Thoughts on tech with a purpose

By Osiame Molefe

To some people technology is not as interesting as its ability to empower, uplift and educate people.
This is only done when technology is “democratised” and available more widely and cheaply.
When it reaches people and so has a purpose. Let’s think about that for a moment.

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When Piet Strieker, a volunteer teacher at Sinenjongo High School in the impoverished Cape Town suburb Joe Slovo Park, showed Grade 11 learners the information cornucopia on the internet, they immediately knew they needed it.

Despite being in an urbanised area, Sinenjongo has no library. The school’s 25 computers are mostly booked out by learners taking computer application technology as a subject. So when anyone wants to access the internet, often Wikipedia, they have to go to the local library, which has only two computers online.

But 90% of these learners do have WAP-enabled cellphones – alternative internet connection points that they know could instantly improve their access to quality education and information. There’s just one problem: they can’t afford airtime.

In November 2012, the learners took a leaf from initiatives in other African countries and wrote an open letter to the big-four South African mobile phone operators, Vodacom, Cell C, MTN and 8ta.

“We recently heard that in some other African countries like Kenya and Uganda, certain cellphone providers are offering their customers free access to Wikipedia,” said the letter. “We think this is a wonderful idea and would really like to encourage you to make the same offer here in South Africa.”

This sparks several important thoughts about technology with a purpose…

1 Is technology the great equaliser?

Sinenjongo’s bid to use cellphone technology to improve education outcomes is not that unusual. Neither is the drive for outcome-enhancing tech limited to education.

The information and communication technologies (ICTs) of the past two decades have been touted as great levellers. It’s been said that they have the potential to remove barriers, balance power relationships and create a more equitable world – surprising, considering that in many cases, tech is only available to a privileged few.

But every sector related to human development, including health, education, food and agriculture, safety and security, public sector transparency and governance, civic participation and even access to ICTs themselves, has ICT-based initiatives aimed at improving people’s lives.

Some are a bit zany, like when global NGO One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) dropped 1 000 Motorola Xoom tablets preloaded with educational apps in remote Ethiopian villages to see what the technologically untouched kids would do (see thought three). Others are simple, but novel, such as Canada-based Homeless Nation, a social network of sorts for and by Vancouver’s homeless that gives these often-unheard members of society a voice.

All ICT initiatives aim to innovate in how they make tech and its benefits more accessible. Yet, despite the excitement about ICT potential in human development, questions remain about the real impact and how effective any of this has been.

2 Technologically boring is socially interesting.

At around the same time that Sinenjongo High learners wrote their open letter to the big-four networks, universities from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries held a meeting in the coastal town of Cartagena, Colombia.

The purpose of the gathering was to discuss the use of technology and innovation to disseminate information between institutions and across borders. This was where the National University of Distance Education, or UNED, unveiled UnX, a new digital education portal offering university-level courses and resources in Spanish and Portuguese at no cost.

The portal has the potential to democratise access to university education, says Leo Burd, a researcher at MIT’s Centre for Mobile Learning, which helped develop UnX. It will allow individuals in under-serviced communities to access knowledge that improves living conditions and contributes to social development. But, says Burd, the technology behind the portal isn’t as interesting as its potential to empower communities.

This is a view shared by Peter Benjamin, general manager at Cell-Life, a Cape Town-based provider of mobile health solutions. The technology itself is just a tool that doesn’t change power relationships or make the world any more equal, he explains.

“Communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they’re technologically boring,” says Benjamin, quoting Clay Shirky, a researcher and writer on internet technologies and their social and economic effects.

This is in part because new, potentially empowering technologies in capitalist societies are initially only available to a well-off few, Benjamin explains. But, as even newer technologies are created, older ones become cheaper and more widely available. Only then do they have the potential to have the social effects they should.

Ordinary mobile phones are now at that socially interesting place. They’ve far exceeded the accessibility of what they replaced, namely fixed-line telephones, and their added features compete, albeit in a reduced form, with newer technologies still only available to the well-heeled, such as broadband internet and laptop computers.

This has led to a surge in technology capitalism. Having seen the rapid proliferation of mobile phones and the knock-on effects on measures of economic development and its application in social development, hardware manufacturers started a race to create the best sub-$US 100 smartphone.

Nokia, Huawei, Blackberry and a few manufacturers in the developing world have released products within this price range. These, however, have yet to attain the reach and scale of ordinary cellphones, which, for now, are where the most interesting innovations for social good have arisen.

3 Democratising technology means spreading it around.

Leo Burd’s work at the MIT Centre for Mobile Learning focuses on developing tech and techniques for education and social empowerment. Take App Inventor, towards which he’s contributed, an application that was “built with the mission to democratise app creation for and by all,” blogged Burd in July 2013.

This clever online tool allows anyone to develop an Android phone app and therefore participate in the mobile tech democratisation process itself. “[It’s] being taught by universities, schools and community technology centres around the world,” Burd continues.

“Examples of student projects include a mobile app to educate women about the Pap test, and games to foster healthy lifestyles. Outside the formal academic realm, App Inventor is being used in youth programmes to engage under-served girls with careers in science and technology, and in many other initiatives… Still, much more will be needed to turn App Inventor’s democratising potential into reality.”

This is the case with most socially developing tech. It has to find its way into as many hands as possible to achieve success. The One Laptop Per Child experiment is just one of many attempts to take high-end tech to people who might not otherwise encounter it. Technologist and founder of the organisation Nicholas Negroponte, also chairman emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab, has made claims about the experiment’s success that likely won’t surprise educationalists, cognitive scientists or anyone who’s ever raised a child.

In the September 2012 MIT Techology Review, he explained how solar-powered tablets in sealed boxes were delivered to Ethiopian villages – one per child, instructions not included. The tablets were preloaded with educational games, books, cartoons and movies. The aim: to see if the kids could teach themselves to use the tablets, and then to read.

“Within minutes of arrival, the tablets were unboxed and turned on,” writes Negroponte. “After the first week, on average, 47 apps were used per day. After week two, the kids were playing games to race each other in saying the ABCs.”

This is in fact an updated version of a 1999 experiment in a New Delhi slum. Sugata Mitra, now professor of education technology at Newcastle University, gave street children access to internet-capable computers, but no instructions. There too, the kids taught themselves to use the machines unassisted. Mitra just made himself available to listen to their bragging and respond with praise, a technique he called the “grandmother method”.

These examples seem to confirm what is already known: children don’t just learn through a teacher or parent, but also by themselves through play. Whether this self-learning equips them with the skills a formal education and the global knowledge economy require is still untested. Until it is, we can’t say for sure whether this tech has achieved its purpose or not.

4 It has to be scaled.

There are more children in remote, underserviced areas than there are free tablets and organisations willing to give them away. That’s the other challenge faced by OLPC. When it comes to democratising developmentbased tech, scaling is essential, but it can also be expensive. This conundrum has to be anticipated and overcome.

From July 2012 to July 2013 in South Africa, the eLibrary Project ran a pilot programme to assess the impact and feasibility of distributing Kindle e-readers to school libraries around the country. The pilot assessed 60 Johannesburg learners’ reading levels and interests before and after giving each a Kindle loaded with school and other general books, including literary classics.

Project founders David Ansara and Mark Oppenheimer say they realise that the devices and ebooks are not cheap, but they hope the results will draw interest from other NGOs and the government, and provide an answer to the country’s inadequate library system and perennial delays in delivering textbooks and other material to schools.

Thus, to effectively scale, the eLibrary Project needs to show that the resources spent on building libraries and buying and distributing physical books could be better spent on Kindles and ebooks. It also needs to show that serving the same number of learners wouldn’t cost significantly more.

5 Start with what’s there, measure what happens.

Sinenjongo’s learners are clearly starting with what’s already there. They already have cellphones. Wikipedia already exists as a reliable source of information with a team of curators who tend to it daily. The only thing missing is the airtime to connect these two already present resources in a useful way.

According to Peter Benjamin, Cell-Life also focuses its mobile health solutions on technology that’s already there. They’ve used “South Africa’s largest social network”, MXit, to provide HIV-related content to the network’s mostly young users. They’ve also linked MXit to the existing National AIDS Helpline, so that users can send a message on the application to the screen of an HIV counsellor, who can then reply.

But what is often lacking, says Benjamin, are measurements of change and peer-reviewed evidence of outcomes. These cannot be replaced by the hype around technology with a purpose. The right kind of evidence is crucial to show that purpose is truly there.

“The number of people sending SMSs or accessing an information source online isn’t necessarily an indication that outcomes are improving,” Benjamin explains. “You need a clear theory of change that connects the dots between the problem, the intervention, the monitoring and the measure of impact. This the most important part.”

But relative newness means impact measurement studies are thin on the ground and good evidence to support interventions is simply not there. Cell-Life has therefore developed its own impact-evaluation tools over the last decade, a process that requires careful consideration of what exactly you’re trying to achieve. You can’t measure the tech to assess its effects.

6 You can’t throw tech at every problem.

The dearth of impact studies hasn’t deterred many corporations and non-profit organisations from steering resources towards development-based tech.

The Vodafone Foundation in Europe, along with AGE Platform Europe and the European Disability Forum recently announced €200 000 of awards for apps focused on mobile health care, education, public services and support for the disabled. In the UK, social enterprise The Big Issue and Nominet Trust are investing up to £500 000 in early-stage businesses that use technology to transform the lives of young people.

But many social sector stalwarts have warned against the newfound enthusiasm of technologists for causes. Democratisation of tech does not mean doling it out for every social ill. Some of these simply can’t be cured with techie interventions. And problems become particularly acute when technologists attempt to develop solutions to socioeconomic problems. Why? Because it’s impossible to address one problem separately from all the others.

Gavin Silber of the community-based Social Justice Coalition in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, gives the example of the organisation’s work around safety and security. He explains that working on these needs also led the organisation to improve access to sanitation and streetlights. It makes sense: too few working communal toilets meant that, at night, people had to travel great distances in the dark to relieve themselves. This is when most attacks would happen and security was compromised.

So it’s important to understand your target population and area, says Silber. In the same way a corporation wouldn’t roll out a new product or service without doing market research, technologists should work closely with the communities they’re developing solutions for if they want them to succeed.

Who would have thought?

Despite the precedent, and a promising approach, Sinenjongo teacher Pam Robertson says none of the mobile operators has responded to the learners’ appeal so far. Currently only FNB Connect, a broadband service by First National Bank, has reacted by offering customers free Wikipedia access between 7pm and 11pm daily. Of course only students whose parents have a computer, ADSL line and FNB Connect can take this up.

Writing in The Sowetan in June 2013, Stellenbosch University education researcher Nic Spaull argued that this would be a minimal investment for networks with potentially significant impact on millions of South African learners with WAP-enabled phones – plus positive economic spin-offs.

“I can’t imagine that the data revenues from South Africans accessing the (primarily text-based) Wikipedia Mobile are anything that would affect the bottom line,” writes Spaull. “And anyway, these miniscule losses couldn’t hold a flame to the positive public relations and social capital from such an important policy.”

This is not to say that development tech is the responsibility of technologists and providers (see box, right). But it can be to their benefit, as it benefits the country’s education system and economy in turn.

This is truly tech with purpose. More than one purpose, in fact.

Inside | Osiame Molefe


Osiame Molefe is a chartered accountant who’s crunched numbers in Johannesburg, Bermuda and New York. But that was then. Now he’s a Cape Town-based writer who crafts words into news, opinion, analysis, public sector strategy and also some fiction. His interest is in, “the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics”. Welcome to Osiame’s space. An interesting place to be.


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