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 ]