Democratising mobile technology through design

Opinion of Professor Gary Marsden,

Department of Computer Science, University of Cape Town (UCT)


Much has been written about the growth of cellular handset ownership in Africa. It started with wild enthusiasm about development opportunities and access to information, but then it changed to despair over what was seen as a new form of digital colonialism. Whatever your views, there’s no escaping Kranzberg’s maxim: “Technology is neither good nor bad; but nor is it neutral.” So, if technology is to have an effect, the key questions are:

1. Who gets to decide upon that effect?

2. How do we create technology to have the effect we desire?

Our research group at the UCT Centre in ICT for Development (ICT4D) is all about creating technology specifically for the developing world. Based primarily in the Computer Science Department, we work with academics accross the university to create relevant mobile technologies.

How do we decide what to create? And then how do we create them?

Turns out these questions are closely intertwined. The guiding philosophy of our group is User-Centred Design. We work alongside communities, placing their needs at the centre of the design process. We follow an iterative method (akin to Action Research) of observing users, sketching designs with them and re-evaluating until we have something they are happy with and we can implement. We then create that technology, deploy it in the community and evaluate its impact. This we keep iterating until we’ve developed a viable solution.

By following User-Centred Design, we answer the first question, above: by empowering the community to create the technology they deem fit. No external technology is forced upon them by our research agenda, by well-meaning but misguided philanthropy, or by profit-driven desires of technology companies.

But the challenge is ensuring that the community members can express their views clearly. Many people we work with have no concept of technology (such as the difference between hardware and software), have visual and textual literacies widely different from our own and have different metrics for what constitutes successful technology.

Our research contribution has, therefore, not been about the technology we create, but more about how we effectively engage users in a design process in which their desires can be heard. In this way, we’ve trained community healthcare workers and created things like solar power-education devices, mobile software for remote diagnosis, culture preservation software and more.

We try to refine our methods to create technology that meets the needs of our users more quickly and accurately. We also hope to move from co-design to co-creation, giving communities skills to create technology for themselves. This may seem fanciful, but initiatives in end-user technology creation, such as Arduino, Scratch and littleBits, are starting to democratise the creation process.

Our work will be done when we can give communities the tools to run these iterative design processes for themselves, and turn those designs into functioning pieces of technology.

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