Next Steps

December 1st, 2008

I’m currently in a Ph.D. program in education, researching how students in urban settings learn to program. More specifically, I look at the development of students’ debugging competence in two programming languages, Scratch and LOGO. I’ve been focused on working with students that are underrepresented in computer science in the US, however in the future I could envision expanding my research to encompass students in rural settings. I think it has the opportunity for a huge impact.

Based upon my interest, the most logical path for entering into field work would be through the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) non-profit organization. (If someone other than Tapan is reading this) If you haven’t heard of it, OLPC provides durable laptops to students in rural areas. These laptops are equipped with internet access and users can download free versions of Scratch and LOGO for the platform. I would be interested to see how students’ interaction with Scratch and LOGO differs across cultural boundaries.

From the guest lectures this semester from students, it is my impression that my first experience with field work will most likely be supporting a colleague’s project. Hopefully by partnering with OLPC I could gain enough experience to plan a reasonable first project, potentially using the OLPC laptops as a platform. I think a reasonable immediate step it to gain experience conducting educational research locally. Hopefully I can become a competent researcher and then build on those skills to include work with rural users.

Telemedicine in India

November 12th, 2008

This was an impressive talk about how a research project moved towards an economically sustainable model for telemedicine eye care in India. I heard a variant of this talk focused towards a computer science audience, discussing mainly technical challenges and details of the long distance wireless protocol. The description of the project in a less technical setting, with examples of the process of building a tower, provided a rich additional dimension to my understanding of project. Although the speakers this semester have provided many pearls of wisdom to prepare us for field work, I believe none of these pearls would have prepared someone for being responsible for constructing a tower in India. From his unique experience, the speaker provided a few additional tips. For example, he was able to find a grateful former patient to agree to house the huge wireless tower. He also shared how he would intentionally create problems in the new equipment to prepare the technicians to identify and resolve issues.

I was interested to see how his work may continue through focusing on the issue of power quality in rural areas. To meet the needs of the eye center, they had to address issues in power quality, which was intermittent and often experienced very high peaks that could damage electronic equipment. It is interesting to see how a solution to just one challenge he faced along the way might give rise to the development of a company to address a common need.

User Testing in Gujarat

November 1st, 2008

The system under investigation is a phone menu system to bring up to date agricultural information to farmers in Gujarat. I was interested in the user study comparing the phone menu input mechanisms of voice and buttons. I was surprised to hear that subjects felt uncomfortable providing commands to the phone. Aside from this interesting cultural reaction, the research seems to suggest that the users found the phone buttons more usable. An issue that seems unresolved is the perceived usability of a cell phone for this purpose. The female subjects were described as lacking confidence using the cell phones and it is non-trivial to push buttons on a cell phone while listening to a menu system. It seems relevant to investigate the duration pause in the menu system needed for users to find and press the correct button.  There seem to be huge localization issues for these systems in India. Not only does the menu system need to support users with variable languages and dialects, but the voice content needs to be replicated in multiple languages. This seems to be a huge barrier to the goal for providing time critical information to farmers. The success of the local radio program for farmers suggests that there could be broad interest in the resulting system.

What do Community Health Workers, Bodas and an ISP have in common?

October 25th, 2008

Comparison of community health workers

It was fascinating to hear about an investigation into the practices of the different community health workers. We’ve heard quite a bit about community health workers in different contexts, but the contrast between 3 different organizations was helpful to see some of the shared and contrasting features. The discussion also brought up interesting ethical issues regarding whether it was reasonable or ethical for the community health worker to lie to people about the nature of the photographs taken of them. As background, the researchers took photographs of a few people and those people at a later time expressed concern that the photographs would be handed over to the government. The community health worker told the people that the photographs would be turned over and they would go to jail if they did not improve their sanitation. I think this highlights the fact that before taking the photographs the researchers did not get a reasonable level of informed consent. If they had gotten informed consent, there would be no ambiguity as to how the photographs would be used. As a side curiosity, do community health care workers have ethical responsibility to report sanitation violations?

Infrastructure for Ghana ISP

This was an interesting example of a relatively short intervention to provide improved infrastructure for an ISP in Ghana. It was startling to see how much was accomplished in just 10 weeks. At times we have seen technology interventions that don’t seem to match the existing needs of people or be grounded in sufficient existing infrastructure. This organization seemed that it had the technological infrastructure as well as the business need for such a technology.

Bodas for Life
This was a great example of using existing infrastructure to support best practices and necessary services. I would be interested to see the long term consequences of the intervention. It seems like in their current economy, there are few barriers to entry to becoming a boda. For example, the presentation mentioned that many boda drivers rent their vehicles etc. If now, becoming a boda requires acquiring first aid training, will the boda driver industry become unstable?

It can’t stop with a pilot

October 18th, 2008

I think that this (it can’t stop with a pilot) was an important message hammered home by the 3rd speaker on Tuesday.  Their research goes well beyond increasing the body of knowledge about diseases to making a seemingly large impact. As I understand it the work began as an investigation into the spread of disease in Nicaragua and has uncovered a number of relevant technological challenges.  Issues of tracking children for vaccinations and tracking children to understand the spread of disease highlight interesting user interface and data management issues. I think in future iterations of the course it would be interesting to contribute to an existing project such as this one.

I can totally relate to Kuang’s goal of using my love of technology to bring clean drinking water to people in rural villages. I just haven’t quite figured out how to make the connection. I must say, I admire (and am envious of) the pursuit! Ultimately, I gave up and switched to education, which switches my focus from drinking water to educationally rich experiences.

Kurtis’ research about moving to asynchronous voice-message-based communication was very cool. It seems to provide a much improved option for the suboptimal cell phone coverage in many areas. I certainly would love the option on my phone (although text messages would be fine).

Edu-Phones in Uttar Pradesh

October 10th, 2008

While the focus of the research project was bringing educationally rich games to kids not attending school in Uttar Pradesh, the talk on Tuesday was fascinating in terms of highlighting some of the cast and gender inequities in Uttar Pradesh.  Older sisters bending to the will of their young brothers is just one example of cultural norms I have never seen replicated in the US.  I’m particularly fascinated by these patterns, because it is my understanding that at the college level in India, women and men were studying computer science at comparable rates. These accounts seem to conflict each other, because I can not imagine the environment described as facilitating access to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

I am also interested in the more educational aspects of the project. While, as I understand it,  the goal is to bring access to education to students in rural Uttar Pradesh, it is exceedingly difficult to assess if the phone games are accomplishing that goal. The content and effectiveness of the games seems vitally important, but it is difficult to imagine examining these factors in the environment described.

A little of everything

September 30th, 2008

Today we got to talk about a number of interests in the class as well as hear a bit about how Tapan got started working in the area. I was most interested by his work with the “self help groups” (SHG). In a an SHG individuals come together to pool their money. Each meeting, members bring money to contribute to the pool. This pool of money can then be loaned to other members and paid back with interest. In Tapan’s work they were trying to use technology to help the groups maintain more consistent and reportable records. This seemed like an excellent example of identifying a need within an existing community practice.

Another discussion of today’s class was the direction of the class in future semesters. I think a fabulous assignment would be to design an IT solution for a particular community practice. To try to simulate the data collected when working in the field, video tapes of interviews or activity could be shared with the class.  It would be an interesting class project to develop a solution (or prototype of a solution) and identify how you would evaluate it.

Telemedicine in Rural India

September 27th, 2008

Terrence Lo’s talk about telemedicine in rural India provided a vivid and detailed account of the context of the project. His descriptions of the norms of medical practice and community attitues was very informative.  In India, the ratio of doctors to patients is 1700 to 1, where as the USA has a ratio of 390 to 1.  I was struck by the problem they were trying to address, 24% of women have a desire for and unmet need for family planning. Their approach attempted to capitalize on the fact that, while these women were not seeking health care for themselves, they were contacting health care providers on a regular basis.  Medical professionals could begin discussing family planning options with these women even if the women is not the not the focus of the medical attention.

I think that the prospect of telemedicine faced a number of challenges because of the frequency with which the doctor’s recommendation was to do further lab tests. These lab tests could not be administered in the villages and would require a costly trip to town.  Terrence estimated that about 75% of the telemedicine visits resulted in the doctor requesting the patient to do at least one lab test.

I think another possiblity is to attempt to integrate the goal of providing family planning support to women through existing medical service lines. Perhaps the pharmicists and doctors that are currently serving the individuals in the villages would be amiable to providing family planning services. I can’t speak to the feasibility in this particular culture, but it seems like a promissing angle.

Jhai Foundation

September 19th, 2008

I believe that Lee’s talk brought a new perspective to supporting the technological needs of individuals in developing nations.

  • Although the Jhai model differs from the prior speakers’ work economically (Jhai focuses on sustainability through supporting local entrepreneurial activity) I was most interested in his perspective that 80% of the solution already exists within the minds of the local community members.
  • It was my impression that the focus was not just on developing novel technology, but providing a framework of support structures for individuals to make productive use of technology, regardless of need.
  • Essentially removed from the technology aspect, was Jhai’s impressive support of communities building 10 year visions.

I wonder to what extent the Jhai model of finding individual entrepreneurials provides an individualistic influence that contrasts or conflicts with the local culture’s value of community.  Their work seems far from culturally neutral in that they’re establishing lines of business and revenue that previously did not exist in the culture. I am curious how the communities have been responding to and adapting to this new experience.

Building Relationships

September 13th, 2008

Tapan Parikh spoke this week about developing relationships with community members when researching in rural settings.  His anecdotes helped me better understand the importance of these relationships to the success of the research and technology deployment.  It was a bit overwhelming to hear the effort required to build trust with community members.

I don’t think I could have anticipated the anecdotes and effort required to develop raport. In terms of preparing individuals to work in the field, I think it would have been interesting for each student to compose a list of the “top 10 considerations” when doing field work. Each week’s presentation seems to bring a new perspective to my developing understanding of the “top 10 considerations”.

Here is my current “top 6 considerations”

  1. Show you care
  2. Listen (so that you can understand their unique situation)
  3. Consider sustainability from the first day
  4. Embrace the culture (even if that means 18 hour bus rides and unusual foods)
  5. Try to solve real problems that people have
  6. Follow through

As a small point, I was under the assumption that it would be impossible to remain vegetarian while doing field work, but I was relieved to hear that Tapan has been successful.