Learning to Listen: Technology And Poor Communities

Monday, January 23, 2006

Bernadine Dias, a Sri Lankan-born scientist based at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), United States, admits she “wears many hats”. Her main focus is robotics, but she also devotes a lot of time promoting innovative ways of using technology in poor communities.

In 2004, Dias founded an initiative called TechBridgeWorld to forge collaborations between CMU and developing communities around the world, including poor neighbourhoods in the United States.

Dias believes this kind of relationship benefits both partners: university staff and students learn about the real needs of the world’s poor, while communities gain skills and access to technology.

Ongoing TechBridgeWorld projects are using technology to improve healthcare in Haiti and to teach English in Ghana. And when Dias moved to Qatar last year to teach in the robotics department of ’CMU-Q’, her university’s recently launched local branch, she took TechBridgeWorld with her.

As well as introducing the initiative to Qatar, Dias plans to use the country as a springboard to expand into developing communities in Asia and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Working on robotics at the Qatar branch of CMU, says Dias, is an attempt to rectify what she sees as a common misconception: the tendency for consultants and experts to assume that technology that works in the West will also work well for communities elsewhere. From personal experience, Dias believes the notion is misguided.

“Because I grew up in Sri Lanka, I know about experts who have flown in and stayed at five-star hotels for a month, used all the money and come up with solutions that had no relevance at all,” she told Gulf Times, a Qatari newspaper, in September 2005.

Dias says this mindset leads to Western products, developed to meet the needs of “a sliver of the world’s population”, being shipped to communities in developing countries who have not been asked about what they need.

Communicate and collaborate

Dias stresses two reasons why it is important to listen to local communities and develop partnerships with non-governmental organisations. “First, which is obvious, you can’t design a solution without grasping the problem — in technology or in any other discipline,” she says.

“Secondly, several developing communities have been around for so long, and they managed to live in synch with their environments. We need to learn more about this, not only when designing technology solutions for these communities, but for designing technology solutions in general.”

One of TechBridgeWorld’s early efforts that highlighted the importance and feasibility of getting local institutions involved was a pilot project in Ghana’s capital, Accra. One of Dias’s students, Ayorkor Mills-Tettey, went there to see how schoolchildren in poor neighbourhoods would respond to and interact with an automated, English-language, reading tutor developed at CMU. The computer programme works by correcting students reading stories aloud in English if they mispronounce words.

Ghana-born Mills-Tettey needed little more than a laptop and eight headsets. In Accra, she quickly found an Internet caf? willing to let a group of students use its computers for about an hour a week for the project. She then visited the nearest school and offered to set the project up there. Returning the following day, she found that the head teacher had arranged everything: from choosing students to take part, and organising their consent forms, to arranging a bus to transport them to the caf?.

“It was amazing,” recalls Dias. “All the roadblocks that people said we were going to face were just gone.”

Most of the children had never touched a computer before, yet learned to use the programme in 15 minutes. They grasped it not by sitting through the accompanying tutorial but when Mills-Tetty read it out to them. Her familiar accent and the English translations of Ghanaian folk stories that she and her CMU colleagues had programmed into the automated tutor served her well.

“The students loved it, and people were so excited. Here was a new way of getting students interested in reading English, a new way to alleviate the problem of not having enough well-trained teachers,” says Dias. TechBridgeWorld is now collaborating with a Ghanaian non-governmental organisation to run the same project, but with more students and for six months, to get more concrete results.

Dias thinks the project could address the problem of the lack of well-trained English teachers in the Middle East too, pointing out that for the project to succeed, whenever it is put to work for a new community, attention should be paid to the delicate differences that distinguish communities, even in the same region.

Moving mountains

Healthcare is another focus for TechBridgeWorld, which is exploring a low-cost project to digitally connect well-equipped hospitals in cities to distant, rural clinics that lack resources. The Albert Schweitzer hospital in Deschappelles, Haiti, is one example.

Connecting the hospital to health centres scattered in mountains eight hours away, could save villagers from having to make daunting and laborious journeys to see a doctor. Digital photos of patients in rural clinics would be sent over the Internet to better-trained physicians in the main hospital, who could then decide whether a disease is benign or serious and whether it warrants quick action.

“We would not need these digital cameras to work 24 hours per day, just one or two hours daily to take all the photos for accurate diagnosis,” says Dias.

Dias, who witnessed the impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami while visiting family in Sri Lanka in 2004, is also working on disaster relief, with the aim of developing robot-human rescue teams. Yet with all her projects and plans, Dias believes technology has a long way to go before it can really deliver to poor communities.

“Technology has yet to mature. It’s still unreliable,” she says, giving the example of computer software that performs differently depending on which operating system the computer uses.

She believes that it is only when technology is reasonably reliable that we can use it more courageously in risky endeavours such as landmine detection. “We’re starting to witness signs of maturity, though,” she adds.

Dias also thinks that awareness is slowly growing of the need for technology providers, particularly multinational companies, to encourage people in poor communities to become financially independent entrepreneurs, not simply consumers or charity-dependent people caught up in cycles of need.

The Indian professor C.K. Prahalad, a management guru at the US-based University of Michigan, led the call for change in his 2004 book Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. The book received much praise from Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and, through the Gates Foundation, a major supporter of science and technology for development.

Dias, too, is enthusiastic. For her, the core of the book’s importance is that it invites the business sector to recognise what Prahalad calls “markets at the bottom of the pyramid”, and build new products accordingly.

Dias believes that designing technological products specifically tailored to the needs of poor communities is no mean feat. It takes a great deal of creativity and discipline — listening to what communities need.

However, some companies have taken a simpler route to make their products more accessible. In September 2004, Microsoft released in Thailand a low-price, ’watered down’ version of its Windows operating system, named Starter Edition.

Generally, the product was not praised by analysts and commentators, but Dias thinks this is not what matters ultimately: “it all comes down to what people in these communities want and can use. If these versions of products are useful to a community, and that community plans to make good use of it, then it is great that they are able to get access to the products… You don’t always need the most hi-tech or expensive solutions.”

Under the umbrella of TechBridgeWorld, two new courses – both focused on technology consulting for communities, particularly poor ones – will be introduced to undergraduate students at CMU-Q’s school of computer science. As ever, they uphold Dias’s belief in mutuality when it comes to encounters between the West and the developing world.

As she says: “The most important thing students and faculty walk away with from these courses is the realisation that you can’t be an expert on everything, and that you need to listen to, and learn from, your partners in local communities.”

Source: SciDev.Net (London), Waleed Al-Shobakky (link opens in a new window)