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.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Kolli Hills update: PRA and related materials

Suraya has shared some of her results using Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) method in the Kolli Hills study.

Training PRA:  Understanding the types of training aspirations that people have, what opportunities are available for them, if they make use of the training, and if not, why not?  The stars represent whether or not they believe that receiving the training would result in making or saving money. The numbers represent the vote results on which people would like the most. 


Knowledge PRA:  Understanding what activities related to the specific social practice (in this example, nutrition gardening) people had prior experience with and which others came after MSSRF's intervention.  Participants specified how they learned it, which ones they wanted to learn more about, and what method they'd prefer in order to get the information.

Conversation PRA: This example shows the PRA done with a group of nutrition gardeners who were asked to explain where conversation happens about different activities related to nutrition gardening.  They were then asked what method of communication is used most frequently for each. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Connecting theory and method: capabilities, communities of practice, and tracking media usage

I've started reading Dorothea Kleine's book Technologies of Choice? ICTS, Development, and the Capabilities Approach (MIT Press, 2013), which operationalizes Sen's capabilities theory of development.
image of book

Kleine contrasts Sen's capabilities approach with various "growth focused" views of development, noting four key tenets of capabilities (p. 4):

1.) development is understood as a process, not an outcome;
2.) it is by necessity ongoing and dynamic rather than fixed and static;
3.) explicitly puts people at the center of the development idea;
4.) it posits that people themselves define what lives they value, which will likely result in a plurality of views

Or, in summary: "…any piece of research based on the capabilities approach needs to reflect an understanding of development as a process, consider it in a holistic way, and put people at the center, stressing their choices. The focus on people's choices renders the development process open-ended and pluralistic in its aims" (p. 4)

She then takes a broad perspective on ICT, defining it this way: "ICT can refer to any technology serving the purpose of gathering, processing, and disseminating information, or supporting the process of communication." (p. 5)

She notes (p. 6) that the tradition of ICT4D work up to now has been to introduce Internet and mobile phones "in various classic sectors of development work, including electronic and mobile learning … e-health and m-health, e-government, e-business, political participation, disaster management, and so on." and she points out that if we learned and applied lessons from past experience, "ICTs could make a positive difference in many sectors," however it is difficult to prove impacts as directly caused by ICT interventions in any given sector (p. 7)

By contrast, Kleine suggests a holistic approach can pick up important usages that sectoral thinking can overlook: "Mainstreaming ICTs into sectoral initiatives does not adequately grasp the full transformative and often highly personalized effect that access to the Internet or even mobile phone can have on people's lives.  People may find that communicating with family and friends, gathering information, or exploring their social and cultural interests online may be among the most important ways in which these technologies assist them in leading the lives they value" [emph. added] (p. 7).

Within the capabilities approach, ICT usage is regarded as part of a complex social practice: "In the language of the capabilities approach, ICT usage takes place within a particular outcome in mind -- capabilities that the individual aspires to. Capabilities are the various things a person may value being or doing that are feasible for her to achieve" (p. 8). Along these lines, she notes that ICT use may be a capability unto itself but is more often a means to an end, "a tool used to achieve or expand other capabilities. Indeed, people will draw on a varied set of media to achieve a purpose of information or communication, which in turn will be a means to another outcome" (p. 8).

Reading these passages reminds me of a chapter that Nuwan and I wrote a few years ago, where we speculate on Richard Ling's "ritual theory" as an approach to help understand how the mobile phone as an everyday communication tool can help to generate and sustain "social coherence" among  communities of practice.  The connection between Ling and Kleine comes from this idea that these tools fall within a set of social practices that we might think of as a kind of ritualistic behaviour.  Nuwan and I quoted Ling to illustrate our understanding of his use of that (easily misconstrued) term:

[Ritual] … involves the establishment of a mutually recognized focus and mood among individuals, and it is a catalyst in the construction of social cohesion. The focus is not on obsessive or repetive behaviour, although ritual interactions can take place in these settings. Rather, the emphasis is on a group process and the outcome of that process. (Ling, 2008b, p. 9)
This notion of ritual as "mutually recognized focus and mood" and group process, bears some similarities to the Wenger et al. definition of communities of practice as a group of individuals that engage in some form of sustained interaction on a common topic or domain of interest.

To what extent ritual might be usefully introduced into Kleine's framework, or indeed, the CoP social dynamic is yet to be explored but clearly there is an important conceptual nexus here that we can draw on to inform the project.  Among other things, ritual can help establish a conceptual bridge between the focus on individuals within the capabilities approach with the more group focussed perspective within the communities of practice.

Media footprint diagram
Source: Kleine (2013, p. 141)
The capabilities approach is holistic and seems to confirm our approach that begins with understanding autochthonous social practices and the integral role of ICTs within those practices.  Knowing something of that is then the first step toward looking at how digital ICTs can enhance those practices through expanded capabilities.

From a more practical standpoint, Kleine presents what she terms "media footprint diagrams" in her book.  These are spider diagrams that illustrate media use among individuals within a community.  Wenger et al, offer a similar method in their book Digital Habitats to analyze community orientations.  Take a look at the Slideshare presentation from Nancy White to see what I mean.

Now what if we were to overlay the spider diagram of community orientations with one showing media use?

Perhaps this type of analysis could be a useful way to explore how people individually and together use ICTs in a ritualistic way, leading perhaps to better understanding of how and where ICT enhancements might be considered.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Making social networking open source

My recent post on the work of Sarvodaya Fusion noted that participants in the Android Smart Village project, and others with access to mobile broadband, are quickly adopting social media like Facebook and Twitter to build sharing communities for a variety of purposes.  This is an important development and raises the question about commercial social media, privacy, access to data, etc, etc.

I also recently noted on the website that there is a movement to develop open source social networking that sidesteps the Faustian bargain we make with commercial social media platforms.  The posting is here and I think it is an important starting point for a discussion among the project team about moving beyond the FOSS platforms we've initially identified (FLSMS, Ushahidi, FFone) to begin to explore the question of an open source ecology for social networking.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Kolli Hills update #4

posted on behalf of graduate student Suraya Hudson, who is doing field work in Kolli Hills and with limited Internet access...

A few reflections related to KMb and ICT from Participatory Rural Appraisal Excersices…. 

Training PRA (4 PRAs done- 2 groups of men and 2 groups of women): 

Most of the training aspirations for the participants in this PRA were farm-training related, although computer training came up many times, both with men and women.  They are aware of where computer training opportunities exist (at either the Village Resource Centre, or one of the two village resource centers).  Only a few admitted to actually making use of these facilities,  whereas the others gave reasons for not using them such as, 
- "they are too far" 
- "no one has come forward to tell us about it" 
- "they aren't comfortable using VKCs in other villages" (although this group said that they would like one in theirs (Oyangulipatti)) 
- "no time" "we have other responsibilities" 
- "computer classes are only for educated people" 

Knowledge PRA (2 PRAs done with nutrition gardeners, and 2 PRAs done with Fish Rearers):

Participants in each CoP (Nutrition Gardeners and Fish Rearers)  did express that they were lacking information about certain aspects of their practices. Although nutrition gardeners had a lot of experience with things such as land preparation, weeding, fertilizing and seed sowing, they felt like they lacked information about pest control, seed saving, and food preparation/preservation.  When asked in what ways they thought would be best in order to receive this extra training, all answers were face-to-face, either one-on-one or in a meeting with an expert (MSSRF staff member or village volunteer) or through a demonstration.  When asked if they thought any tools would be useful to aid in this learning, only one man suggested using a video presentation.  With regards to fish pond users, participants had a lot of experience with practices such as pond cleaning, preparation and food preparation, but felt like they needed more information about fish hatcheries, harvesting and marketing.  Again, participants were mostly interested in the same kinds of face-to-face information-sharing, although here again a video demonstration was mentioned as a possible tool to aid in the training. 

Conversation PRA (So far, only 2 PRAs done with Nutrition Gardeners): 

This PRA explored the times of conversation that happen within each CoP to understand what and how information is shared at the household, community and outside-source levels. 

Nutrition Gardens: 
Household (Weeding, Irrigation, Fertilizing) - All face-to-face within the home  (obviously) 
Community (Pest and Disease, Food Preparation) - All face-to-face at work or in the evening 
Outside Sources (Soil Health, Seed Sowing) - All face-to-face 

One lady said however that if the person is far away, they will use cell phones to call them.  It seems as though almost every household has at least 1 cell phone.  Some have said that the man will often have primary control of the phone (so less access to information for women), but others have said that it is left within the household for both to use.  Other households have more than one.  When speaking with a focus group of women, they were asked what kinds of reasons that they may use their cellphones, and they explained that it is to keep in touch with out-of-town family most often, but that they often use the phones to talk about day-to-day things, even if their friend/family members is nearby.  I don't think one interview or PRA has gone by so far that wasn't interrupted by at least one phone call.

My last 3 weeks in the Kolli Hills

In the next 3 weeks, I intend on hopefully doing a Venn Diagram in each CoP to explore perceptions of importance of various information sources that exist within the area (agricultural extension, television programs, demonstrations, radio, billboards, VRC/VKCs, etc) and to what extend people make use of these.  I would also like to talk to a group of young farmers and older farmers to compare age group perceptions on KMb and ICT, as well as a group of women VKC/VRC users and men VKC/VRC users to talk to them about their technology use, desires, etc.  
Furthermore, I intend on doing a few more interviews who may be potential technology stewards.  Village volunteers have enough experience of their villages and are given training by MSSRF to look after sharing information with villagers, as well as managing VKCs.  The fish pond group members in charge (president, secretary and accountant) also may have potential because they are taking on leadership roles within their communities.

For now I think I have decided to abandon the 3rd "case study" (Chicken-Rearing) so that I can really spend the time to get a good understanding of all of this (there is still a list of other interviews that need to be done, that I have not included in this blog).  

PLEASE let me know what you think! 

Quick side note just for fun….  (although this is not related to sustainable food production):  Because of my extended stay, I have made good friends with the hotel staff and all of them have cell phones.  They are CONSTANTLY texting and calling friends. Most of them have Facebook accounts (and I have helped a couple of them set up Facebook/gmail accounts). They are thrilled to be connected to the internet.  Furthermore, their phone SIM cards are LOADED with new and popular Tamil music, photos of "superstars," music videos and even a full-length video or 2. I will explore these kinds of things with local farmers! I also heard a TED Talk by Shashi Tharoor who explained that 15 million cell phones are sold in India every month, that 509 million cellphones are in hand here at the moment, and that it has the most connections that any country has ever established in the history of telecommunications (obviously partially due to the immense population). 


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Android ecosystems, digital habitats, and local innovation

An interesting blog post from Harsha Liyanage who is Managing Director of the Sarvodaya Fusion project in Sri Lanka.  He writes about the emerging impact of smart devices in under-developed communities and the growing Android ecosystem and local innovation that these devices are encouraging.  He also notes some of the challenges to widespread adoption and use: eNovation4D: Smart Devices to poor communities! Too early?

One important take-away for me is a reminder that communities of practice create and operate within what Wenger, et al.,  call a 'digital habitat' comprised of a variety of platforms.  Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Skype, online discussions, custom apps, and the like are part of the mix of platforms in the habitat these communities inhabit.  Each has a role and purpose and it is important to understand how the mix contributes to the life of the community.  

Many of these apps are circumscribed in the sense that the user has little to do (or limited possibilities) in terms of configuring or customizing the platform.  That will serve the community well in many cases.  In other cases, they may want or need a platform that can be customized quickly to serve an emerging need or opportunity.  For example, the ability to quickly create and deploy a crowdmap or SMS alert service to address an agriculture disease outbreak or pest infestation could be served by a platform like Ushahidi or FrontlineSMS.

Aside from the commercial social media platforms and pre-configured apps for download, there is a niche in the digital habitat for the kind of open source apps that provide a more basic, less pre-defined set of functions that user communities can adopt and customize to suit their particular needs at a given time. 

It's all well and good to use Facebook for some purposes but it is tied to commercial user agreements and terms of service, and access to the data for the purpose of research and other knowledge mobilization tasks might be limited as compared with some of the FOSS platforms we have identified for our project.