DRCA: Final Post

December 5th, 2008

For the final DRCA class post, we are to propose a project or type of project we would like to work on.  I’m interested in exploring how HCI methodologies, UI designs, and usability studies can help design systems intended to help solve public health and literacy problems.  (Although, now that I’ve learned more about agriculture, I’m increasingly interested in projects aimed at helping farmers). I am interested in mobile interfaces, but also interfaces used for telemedicine.  Mobile interfaces are often the first technology interfaces used by some of the people working with these various systems, so there is no baseline level of digital literacy or expectations previously established.  The user is not able to draw upon technology skills that they have already built, so it is important that the interface make the user feel comfortable and engaged quickly.  Optimizing the computer-mediated interaction between doctor and patient so they are able to connect with one another also seems potentially important.

Due to the DRCA and Information Visualization classes, I have actually had the opportunity to help with some work on Kuang’s current project that is aimed a increasing the quality of data entered through a form.  It automates form layout, calculates the probability of a given answer and, in conjunction with the UI, helps encourage entry of correct answers.  While the project can be generalized some of the test data and forms we have worked worth were used for public health projects. It has been a challenging and good learning experience and has helped me get an idea of what it is like to work away from the circumstances in which the solution will be used.

In the future, I would really like the opportunity to spend some time in the field.  I’m interested in conducting a user needs study. Deepti’s study, which I think explored the cultural behaviors around technology, is another example of a type of study I want to do. While it sounded very challenging, I think some significant observations were made that apply to the specific project at hand, but are also generally valuable. Conducting a study to determine user needs and then helping to design a system to meet these needs is also of interest. That being said, it’s hard for me to imagine a resource being placed in the field for one of these projects dedicated solely to user needs evaluation and not responsible for some development or implementation.  I am not a developer, so I feel like this sort of opportunity might be unlikely.  I think a possible interesting alternative might be interesting to help deploy a solution and then study and understand what issues users have with a solution while simultaneously providing training.   The information collected could be used in future projects or to help sustain the current implementation.

11/04: Sonesh Surana and Aravind Eye Hospital

November 25th, 2008

Sonesh Surana spoke at the DRCA class on 11/04.  Sonesh has been collaborating with the Aravind Eye hospital network to design and build low cost wireless connectivity systems for use in rural areas.  The Aravind Eye Hospital and clinics are located in rural India in the state of Tamil Nadu.  The goal of the collaborative project is to enable and equip clinics in remote areas with high-quality video conferencing equipment in order to provide access to exams that would not otherwise be possible.

The clinics are run by trained nurses.  Patients see nurses first and then spend some time in front of a web camera which allows a doctor to perform an exam enabled by the connectivity.  If further examination is required, patients can go to a hospital.

One of the many challenges presented in the project is building the towers required for connectivity. It is possible to use existing structures, like a factory chimney, especially if you offer to connect the existing structure.  However, in some situations a new tower is required.  Sonesh had to learn and develop the skills required to design and build the towers in order to successfully meet the goals of the project.

Another challenge is providing the training required to sustain what has been built after you leave.  Some piece of the system built will, inevitably, break at some point after you leave, so it is important to train other people to fix it.  As you train people, they develop much needed skills and often move on.  Sonesh explained that you need to not only train people to fix problems, but also identify who will continue to do the training after you leave.   Sonesh identified a local IT provider an trained the IT provider.  The IT provider will then provide training to Aravind going forward.

Sonesh’s talk reiterated and really drove home how flexible you need to be in order to make these rural computing projects a success.  Whether it’s learning new skills and doing unfamiliar things or negotiating use of property in exchange for connectivity or technology, technology is not front and center all the time.  There isn’t a text book to follow or a standard answer.  You have to take risks, and make decisions you might never have seen yourself making.  You need to be able to foresee needs of the organization with which you are working that might not be immediately obvious. A challenge that seems both a bit daunting as well as exciting.

10/28: Neal Patel: Information Sharing for Farmers

November 25th, 2008

Our 10/28 lecture included a presentation by Neal Patel from Stanford University.  Neal has been working on two projects to facilitate information sharing amongst farmers in rural areas.  His work has been focused on farmers in rural Gujarat, India.   There are a lot of threats and challenges to small farms. Farmers fear losing both their livelihood and way of life.  In addition to general concerns that big farms will take over, farmers also need to be aware of and ready for climate change and new pests.  Farming is no longer perceived as a stable profession as evidenced by one man that Neal encountered whose sons were, apparently, unable to get married as a result of their farming profession.

Some farms in rural areas are not very efficient or advanced.  Plows often are not mechanized and instead consist of human beings, which are usually women.  However, India also has some very advanced farms.  Some have mastered organic farming and even the use of oxygenated water.  While in Gujarat, Neal met a progressive farmer who, despite his lack of education, was clearly very talented and innovative when it came to farming.  He possessed information and intuition that other farmers could leverage and this is what Neal’s systems are intended to facilitate, information sharing.

Neal’s first project/system is called the Jatan Certification System.  It’s used for organic certification.  Neal wanted to help make organic certification more of a bottom up process rather than one that is top down.  He spent a lot of time talking to farmers and designed a score card system that would involve the farmers in the certification process as well as help quantify the level to which the organization met the appropriate criteria allowing for more nuanced ratings. The volunteer farmers also help keep costs down.  Farmers have incentive to follow the program because certified goods command a higher price.

I enjoyed hearing about Neal’s experiences.  It was interesting to learn not only about the challenges faced by rural farmers in Gujarat, but also about organic farming efforts in India, of which, I was largely unaware.  I find it sad that a profession that supports life, both plant and animal, is considered “undesirable” when it is so essential.  Hopefully, systems like Jatan can efficiently provide some additional value to the goods produced by these small farms and help sustain a valuable way of life.

Neal’s second project, Avaaj Otalo, involved using mobile technology for information access and sharing.  The Development Support Center (DSC) is a center for natural resource management.  It has a radio show that communicates improved farming practices and related information to farmers.  It’s very successful and has 1/2 a million listeners state wide.  It has a very well thought out plan and format and is actually performed by actors that use a script.  It is “infotainment”.  Neal was interested in how mobile technology might enhance the show and activity associated with it.  He developed an idea or scenario where mobile phones are used to call in after a broadcast.  Users then navigate a “spoken web” and “post” their questions and comments by voice.

Neal wanted to validated the idea, so he conducted some interviews with farmers.  The farmers agreed that hearing the experiences of other farmers was really valuable.  The personal context provided along with the information in this format validates the information.   Having validated the “spoken web” idea, Neal and team designed a simple system that allows callers to record a question, get “headline” news (agriculture specific), and listen to Q&A archives.    They tested this idea through role playing with both male and female farmers.  Female farmers did not respond very well.  They are not used to using the phone and lacked confidence.

Neal also discussed using voice as an input modality.  Voice as an entry modality is also problematic.  The technology is not quite good enough to be general purpose.  It still requires some training.  Additionally, people are apprehensive to talk to machines without a human on the other end.  Neal also tested a dial interface and found that people, generally, had fewer issues using it.  Younger and educated users had the least amount of trouble with the dial interface.  There are also plans to implement search, which poses an additional problem for voice as the input modality.

One more general problem with the system is the cost of the phone time.  The NGO  plans to offer the tool for free initially.  In the future, an add or subscription based model may be used to cover the cost of the required phone time.

The Avaaj Otalo program is really unique.  While it faces a lot of challenges, it seems like a really interesting method for not only exchanging information, but also building community and encouraging technology use.  Despite the initial concept results that Neal found when testing the idea with women, I wonder if, over time, the asynchronous communication could also help women overcome some of their feelings of insecurity around using mobile phones?   I wonder if it might feel like there is less at stack when not communicating with another human being?

Neal also provided some general “nuggets of wisdom” for DRCA:
– admit when you don’t know something (be open to learning and humble)
– the process is the reward
– do work that is immediately relevant
– be friendly
– relationships are key
– be a week behind schedule ( it was a little unclear to me what he meant, but I think this meant, don’t be more than week behind schedule because time and resources are scant for NGOs)

Lastly, Tap presented some work he did in Mexico called the Digitalics project.  The aim is to make International Certification and Control for coffee more efficient.  Field operatives conduct surveys using mobile phones with cameras.  Data is collected using the phones in the cameras and this data goes into a database via automation.  In an initial deployment in Oaxaca, Mexio, there was a 71% reduction time in evaluation based on the collected results. Tap also talked about how to extend a project like this to the consumer.  What if people were able to look their fancy coffee shop coffee up on a kiosk?  What if consumers were able to check out the farm and even trace a visual history of the product?  Or read farmers’ stories as well?  I really like the fact that there is potential to tie something people buy all the time to where it really comes from and how it is produced.  I would be willing to pay more knowing that it was grown by people that live and farm well.

Thoughts and Interests

November 18th, 2008

Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the class on October 21. I heard it was really interesting, but since I was not there, I’ll be writing about a few general impressions that I’ve developed throughout the class.

The first I have is possibly more of a concern than an impression.  Most of the people presenting are either experts in public health or computer science.  It has been great learning about all of these people applying their expertise to the various projects I’ve seen presented.  However, I am somewhat personally concerned as I am neither a public health or CS expert.  Given the limited amounts of time and resources involved in these projects, it is sometimes difficult for me to imagine really useful contributions I could make to projects like those presented in class.

That being said, there have been a few topics that have really struck a chord with me.  While not a public health expert, I’ve been interested in it for a while, so I particularly liked hearing about the projects focused on solving public health problems like Neal Lesh’s, Kuang’s, Heather’s and Terrence’s.  Both projects that involve improved data/tracking, as in the case of a study or inoculation program, and Telemedicine are interesting. I am also increasingly considering ways to use ICT to address the literacy issues that we’ve heard a lot about.  It seems to so often be a limitation of a system.  I am interested to know more about what kind of projects are attempting to leverage ICT to encourage literacy.

Kuang Chen, Kurtis Heimerl, and Heather Zornetzer

November 18th, 2008

There were three different lecturers for our October 14th class: Kuang, Kurtis, and Heather.  All three are currently participating in efforts to develop information communication technology and infrastructure for different public interest efforts in the developing areas of the world.

Kuang was able to provide the class with some insight into research and development for ICTD in both academic and field environments.  While details regarding the specifics of the projects were very interesting, the mentality with which he approached the projects and his experiences in the field and back in the U.S. were the part of the talk that I found most unique.  There were several things I took away from his talk.

* The first is that it’s important to spend talking to people.  It may not feel like hardcore research all the time, but it is useful.
* The second was that spending time in the field is rewarding and important for understanding the circumstances and users.
* Iteration is required
* Finding a partner is useful.  You need to be flexible to what they want and help them put your skills to use by providing them with a statement of work.
* Data Quality is key

Kurtis has been researching and designing a system for asynchronous communication in areas of intermittent connectivity.  In addition to the obvious benefits such a system can provide where connectivity is intermittent, there is a larger interest to move people in developing worlds to asynchronous communications because it has advantages for both providers and users.  It can help avoid the resources that are often wasted except at peak hours and therefore allows for better utilization of the existing infrastructure.  It can also provide a sort of extended operating range.  When you drop in and out of coverage messages are sent and received, but without explicit action on the part of the user.  It’s also cheaper.

The goal of his particular project/system was to find a way to utilize all of the advantages of SMS and none of the disadvantages of voice.   SMS has usability issues as well, so  a goal was to help reduce/eliminate those issues.  The implementation was a sort of voice SMS and utilized a phone, voice and text messages, and a localized interface.

He was able to deploy the system in Uganda in summer 2008.  At the time, users hated SMS, but used it anyway due to the low cost.  However, they loved the voice SMS the system provided them the opportunity to use.  They found the usability better and the communication more meaningful.

Observing Cultural Norms

October 21st, 2008

UC Berkeley School of Information MIMS student Deepti Chittamuru presented on October 7th.  She discussed her experiences conducting research around teaching English through games played on mobile phones.  She managed a team of 6 undergraduates that was associated/sponsored by MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies).  Their research was conducted in Malihabad, India, a village in Uttar Pradesh (UP).  UP is a very poor state and many children do not go to school.  The study was intended to target children unable/unwilling to attend school.  The goals of the study were to understand how the social environment might influence learning and to identify scenarios and circumstances for learning when children aren’t managed by adults.

It was clear from Deepti’s talk that in order to conduct such a study and glean really useful information from it, you must understand the social circumstances in which the research is being conducted.  There were several cultural norms that impacted Deepti’s study in a rural Indian village. First, the responsibility of raising children is left to the mother, so she must be convinced that the study is worth while if her children are going to participate.   Very different expectations are placed on girls and boys.   Girls are expected to help out at home raising other children and helping with animals and chores.  The needs of a boy are generally put in front of those of a girl.  If education is an option, it will typically be the boy that gets the opportunity.  In the case of this study, that may mean that a mother only sees that it is worth while for her boy to participate in the study, or, if the girl is given the option to participate, boys will be given the priority in terms of using the phone.  The location of a study can also be critical.  A school was selected for this particular study, but the perception of the school was that only upper caste children belonged there and the lower caste children, the children less likely to receive an education, were less likely to show up for the study.  It is important to choose a location that has neutral cultural identity in order to recruit appropriate participants.

After the first week, which was spent evaluating the environment and social learning tendencies of the children, the phones were distributed.  Deepti and her team went to the environments where they knew kids congregated and played and passed out the phones.  The study was primarily intended to explore how the children learned and not to measure or quantify how much they learned, so the results presented were more focused on behaviors that were observed.   The children had participated in a related study (in a school environment I believe) before, so the phones were not entirely new to them.  There were several games on the phone including: Snake tree (audio video interactive game), Pic A Word (camera based), digital stories and rhymes (video), some of which were similar to conventional games played in the area.

Several interesting observations were presented.  Children tended to play in groups.  Girls generally shared more and fought less.  Girls tended to collaborate better.  They each had a turn and could play until they answered a question in correctly or made a bad play.   They then had to pass the phone on to the next girl.  Girls, therefore, consulted more frequently with the other girls before proceeding.  The amount of time allowed for play and how acceptable play was to parents and society varied by caste and gender with upper caste boys generally having the greatest advantage and level of acceptability and lower caste girls the largest disadvantages.

I found Deepti’s talk very interesting and think it was a nice addition to the talks we’ve heard throughout the course.  The study involved technology that more directly influenced the individuals in a community (rather than help provide a larger service like health care).  Its emphasis was more on understanding the nuances of the society for/in which the technology was developed.  While I thought that some of the findings reported were likely not a huge surprise or previously unknown,  I wondered whether or not the affect of these cultural norms on technology use in communities been studied previously?   It seems like an interesting and important area for research.

Designing Appropriate Computing Technologies for Rural Development

October 21st, 2008

Class September 29th was less formal than usual.  We discussed potential improvements/extensions to the class, asked general questions about rural computing and ICTD, and Professor Tapan Parikh discussed his personal experiences that introduced him to the field.

Course Suggestions:
Several students were interested working in the field and thought it would be a good idea to have this be part of the course.

ICTD Information:
We talked about a few different resources and organizations similar to Jhai and other participants in the field of ICTD.
Rios Institute
Academic: UC Berkeley, MIT, CMU
Private Industry: Microsoft Research lab

Tapan then talked about what got him interested and started in the field of ICT4D. While a Phd student at the University of Washington, he decided he was interested in doing something more and making a contribution to the world around him.  While studying and teaching in India, he met a man that was interested in a project that would provide a way for innovative and creative local people to exchange ideas and information that would help them improve life around them.  The project was extremely ambitious and, while, at the time, it wasn’t possible to build exactly what was envisioned, there was a significant opportunity for research, which provided the spark that would alter the course of Tap’s career.

Hearing about Parikh’s experiences was really inspirational.  There are some key points that I took away.  If you want to do something in the greater public interest, you have to be willing to change your lifestyle.  You need to spend time in the communities you want to help and you may need to pay your own way to do this.  The work may be lonely and the environment unfamiliar at times.  You have to be patient and you have to listen.  You need to understand, despite potential preconceived notions, that even if you are in a village were they don’t have running water, that does not necessarily mean that the people don’t want computers or to be connected to other communities.  It also seems helpful to have a connection close to or in the community as well as the ability to speak the native language.

Terrence Lo – Telemedicine and Franchising

October 7th, 2008

Terrence Lo presented the work he has been doing with World Health Partners, a New Delhi NGO.  His presentation began with some staggering statistics on Uttar Pradesh in India.  UP is the most populous state in India with 190 million people, 75% of which live in poor rural areas with low infrastructure.   There are 1700 people to 1 doctor.

World Health Partners is working towards two goals in UP.  The first is to provide some level of health care in UP’s rural communities.  Rural communities in India have a few different options for health care: Rural Healthcare Providers (RHP), Ayurvedics (traditional medicine), self treatment (pharmacy), or to go to a town for a doctor or hospital.  There is little incentive for doctors to work in rural areas, so the Telemedicine clinics are intended to provide a level of care not currently present in these communities.  The second goal is to provide greatly desired/needed, but not available family planning services.  Currently, 40% of the population is using contraception.  The goal is 60%.

WHP are setting up Sky Health Clinics, Telemedicine sites, where there is live audio/video consultation to provide diagnostic resources.  Clinics also have Neurosynaptic devices connected to the communication systems that monitor heart rate and other body functions for diagnostic purposes.  Clinics are strategically placed near a town road in order to provide access to supplies.   The town also needs to have an RHP and a pharmacy.  The RHP is required as they refer patients to the clinic and the pharmacy is required in case of needed prescriptions.

While I found the details around the technical infrastructure and implementation interesting, the most unexpected thing I heard was the funding strategy for the clinics.  Families were asked to put up money equivalent to $3000.  The families were asked to provide the space for the clinics as well and essentially become entrepreneurs as they were also assuming responsibility for operating the clinics.  The $3000 provided for all of the equipment needed to set up the clinic.

I am really surprised and fascinated to learn that this franchise strategy has been successful.  It is providing unique new career opportunities for people that didn’t previously exist, but the amount of money, responsibility, and the time commitment are not trivial.  There is a 50 rupee fee charged to clinic visitors and a portion goes to the investor, but earning a return on the $3000 will take a while and probably is not the primary motivation to sponsor a clinic.  I find it amazing and inspiring that people are willing to provide this type (not only monetary) of sponsorship.  I think only other local people could have known that this plan would work and know how to make the arrangements.  This reiterates what we’ve heard several times in this class, that it is so important to be well connected locally in order to be successful.

Lee Thorn – Jhai Foundation Founder

September 30th, 2008

For the September 15th DRCA lecture, Lee Thorn, founder of the Jhai foundation, was the guest lecturer.  He discussed his experiences working in Laos and India and offered some advice to those who would someday like to help develop technology solutions for use in rural areas of the world.

Thorn had 30 years of experience in community development prior to founding Jhai ten years ago.  He found that his experiences in “old fashioned” social work remain relevant in the work he does now with Jhai.

Connectivity is the primary request, often in order to achieve some level of medical care (tele-medicine).  Visiting an actual doctor or hospital is a major economic decision for people in rural areas as 1. it takes resources to get to the hospital or doctor and 2. the time and effort spent by those traveling to the doctor is not spent working and earning money.  Tele-medicine provides a way for villagers to talk and show themselves to the doctor so that they can make a more informed decision about going to the doctor.

Literacy, and how to provide communication for illiterate people, is also an issue Jhai has to deal with.  Icon based interfaces help as does voice technology.  This topic raised several questions for me.  Are there equal efforts being made to help solve the illiteracy problem(maybe they are?) through technology?  Can technology be used to help solve the illiteracy problem?

Here are some other key points I took away from Lee’s talk:
– 80% of the solution is in the local people’s hands
– need to empower entrepreneurs (local)
– entire village must be engaged –  connectivity must be perceived as community asset
– You can’t ever completely leave (at least at this point?)

-Methodology for sustainability (sustainable for the villagers)

* find the best local entrepreneur
* “hang out” and talk with neighbors/locals (listen)
*  teach accounting facilitate planning
*  teach the technical stuff and let kids lead where you can
*  follow up

It was a very inspirational and informative talk and I appreciated having the opportunity to listen to and learn from a unique expert in an important field.

DRCA: Establishing Relationships for Designing Rural Information Systems

September 16th, 2008

The September 9th lecture entitled Establishing Relationships for Designing Rural Information Systems, was given by Professor Tapan Parikh.  It primarily covered crucial, yet less technical, aspects of designing, building, and implementing successful applications and systems for rural development purposes.  He shared his experiences developing CAM, a mobile camera-based application framework for microfinance groups, in India and with the Asobagri coffee cooperative in Guatemala.  A brief introduction to microfinance was also given, which was useful as I was not very familiar prior to the lecture and found it very interesting.

The key points in the lecture and associated reading were:
To establish a rapport with local people
– Respect local culture and participate in it as local people would
– Examples included eating local food the way local people do and taking the same type of transportation

To design relevant solutions
– Identify the problem first.  Don’t take an existing technology and try to fit it to a problem.
– In order to identify the problem, constraints, etc. and gain support from the community, you need to listen carefully.  Don’t start with a solution in mind, but rather build feedback into the tools and solutions.
– Design for real people/problems/orgnaizations
– You need to build on the ground for impact and sustainability, it can’t be all about business (unless it encourages local business?)
– Social science and computer science have somewhat conflicting goals – social science requires observation, which isn’t really inherent in CS

And evaluation is challenging
– Be culturally aware when designing experiments
– Making evaluation a priority can be difficult

A final question was posed, “how can you design an educational experience that captures the lessons in these lectures and teaches students about designing rural computing applications in a realistic manner?”

While I don’t have experience designing or implementing rural computing applications, I spent a short time volunteering in Russia (I had actually been looking for a volunteer experience that could put my technology skills to use, but ended up working with children and adults with disabilities) and I think many of these points are really important no matter what you are trying to do when you are outside the environment in which you live.  My assignments wer coordinated by local people who spent time establishing connections and a rapport with the people at the places where foreigners volunteer.  The volunteers had to spend time establishing a rapport with the local coordinators and translators as well as establishing our own relationships with the staff at hospitals and schools and learning how to behave in the context of local culture.  We were constantly warned that we needed to be patient and that we would probably feel like we weren’t being as effective as we could.  I didn’t understand the warning initially, but it made a lot of sense after I was working as I certainly felt like I wasn’t very efficient or anywhere near as effective as i could be.

I think the most difficult thing to teach is the intuition and the flexibility.  From my perspective, sitting in a Berkeley classroom, I imagine it is hard to really know exactly when to adapt and be flexible and to know when to proceed and move forward.  That comes with experience in the field.  However, I do think it’s really important that people interested in this type of work hear that they need to behave as local people do, build a rapport, listen, and really solve a problem based on the needs of the people before they are in the environment for which they are trying to develop.  Even if what this all really means isn’t clear in the classroom,  it helps people manage their expectations better once they are in the field, which I ultimately think will lead to a better solution for the people with the problem.