Monday, 26 April 2010

Can the internet help the poor?

A 50 year old father from Harare, Zimbabwe sent us an email, brimming with enthusiasm. Distressed by seeing women in his community suffer as they peel tough, sun-dried peanuts with their hands, teeth and stones, he turned to the internet, and found the Universal Nut Sheller, documented on the Appropedia wiki.

A Kenyan potato farmer turned to Google to find help when his crop was dying. He found the answer, harvested a bumper crop, connected with the Kenya Potato Growers' Association, and found a customer.

The maker of a home biogas system in the Philippines. He got help putting his design online, on the Appropedia wiki, and as a result got much more exposure, and received emails from around the world, with thank yous and suggestions for improvements (some of which he incorporated in his updated design). This is one of my favorite stories, because it shows that people in less developed countries are not only consumers of knowledge, but creators and sharers.

Appropedia is an open wiki project, focused on technologies and practices for overcoming poverty and creating a just and sustainable world. I've been involved since early days in 2006, working on it, telling people and helping to build partnerships. But when we tell people, a reaction we sometimes get is:

What use is an internet site to help the poor, when the poor have no internet access?

But... why the assumption that they're completely disconnected? Travel in less developed countries and you'll see internet cafes in cities and villages. A home internet connection may be too expensive for local incomes, but saving up money to connect from an internet cafe is within reach of many.

Mobile phones are widespread. Text messages and phone calls are surprisingly cheap in some countries - on one occasion a 10 minute off-peak call from my mobile phone in Jakarta cost me less than 3 cents. This matters because of the many applications for mobile phones that support development, and because there are many more phones than computers. A story was told at BarCampAfrica in 2008, by a Google employee who had been in Africa and asked a local "Have you heard of Google?" the local replied "Yes, of course." But when asked "Have you searched with Google from a mobile phone?" the local was confused. "Of course - how else can you search with Google?" In Africa especially, users are skipping land connections, and cell phones are getting smart quickly.

You only need one phone in the village with this capability to significantly increase people's ability to find information, and to allow new ideas to arrive and spread. A farmer with a dying crop now has an alternative to just watching the crop die. The compassionate Zimbabwean can find an answer to the suffering of women in the local community. The local inventor or designer can spread the word about their latest idea. And a teacher can find answers and teaching resources for their class. This is real progress.

Still not sure how this affects those who don't log on themselves? Consider our potato farmer, above. Understandably enthusiastic about how technology has helped him, he is now connecting the global with the local, enabling knowledge from the net to be shared in his community:

In my rural community, it is about making use of simple wooden notice boards, with print outs of text messages, e-mails, photos illustrations and articles, all talking of local issues.

This is clearly a world where tech helps the poor. The question is no longer whether the poor can benefit from wikis, but how good the information will be when they find it?

These issues face all wiki communities, especially those concerned with human progress at a global level. There is more we can do to make wikis more accessible, through improving the interface and making offline versions available. More on that in a later post.

Relevant wiki pages:

Monday, 19 April 2010

When progress is political

Maternal mortality is an issue that hit the news headlines last week. On 12 April, the respected medical journal The Lancet released a report providing evidence that global rates of maternal mortality (MMR) have significantly declined, by 35% over 28 years to be exact. This is good news, right? It means that policies to train birth attendants, provide family planning services and other strategies have been effective and that we’re on track to meet MDG 5, one of the key indicators of which is to reduce maternal mortality by 75%. Then why has this report created such a furore?

Well, The Lancet claims that it was pressured by maternal health advocates to delay publication of its findings for fear that they would detract attention – and resources – from the issue. Maternal mortality was also the focus of a UN conference last week, whose most recent research contradicts The Lancet’s findings claiming that maternal mortality rates are only declining at a rate of less than 1% per year, far off the needed targets. The lack of accurate data has been a major factor impeding efforts to account for the prevalence and causes of maternal mortality worldwide, also perhaps explaining the difference in MMR presented by the two reports.

The article by The Lancet draws attention to four factors the authors argue are driving the drop in maternal mortality: declining global total fertility rates, rising income per head, improving maternal education, and more women are benefitting from skilled birth attendance. However, a striking finding of this research is that more than half of all cases of maternal mortality occur in only six countries (India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo). The OECD Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) measures social norms that discriminate against women and ranks 102 developing countries according to twelve variables that measure social institutions. Five out of these six countries (the DRC is the exception) fall within the top quintile of the index, indicating particularly high rates of discriminatory social institutions. Therefore another relevant factor driving a high incidence of maternal mortality in some countries, particularly the worst-performing, could be practices that deny women control over their reproductive health and rights, leading to high levels of fertility and early marriage which can then also contribute to higher MMR.

Clearly progress, particularly in how it is reported and communicated, can be political. What if lower figures mean less support and attention from the international community on important issues like maternal mortality? Should success stories in development be reported on? Of course, but visible progress should not then be used as an excuse for the diversion of funds. What is needed now is for efforts to be sustained, not for budgets to be cut. While a 35% drop in global MMR is good news, it is still a long way off the 75% drop that the MDGs call for by 2015. In a field where good practices and evidence of impact are often lacking, this progress in tackling maternal mortality should be seen as something positive to build on and to invest in.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Crowd Sourcing for Progress

I really can’t go anywhere these days without hearing about crowd sourcing – the power of the crowd. Here are a few numbers, reports, sites that I came across recently and each made me think about the positive power of collaboration on a grand scale :

  • Ushahidi initiative in Kenya – uses the power of the crowd to make people aware of incidents of crime via SMS messages on people’s phones
  • Wikinomics, Lisbon Council report- on the era of openess
  • ThinkTank - an open source crowdsourcing platform the White House will use.
  • Open Gov – This is a project which is opening the US government's data and plans to the citizens.
  • Appropedia- a powerful wiki on sustainable development and a partner of wikiprogress.
  • Facebook is now the fourth largest country in the world.
  • Wikiprogress has increased 1000% in visits and articles since January 2010.
  • Wikigender visits have been increasing every month since September 2009.

The OECD and the Global Project for Measuring the Progress of Societies chose to try collaborative community style wikis rather than just the traditional website. These projects, through partnerships, search engine optimization and social networking are working to harness the power of the internet to try to take stock in initiatives surrounding gender quality and societal well being. These are two topics where it is particularly interesting to crowd source (or try to get as many people in the community as possible). In the field of gender equality, one of the main issues is data or lack thereof. A traditional website is not asking for opinions or inviting more people to contribute to the cause. Wikigender is asking you to contribute to gender equality by submitting your data, your videos and your initiatives rather than asking you to sit back and read what we have written. The site belongs to the community of users. Wikiprogress is looking at societal well being. Isn’t it up to the citizens to decide what is best for them? Wikiprogress is asking for your data, your initiatives and your opinions and the hope is that we will start to get more initiatives at the community level.

But what about quality? These wikis better have the highest quality data, articles and editorial! The OECD has very high quality work and a rigorous editorial process ensuring this. However, traditional media cannot possibly compete with the internet and the collaborative communities it enables. In a wiki style of working, if we can attract voices from the South or voices from the ground, we can gather more data and have exponentially increasing editors. Basically we are casting a wider net with this kind of organization. With more people watching the site, the better the quality becomes.

So if everyone can go on a wiki and upload their data and publish what they like, what will happen to the “expert”? The Ushahidi site uses crowd sourcing to make people aware of incidents of crime via SMS messages on people’s phones but it doesn’t analyze the crimes committed and punish the perpetrators (yet!). Clearly, there will always be a place for the expert in this world so I don’t think there is any need to worry. This is not to minimize the expert but rather to augment the expert supplying more data so more people can be more informed about policies their government and others are making.

A wiki is only a platform. It is the content in the platform that I get excited about. It is the power of a crowd of people working toward the same end without the usual incentives that drive people to do things. I find that very interesting and a real feeling of hope is generated with that.


Thursday, 8 April 2010

Trevor's Technical Update #3

Hello again Blog followers – it’s been a few weeks since my last post and I know you’re desperate for your next fix of technical updates in the world of wikiprogress. So here it comes.

First off we have made huge strides in the implementation of the famous ‘vislets’ – these are the plug-ins to our eXplorer dynamic graphics visualisation tool developed by our friends at NComVA that allows you to view stories based on data selected from the wikiprogress.stat data warehouse.

Just click the ‘play’ button below to animate the interface.

You’ll see information on Fertility rates in women and employment. The default setting is to track Spain and Italy in the bubble chart but you can just select any other country by simply clicking it on the map. The bubble chart axis allow you to simultaneously visualise the relationship between total population, fertility rate and employment rate. The colour scale on the map also indicates the fertility rate over time. Not bad eh?

Remember that any data from the wikiprogress.stat data warehouse (where anyone can upload their own progress-related data) can be selected and then analysed with this very powerful tool.

And speaking of wikiprogress.stat, just to remind you of its goals and aims Wikiprogress.Stat is driven by the need to inform and stimulate knowledge on Progress. It is supported and based at the OECD, it encourages imports and initiatives from every corner of the World.

Lately we have received a deluge of data that we are preparing to load and make public in the data warehouse. This covers topics which range from Economy Statistics (National Accounts, Household Investment, Hours worked, GDP, GFCF) to Quality of life (Health, Recreation and Culture, Freshwater, Development and Poverty or Atmosphere statistics)amongst others. And this is..on top of what we already have in Human Well-being, Gender issues and Peace….so place your cursor on the image below, click, and have a look around.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Taxi Sister, please!

Last week we travelled to Dakar for a workshop on migration challenges from the perspective of the South. While we here in Europe are used to pictures and stories on TV of millions of people leaving Africa with boats to enter Fortress Europe, the reality is that most migration in West Africa is actually South-South; Burkina Faso to Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia to Ghana, Bénin to Nigeria. While we will blog about this important and emerging aspect of our changing world in a future post, today we will focus on simpler things, innovation in transportation.

Why? Because we met Maj. Our need for wheels to get us around town led to the discovery of a taxi service with a particularly catchy name: Taxi Sister. It turns out that there are 15 of these taxi sisters, of which Maj is a member, driving around town in seemingly new and comfortable Chinese-made cars. The catch, as you may have already guessed it: the taxi drivers are all women.

While it may not be uncommon to see female taxi drivers in other parts of the world, in Senegal the job of getting people from point A to point B by wheeled-vehicle is exclusively reserved to men. That is until President Abdoulaye Wade decided that female entrepreneurship in the country needed a boost and in September 2007 sponsored a small programme which saw an initial 10 women awarded credit to each purchase one Chinese Chery QQ on government credit, on which they are required to make monthly payments for five years or until they have fully paid off the 7 350 000 FCFA (11 205 Euros) cost of the car; the car from that point on is theirs. The women are free to manage their business as they see fit, but generally they work with hotels and resorts and only during the hours of 7am and 7pm to ensure their safety.

So how is this programme doing two and a half years after its initial launch date? Despite the initial plans for a large-scale operation (some sources cite that 2000 women were originally targeted), the programme has remained modest. In fact, only one expansion occurred (in 2009) where an additional five women were brought into the programme.

While receiving credit to launch their business has been great, life as a taxi driver for these women has not been so easy. Oumy, another taxi sister, complained about hostility from other male drivers, and although it has subsided, it was clear to us that two groups had emerged among Dakarois: those supporting the women entrepreneurs and those who find that their position as entrepreneurs themselves has been compromised. While driving on the highway for instance from the South of the city to the North, road workers waved in a friendly manner to our driver to demonstrate which of the two sides they supported. The women also pointed to the fact that they still feel tension with their male counterparts and although nothing serious has happened to them so far, the prospect of picking up the wrong client is still ever-present for them.

The link with progress? Despite its modest size, the undertaking is a huge collective psychological step for a country whose population is 95% Muslim and where most economic decisions are made by men. The programme has also been a step in providing more female training in ways that might benefit them outside of the taxi service: mechanical knowledge, business planning, money management. The hope is that women will go on to attack male-dominated professions and pave the way for better equality in pay in all sectors. For now, the hope is that the small programme will encourage more women to drive taxis.

But can Taxi Sister really make a difference? Are these types of public programmes worth it? Shouldn’t the government be focusing on the core causes of the problem and not just merely on fixing the symptoms? This is probably part of a larger debate, and for now the programme is likely too small to make any direct conclusions. Change, at least in the short term is unlikely to be noticeable. For now though, 15 women drive around the plateau amongst the busy hustle and bustle of this African capital, winning their daily bread, and perhaps even a little pride.

Jason and Johannes