Good readings

Came across this nice essay by Pynchon ostensibly on Luddites but with broader applicability to the conversation about the dynamics between society and its technologies.

Also currently engaging with Derrida’s “Archive Fever“.

This article describes a surprising use of “semantic web technologies” for power grid management

not unsurprisingly, it’s been done

in the process of not finishing that particular winter project, I discovered the world of lifestreaming, the historical roots of which extend far back into the prehistoric era, and are now coinciding in interesting ways on l’internet.

The threads I have discovered so far: Desktop computing context, where this cs/hci paper from yale describes recording the flow of interaction and serves as the interface layer rather than the semi-coherent desktop metaphor of the traditional gui. Has a bit of the memex taste to it.

The ‘social media’ context, where one comes to realize that, after publishing all of these different media, blog, flicker, twitter, you tube, blah blah blah, that you would like to join them into a whole and federate the various flows in an automated way. This could only have come to pass in the last 8 years as blogging and muti-media/multi-outlet publishing has taken off. Before that there was no niche to fill.

The quantified self context, which Kevin Kelly is taking an active role in tracing the outlines of. Nothing exactly new here, as with anything it has its own history, but in combination with a number of other things seems primed to expand at a much more rapid pace. Things like the feltron report and daytum, along with the increasing popularity of data viz, and really just data in general, will bring an ease of recording, visualizing and sharing of this kind of thing on a person by person basis.

I am curious how it could be fertile gorund for new questions, and new insights.  Defintiely a closer realizaton of myLifeBits, and on a larger though less granular scale, than was happening before. Any possibility to do public health studies with this or do the inherent messy inconsistencies put it irrevocably at odds with scientific rigor? Hmmm.


Had to clip this lovely bit from Kevin Kelly, it is so right on.

In this Age of Metaphor, love will be the signal of real. One of the ways we will know when a thing has passed from “as-if to is” is when it earns unalloyed love from humans. When a virtual place wins the kind of full-blooded love that a real place on Earth wins. When a toy pet earns the same love as a breathing pet. When a synthetic actor earns the same love as a human movie star, when a virtual economy incites the same passion as the larger economy, when a global superorganism gains the same affection as a hamster.

Then it will no longer be as-if and it will just be.

That seems spot on to me. My own sense is that while he uses the future tense, this has already happened in many real instances, (unevenly distributed of course, there is always a ragged edge) but what a fabulous expression of a litmus test for reality. As a corrollary to the assessment of things I might also extend it to the production of things, and creating stuff with love. A nice linkage to the current oreilly work on stuff that matters campaign, which so far has been expressed laudably, and seems to be gaining momentum.


Thanks to a pointer from david mckelvey, designer extraordinaire, i’ve just run across datum, which is, upon first glance, the love child of the myLifeBits project and twitter

So how could this be put to some use beyond providing primary material for those anthropologists studying the behavior of new yorkers of a certain demographic? Last semester I heard about many community health projects in developing countries where tracking health related info was a primary goal and while strides were being made to provide simple platforms for in-the-field collection, it is easy to see a version of this coming in handy for scenarios where self-reporting is appropriate and some mobile could be introduced.

What else could be done?

textworms (sparklines)

An interesting encounter with sparklines in the wild, while wandering around after having recently embarked on research project which will have a major data visualization component. I find it interesting to observe what it does to the feel of the text on the page, especially when there are dense collections of links.

Too many things being thought…

As of today this blog is going to become my journal, written for an audience of one, as a place to store ruminations on the various things I come across in my pursuit of whatever it is I am doing.

If for some reason you do encounter this, welcome!

All previous entries related specifically to a class I took on Interactive Communications Technologies for Development, so they are markedly different in purpose and (thus) tone.

Final Project Ideas

This class illuminated areas of possibility that I had no idea existed four months ago, and I have enjoyed the process. As my final blog post for this class, I am presenting some reflections on things which sparked my interests, and could potentially be areas for me to pursue after this class is over.

I will admit that imagining myself actually driving a project of my own is still somewhat daunting. One thing that struck me, and is something that I would be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on, is that while there are compelling arguments to be made for focusing solely on projects in the developing world, I see similar information access issues and oppotunities in our own communities. Part of me feels like that is a more realistic place to start.

When I began writing these ideas out, my first sentences often involved specific technologies, but when I went back and read them over, I remembered one of the primary tenants of this class and that is when approaching a question, it can be better to not pre-load it with a lot of preconceptions about what the final form might be, and instead to ask those who are experiencing it to describe their needs, and then asses that in relation to one’s own experience. So in that vein there are a number of things which were presented that I think could beinteresting avenues of inquiry in the local community.

Food production information management. This is an area I am very excited to hear about developments in because I believe strongly that there is great room for improvement in how we understand the consumption of food in our culture.  I do not know a great deal about the current regulatory information flow around growing standards besides the fact that they are quite fractured, and there is often a gap between the semantics used in marketing and the regulations governing production. Tap mentioned that an integrated information gathering and reporting tool helped a coffee coop in Central America and one of the lingering research questions was, how can the additional documentation that we now get in the form of images and descriptions help us on the marketing side when we present the product to consumers.  This is something that could be investigates with regards to the bay area food system as well, where information about the food we purchase is mostly informal and left to the discretion of the store.

Also I remember a presentation that talked about some of the difficulties tracking children for public health studies because in the low income areas they could be shuttled off to relatives or friends in a very fluid manner.  I know from having friends in the public health and mental health fields that we have similar challenges in our own cities, although instead of children it might be homeless or transient populations. With the increasing penetration of mobile technology, maybe there is an opportunity to work on a platform for helping organizations incorporate better services for their clients.

Media literacy is also something I have an interest in, specifically how people can be empowered to feel comfortable directing the technology they encounter in their lives, and I think there is a lot of opportunity to explore this locally. I woudl be excited to work with others who are interested in pursuing projects which stretch both the technical and the assessment muscles, it doesn’t have to be something huge, but I think incorporating actual field experience woudl go a long way towards a greater understanding of this practice.

Neil and the Jatan Certification System

Neil Patel

Today, Neil presented his experiences on a project working with farmers in rural India to develop and spread an alternative agricultural certification system, on that is designed to encourage and support small scale agricultural practitioners through positive reinforcement and step by step improvements.

He titled his talk “The Challenge and the Hope”

The challenges are practicing agriculture on the small scale, and making it financially viable as well as environmentally sustainable. 80% of his village has left agricultural practice for a number of reasons, but one in particular that might not have been immediately apparent to an outsider was that agricultural practitioners had a hard time marrying off their sons because agriculture is seen as undesirable occupation. Because of a lack of mechanization and cultural circumstance, farming happens “on the backs of women.”

The Hope is found in his observation that organic sustainable farming practices offer compelling results. He also recounted the story of a remarkable 18 year old farmer/inventor, who is spreading his innovations through a peer education program to other farmers.

So what is organic farming? there is a spectrum of certifications trying to capture the amorphous concept of organic, which went from a movement to marketing strategy. The top down approach taken by most blanket certification standards doesn’t recognize the the diversity of regions and circumstances, organic doesn’t meant the same thing in different places.

Jatan is trying to take a different approach, it intends to be “for farmers by farmers”, that is to say, their goals are to support farmers, and it wants to actively involve farmers in the decision making. They apply a sajiv kheti philosophy which is about sustainable farming, rather than adhering to a strictly defined no chemical “organic” practice. It seemed to me to be an approach that seeks to honor the spirit of the concept, rather than the letter of the regulation or even th epolular conception of what it means. Consequently, they frame their organization in terms of an educational enterprise, where instead of inspectors, they have appraisers, and their certification is not a binary either you make it or you don’t, its constituents are ranked on a continuum.  This is in response to their desire to be inclusive, honoring the process inherent in moving off of chemicals, but not getting too focused on that alone, rather their scoring system includes factors around the environment and sustainability, health, and social elements. Aknowledging that details matter the certificate that is granted by the agency is written in gujerati, a perhaps small thing but one that has great symbolic significance.

The scorecard itself is an innovative tool, for example one of the criteria asks about the source of the farms irrigation? Respondents are then granted 1pt for a Tube well, 3 pt for a normal well or canal, and 5pt if they do rain collection. The factors which might be included in the social Social assessment include, treatment of laborers, and number of visitors, getting at the educational mission. The farmers themselves were involved in defining criteria, and the ultimately the point of all of this is to get a market premium. The certification yields a label with a score that they can affix to their produce, which both raises awareness about the issues Jatan is concerned with, as well as building their overall brand. Jatan does consumer education too, finding that awareness is the #1 challenge.

The Indian Department of Commerce also has a national standard, whose goals is to really satisfy international export activities.

The second project he describesd occurred the next summer, again he was back in Gujerat working with DSC, a training organization dedicated to spreading knowledge on how to better conserve water and resources. They produce a radio program, weekly, broadcast over state radio, goal the goal of which is to promote improved agricultural practices. It has been a success, with ~500,000 listeners statewide. The research question was: How can mobile phone tech enable richer interaction with show?

The show is scripted dialog played by well known actors from statewide entertainment and as “infotainment” listeners can relate to both farmer and host characters. In many areas, farmers have organized into Shrotal Mandal (listener groups), and the show takes listener feedback seriously, it is infact important to the ongoing production as a source of material.

So Neil’s observations that hearing peer farmer lived experience meant a lot, and that there existed a rich pool of context + info + experience in the listening audience, led him to propose an interactive voice response system, as a way to serve the radio content asynchronously and provide extended tools to make possible and encourage additional community exchanges.

His findings, on a technical level were that farmers had most difficulty with prompts which asked them to infer something about the system. Explicit directive prompts worked best. Women in general were unfamiliar with using a phone, so demonstrated a lack of confidence. Simplicity was main design goal, there were three features, Q&A, Headlines, Radio Archive.


Neil wanted to learn something about how to design voice UI in general, existing speech recognition is only really well evolved on a few languages, and the other alternative is dial input. He found that dial interface significantly better with regards to task completion, and enables a greater learning effect. Users reported much more difficulty in the speech case.

Practical lessons:

  • Admit you don’t know (inverse: be open to learning) be humble, process is the reward
  • Be friendly: the relationships are the jewel of this kind of work
  • Be a week behind schedule, always making forward progress: NGO and other’s time is precious, this work is not for people who stress out.

Tap: Digital ICS in Mexico

Working to make certification easier to manage for both farmers and coop admins in an agricultural cooperative certification context.

The program is deployed via a mobile phone for the inspectors, which gathers data that is sent to a database, which enables one point of access and reporting. It has the explicit effect of increasing accountability by necessitating visual evidence (i.e a cell phone camera image), which can be geo-tagged from the parcel.

Current results:

  • 71% reduction in managers time
  • 30% reduction in inspectors time
  • saved $4000 year in labor expense

One outstanding question: how might this activity/data enable marketing? *
One hypothesis is that people might pay more for coffee with additional “metadata” about the farmers, the context it is grown in, the production process or what have you. This is not uncommon in luxury foods, where handcrafted products can demand a premium. Think wine or cheese, or any of the upscale restaurants where the producer’s farms are called out by name. I have even seen this in some produce markets where the farmer’s picture is posted next to his tomatoes or oranges. I personally think the from a purely philosophical standpoint we do not do ourselves a service by being so disconnected from the details of our food’s production.

Brian, Charlene, and Allie and Roxanne


Today we heard from Brian who talked with us about his work automating routine tasks for health workers by using mobile technologies in the field.

He emphasized what we have heard from other presenters, namely that Community Health Workers are in a unique position, both to provide advice and to collect data, and face many challenges.

Brian presentation compared and contrasted his experience being involved with three organizations which were distinct in their philosophy, operations and structure. He also highlighted the tension between collecting research data and a primary focus on patient care. The culture of the organization often hinges on which is given the priority. His observation that an orientation towards service had a profound impact on the quality of the home visit by the Community Health Worker. Also he pointed out that often in research focused/driven projects, there was little in the way of mechanisms for feedback to percolate up from the on-the–ground–workers back to the administration. Perhaps unsurprisingly the clients, those being visited, reported a preference for the service oriented visit style.


Charlene is an MBA student who did an internship last summer, facilitated through Good Morning Africa – an NGO whose mission is empowering entrepreneurs, they match grad students and clients with complimentary needs/skills.

Her client was an urban ISP and her work was mostly business analysis. Her lessons learned were compelling reminders for implementing technology in almost any context I have experienced. She found that open source comes at a cost, and customization is necessary in order for the solution to fit the problem it hopes to address. That change is hard, and getting local buy-in is needed when you are asking an organization to change the way it does business, although it doesn’t garauntee self-sufficiency. She also learned through experience the ever present theme of this course, that tech by itself isn’t enough.

Allie and Roxanne

Allie and Roxanne discussed a project they were involved in through the Berkeley Blum Center, they worked on a multidisciplinary team with the intention of investigating ICT in Uganda. They ended up pursuing a plan to develop more effective links to health care services due to their observations of the limited patient transport and emergency transport infrastructure. From that sprung Boda’s for Life (B4L).  Boda’s are the local taxi equivalent, motorbikes for hire.

Under the normal operations of this program a patient or health worker contacts B4L. The driver (who has been through a medical response training program, assesses the scene. The driver transports patient to appropriate health center. Upon successful completion he gets a voucher, and after collecting 10 he gets free fuel. They mentioned that the voucher was not really the most important thing for these drivers, because being a Boda for Life driver imparted some social status in the community.

The most interesting part of their conclusion was that while they went in to the country planning on implementing a technology based project, their work ended up not really involving any new technology and that was instrumental in the success.  It build upon the existing local infrstructure and provided an organizational framework with some incentives built in, but mostly just involved people in solving their own problem. I think this story illustrates nicely that priciple of listening, not prejudging a situation.

Kwan (CommScape and OpenII), Curtis (mPhone), and Heather (Sustainable Science Inst.)

Today, Kwan discussed his experiences with two organizations, CommScape and OpenII.

CommScape’s mission is health care in developing regions. To frame the discussion, 1 billion people have a life expectancy of 35, a staggering figure.

As we have repeatedly heard from others, on the front lines in these areas are Community Health Workers, who do a LOT, they have many responsibilities and face a lot of challenges. Often times they have little training and minimal supervision.  The valuable information that they both generate and observe rarely gets captured. So how does this relate to a computer science graduate student at UC Berkeley? He found himself trying to reconcile the fact that there is a large part of the world that needs clean water and his abilities, for example, to make databases.

He related his story and the points along his path to get to where he is now. For a class at Berkeley he wrote a program to faciltiate data entry by CHWs via a cell phone interface. The system would allow the creation of health records which could be sent to doctors, and retrieved from the field, along with additional notes. He felt the system offered significant advantages, and allowed research to questions to be asked as a side effect. At this point he talked with people, talked with more people, networked, talked with more people, applied for funds to one place and got funding and another and got denied. Preserverence was important. I find this to be a common theme amongst those doing this kind of work.

His advice to others who are just starting out in this work:

  • talk…
  • read…
  • listen…
  • plan a trip…

He went to Tanzania and did a data consultation with a health organization. For that project he was involved in evaluating the workflow around looking for people who had dropped off of the radar of the health workers systems, which is a common problem. People move, children go live with grandparents or relatives, it is a very fluid situation. The NGO’s workflow had everything on paper forms, and across 11 clinics this created a clunky system and people could be administratively “lost”.

He emphasized that the quality of data directly impacts the NGO’s ability to make decision, and that building capacity was crucial.


Curtis discusses his project: the mPhone a system for asynchronous messages in developing world.

The premise is that all standard telephone networks are overprovisioned to handle peak volume, and so most of the time just hang out during off-peak. Asynchronous communication helps even out the load, also allows it to scale. The system can deliver messages when it has the available capacity. Basically a telephone call and an email get together.

Since it costs a lot to set up a cell tower in developing world his study wanted to validate the thesis that there are advantages (extends range, may introduce latency, but lowers costs,) to users of asynchronous messaging in that context.

He cut off the logical question before it arose, what about text messages? Well in his research area, SMS is $.03 compared to $.20 for direct call but doesn’t give any benefits of asynchrony, the phone doesn’t store messages for later delivery, and so if there is no network, which happens quite often, then there is no messaging.

For his research he decided to go with voice messages rather than SMS for the simple reason that voice negates problems with text, including literacy, language encoding, and entry methods.

He ran his test in Uganda, trying both low coverage and intermittent coverage areas, and his initial results showed that his user group liked voice over SMS. He plans to continue investigations this summer.


Heather is employed at the Sustainable Science Institute (1988) which was formed by Berkeley professors, and who mission is to increasing capacity for science in developing regions to address public health.

The projects she discussed spanned Nicaragua, South and Central America as well as Egypt

One challenge, (also identified by Kwan) in community health programs is tracking people, for resaerch as well as treatment, and it difficult with a health system built on paper.

In the SSI project, cohorts of 4000 kids entered at a time, they were incentivised to visit only the study clinic, so they could be followed consistently.

Their IT team collaborated with local staff on creating protocols and introducing tools, like barcode scanners, and PDAs. The electronic MHR’s facilitated home visits, the data from which was then dumped into Access. Their use of GPS allowed for tracking of outbreaks as well as vaccines and Prenatal services.

Her closing message was that she observed each health system doing things slightly different, so data integration is key!