutual expressions of interests from the project team and Wayamba University on the development of a Joint Training and Education Initiative.

To kick off our meetings, team members gathered at Wilpattu National Park on Sept. 7 for a day of wildlife viewing and sightseeing.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Helen Hambly Interviews MSc researcher Mahmuda Anwar

HH:  Mahmuda, you have been doing field research on community radio for agricultural and rural development in Bangladesh, is this right? 
MA: Yes, over the past few months I visited 5 of the currently 14 community radio (CR) stations in Bangladesh. I interviewed their staff as well as a sample of their listeners, particularly women who listen to the CRs.

HH: What are a few key highlights from your study?

MA:  Since 1971, radio has played a key role in communicating with people during and after the War of Liberation. It was the first and only media. The current government radio infrastructure includes 12 stations. In 2000, the government began to liberalize the air waves. Initially, commercial radio stations emerged and there are now 20 private radio stations in the country, most of which are based in Dhaka or other urban areas. The government has a positive attitude towards radio and in 2008, the first community radio license was granted. By 2012, there were 14 CRs. Another 2 stations will soon be opened. All community radios are at the sub-division level and serve their local, and often, rural audiences.
HH: How is radio helping farmers and their communities in Bangladesh?

MA: In some cases, farmers report receiving local news and market information from the CRs. This is very important so that farmers can negotiate fair prices with wholesalers. For the first time, through CRs, rural people are receiving information about government services. Radio is being used for rural education, including 2 or 3 radio stations that I found were offering English language programs which help students to develop their language proficiency. Mothers kept saying how much they appreciated this language practice because their children did not have to take extra tuition to obtain English proficiency. The cultural and social values of community radio are also important. For instance, it can be entertaining programs that teach singing to children or more serious programs that offer young women counselling on health issues because there is nowhere else these women can turn.

HH: What programs seemed of particular benefit?

MA: I think the social issues programs are important. For example, topics such as early marriage are brought out into the open. In one case, an announcer at the community radio heard about a 13 year old girl being married and brought this to the attention of the local administration who then brought in the police to stop this illegal practice.  Another example, is how during the 2013 tropical storm Mahasen hit the south of Bangladesh and knocked out all telecoms. Only the 2 community radio stations in the region were operating so the first responders used the CRs to inform the people of the emergency measures. One old lady who was affected by the cyclone told me, “we heard the news of the storm by listening to our community radio and only the radio can help us to get the right information.”
HH: You are in Sri Lanka this week to participate in the Innovative Uses of ICTs project team. You’ll be visiting radio stations here and comparing your experience with your research in Bangladesh. What similarities and differences do you see so far?

MA: So far I have been able to visit 3 radio stations in Sri Lanka. They have been very different because here in Sri Lanka the government through SLBC is operating regional radio stations which are expected to serve the more rural areas. The radio stations I’ve visited so far are run by paid employees. In Bangladesh the CRs are mainly volunteer staff who are from the community. Often these volunteers include young people who are seeking new skills and work experience. In Bangladesh there seems to be a very strong relationship among the CRs because they want to collaborate on programs and share scarce resources for activities such as training. In Sri Lanka, radio stations are either part of government SLBC network or are operating competitively as commercial radio stations.
HH: Are new technologies such as Frontline SMS useful to radio stations in countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka?

MA: Yes, in the case of listener feedback, the CRs in Bangladesh have a mobile number that listeners use to provide feedback, report news from the community, seek information or make requests. For a fee, the mobile provider maintains this information on their server and makes it available to the CRs. (The photo here is an example of this feedback). The Sri Lankan radio stations have told us that they also have call-ins from their listeners, but so far, these aren’t recorded in a database or by a mobile provider. So it is possible that the new technologies like FLSMS could either save radio stations money or create user-friendly databases of feedback from listeners which can be helpful for future programs and monitoring.
HH: Thanks Mahmuda for sharing some of your initial results and best wishes for the completion of your studies!

Managing Sinhala text

Today we undertook a rapid prototyping exercise with a group of farmers at the Wewa Uda community centre near Maha Oya. We discovered several phones using Sinhala text encoding.  When we sent test messages to FrontlineSMS, we confirmed that these would not be properly displayed.  This suggests an opportunity for us to consider a Sinhala translation for FrontlineSMS, possibly as a contribution of the project.  We will need to consider this possibility further.

The image shows a farmer's phone using Sinhala text encoding.

Farmers at today's workshop told us that they wanted to be able to use text messaging to notify one another when they spot elephants in the area.  This village has a particular problem with elephants creating damage to buildings and crops.  We created a keyword "ALI" (Singlish for elephant), that forwards a notification to all phone numbers in a specified distribution group.  Farmers can self-subscribe to the be on the distribution group.

There was considerable enthusiasm for the text messaging system.  The next step is to work with the community to explore a governance model that will enable the system to be self-supporting and sustainable.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Introducing FrontlineSMS to pepper farmers near Kurunegala

Over the next five days, the Rapid Prototyping Work Group will be meeting with various farmer groups to share ideas for using low cost ICTs to support knowledge mobilization.

Today we met with pepper farmers near Kurunegala.  Janaka Lindara, Asst. Director of the Dept of Export Agriculture kindly offered his time and support to this meeting, and I was pleased to meet him  and learn about his enthusiasm for this project.

Rapid prototyping is about achieving fast results, and we were able to listen to farmers tell us about the challenges they face in getting market price information for their products and create a simple solution for them.  All in less than an hour.  While Nuwan led an interactive discussion with the group, Chandana set up FrontlineSMS to design a keyword-based solution that allows farmers to subscribe to receive price information by text message.  We then demonstrated the SMS-based price reporting system by having the farmers subscribe using their mobile phones.  Using the system, we then sent them a demo price per kilo for pepper to illustrate how they would experience it in action.

In this photo, Nuwan and Chandana are showing the Village Agriculture Development Officer how to use FrontlineSMS to provide real-time price information to farmers. She has offered to install an instance of FrontlineSMS and to manage the text message service on behalf of her community. Chandana will work with her over the next few months as part of his PhD research at Wayamba University.

Pepper farmers have two harvests per year, so the system needs only to be active during harvest time.  This means that the system could be set up on a campaign basis for the months that it is needed most. The campaign could be launched by telling the farmers about the service and inviting them to subscribe to it.  Prices could be sent on a daily or weekly basis from the market by someone at that location.  These prices would then be entered into FrontlineSMS and sent to the farmers by text message.  This would allow farmers to be aware of the going rate for their product and to make selling decisions accordingly.  After the harvest, if the system is not needed it could then be put away for the next time.  Or it may be used for other purposes.  That will be up to the community.  

Sunday, September 1, 2013

RaP road-map in September 2013

Road-map of  FLSMS Rapid Prototyping (RaP) in September 2013
  •  First FrontlineSMS RaP will be on 03rd Sep at Melsiripura Pepper farmer groups under Department of Export Agriculture (DOEA). There will be formal & informal groups among these pepper farmers. 
  • On 4th Sep, we will focus our RaP on Cinnamon farmers in Polgahawela area of the Kurunegala District. This is also comes under DOEA.
  • Third day (5th Sep) will be on Mahaoya in Batticaloa District. We had first RaP over there in one months back and this time plan some implications.
  • On 6th Sep our plan to do RaP at the farmlands in Verugal River Bank at Vakarai which was a highly war affected area. This will entirely focus on Tamil farmers in Sri Lanka.
[ RaP Team : Gordon Gow, Nuwan Waidyanatha, Chandana Jayathilake ]

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Report on Batticaloa visit

Team members Chandana Jayathilake from Wayamba University and Nuwan Waidyanatha from LIRNEasia recently visited famers in Batticaloa to talk about the difficulties they face in their daily activities.  Chandana's detailed report is posted here.

Some of the key observations that came of that meeting have an impact on the sustainability of agricultural practices.  Elephants, for example, are considered a serious threat both to crops and to seed storage.

The remote location also presents obstacles when it comes to making decisions about planting and cultivation, especially because there is very limited contact with agriculture officials.

Transportation is another concern, with limited access to means to get produce to market, farmers have few options but to accept the going rate for transport.

While mobile phone coverage is very good in the area, and most families have access to a mobile phone, Chandana was told that there are few reliable local sources of electricity.  As a result, families keep the phones off most of the time.

These are formidable challenges.  I am curious to know more about how these villages and the farming communities adopt innovative ways to address these concerns, understanding better their priorities and aspirations, and how low cost ICTs might play a useful, even if limited, role in improving their livelihoods.

It is interesting to view the images that Chandana has posted with his report.  The central presence of women at the meeting is significant.

Thank you for that report Chandana.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Developing the Concept and Practice of Radio+

Helen Hambly Odame, University of Guelph,  8/9/13

Radio’s convergence with emerging information and communication technologies (referred to as Radio+) is widely discussed in development practice and increasingly, in academic literature although few empirical studies have been accomplished. What information exists is largely anecdotal and not analyzed with respect to social and environmental changes occurring within systems of agricultural innovation systems. Nevertheless, Radio+ has become a relevant approach to revitalizing radio broadcasting, enabling social learning and action through the use of new digital and mobile technologies. These new technologies add value to “tried and true” methods used in radio such as audience research, listener clubs and entertaining, interactive programming.
It is possible to identify two pathways that have given rise to Radio+. 

The first generation of emergent technologies used by rural radio stations were internet radio casting (archived digital broadcasts), internet radio browsing (e.g. Kothmale Radio in Sri Lanka) followed by texting (SMS) using mobile phones. 

More recently, a second generation of technologies have emerged with the use of social media networks (virtual listening groups) and platforms (Facebook, Twitter and blog). This does not mean that first generation Radio+ methods such as webcasting, radio browsing and texting are no longer used; on the contrary, they continue to evolve.

In the 2003 FAO book, The one to watch: Radio, NewICTs and Interactivity Stella Hughes argues that introducing new media into communities works best when it draws on traditional channels of communication and information. As such, broadcast radio, and especially radio stations located in rural areas, have been recognized as having the characteristics of “proximity, trust and knowledge (including the ability to combine ‘tech knowledge’ about ICT with ‘context knowledge’ about the environment in which it is used)”, states Bruce Girard of Comunica, in this same FAO book which he edited. The high value attached to radio makes it particularly suited for the role of a locally trusted knowledge intermediary when broadcasting uses local vernacular, popular formats (e.g. drama, local expert features, etc.) but Radio+ has to be vigilant so that it does add value to the characteristics of proximity, trust and knowledge in mobile and online environments. As many of us know, this is easier said than done, especially when our in-boxes are flooded with spam or unwanted messages!

To wrap up, let me just mention a few ways that Radio+ can generate new programming possibilities: blogs for sending or receiving further information; text messaging to alert or remind audiences about farm programmes; using new ICTs to build the popularity of specific radio shows or DJs – and this can have a direct benefit for audience engagement and revenue generation see Rooke and Hambly Odame, 2012engaging listeners more directly through “drop box” voice commentaries enabling live reports from citizen journalists in more remote areas of the community.

Looking forward to more ideas and discussion about Radio+

FLSMS installation tutorial ... and more coming soon

Project team member Chandana Jayathilake from Wayamba University has created a video tutorial on how to install FrontlineSMS.

Chandana, along with Cody Skinner from University of Guelph, and Tim Barlott from the University of Alberta are now working on a series of video tutorials that we will make available online to help communities interested in working with FrontlineSMS.  The series will be extended later to include Ushahidi and Freedom Fone.

Great work Chandana!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

DOA draws from Kandy experience to build the National 1920 Short Messaging Service

During our field visits, we made a stop at the Wayamba Agriculture Exhibition. There we met Tharanga for a quick chat. Amazingly, the Sri Lanka Department of Agriculture has taken some of the lessons from the project run 2012 October Kandy workshop

Mobitel, a leading incumbent mobile telco, is building a software similar to FrontlineSMS but possibly with additional customized features such as with quick filtering of information. The patrons, namely farmers, will naturally pay 25 cents when they send a text message to DOA seeking advise. Mobitel is investing their resources in developing the software anticipating a return on the SMS traffic from the farmers. Additionally, DOA will purchase a bulk SMS package from Mobitel to deliver messages. 

 My understanding is that the initial build is to support the Farm Broadcasting Service (FBS). The designers have interacted in a very minor scale with the FBS staff. The top-down approach might be lacking a collaborative community centric agile development approach. Our literature survey supports the idea that rapid piloting to really determine the customer requirements, functional requirements, design parameters, process variables, and constrained, helps remove complexities and develop a robust system.

SSHRC-PDG comes in at the right time with capacity to Rapid Prototype (RaP) some of their requirements. RaP ideology is that prior to a National scale development, the ICT intervention should go through a virtual, then actual rapid protyping phase. We could justify that the Kandy Workshop was somewhat of a virtual prototyping, where as the pilot we run in October onwards would be actual rapid protyping exercises. 

It may be worthwhile identifying some of the DOA expectations in relation to advisory services and any synergies with what we are doing. Tharanga, in a subtle way, agreed to help implement a pilot. Thereafter, we can feed some of those pilot findings to the DOA policy-maker, in a friendly way, to help them with taking their vision toward productization and branding.

To that end, Helen's team is challenged with understanding the social practices of the radio listeners and broadcaster. Then supply a set of simple use case scenarios for the SSHRC PDG RaP team to jointly pilot. One such use case may be complementing the “advisory services” interlinking the broadcasters with the farming communities.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Mini-PCs to surve as low-cost Turnkey Mapping, Text-ing, and Interactive Voice Servers

The image on the left is a low hardware configuration PC (personal computer). It is capable of functioning in the capacity of a Server serving 2-5 simultaneous users. This is not a restriction on the number users on an application, rather it is a restriction on the number of web sessions such as more than 5 administrators accessing Freedom Fone to configure it. The box comes in two flavours: Windows and Linux.

We have tested it to serve as a FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, and Freedom Fone host. A dongle or mobile phone can be connected to one of the USB ports to get FrontlineSMS activated. A mobigator modem or Freedom Fone recommended dongles can be connected to the USB to get the interactive voice solution activated. Ushahidi can be installed with a Static IP (e.g. for anyone to access within a LAN by connecting through Mini-PCs WiFi. The box does have a RJ45 port to connect to a WAN or the Internet to function outside the local area.

  • The beauty of it is that one can install FrontlineSMS for text-ing, Ushahidi for mapping, and Freedom Fone for interactive voice solutions, configure it, plug it in and let it run.
  • It is small enough to squeeze inside a table drawer and lock it away; while it runs.
  • The device has an area the same or less than the face area of a 10" tablet PC but about 5 times thicker than a tablet PC; nevertheless fits in the palm; like a think notebook. 
  • It is cheap; a high end configuration would cost less than US$ 130.00 and a low-end configuration would cost around US$ 80.00.
  • Unlike a laptop or notebook it does carry an expensive LCD screen because the screen is unnecessary for a server. 
  • If the data storage needs to be expanded, the best option is attaching a 1-TB external hard drive(~US$80).
  • Administrators or implementers can access the applications through the Wi-Fi (or a cross cable connected to the RJ45 socket) using tools such as "remote desktop", "team-viewer", SSH, so on and so forth; that is not hard. 
  • A laptop consumes approximate 35-40W of energy and a desktop PC about the same; while the Mini-PC consumes 15-20W; making it relatively greener.
 We intend to use it in our Rapid Prototyping exercises; the steps are --
  1. We would have a couple of these units pre-installed and configured; possibly a windows box for FrontlineSMS and  a Linux box for Freedom Fone; while Ushahidi could work on either one of them or both
  2. At the onset of the meeting with the community, in a remote location, we can quickly initiate an instance or the 3 applications, by simply powering it up; then connecting to is through our laptops.
  3. Then while interacting with the community determining their communication needs, implement those requirements to test it with them
  4. Finally, leave the unit with them for several weeks for them to test their implementation; i.e. play with it.