A few other holidays have come and gone and I’m only now getting around to writing about Thanksgiving. But better now than never.
In November I was in Cape Town on a research trip with Charlotte Lapsansky and we had the chance to visit the Department of Computer Science at the University of Cape Town. We met with Jonathan Donner, a researcher in the Technology for Emerging Markets Group at Microsoft Research India, currently based in South Africa. Jonathan has done a lot of ethnographic research on information & communication technology (ICT) use–mobile phones in particular–in developing country contexts. He has observed a “Bluetooth phenomenon” in Khayelitsha, one of South Afriaca’s largest townships that is home to over two million people. People of all ages are sharing music and photos through their phones via Bluetooth.
A collaborator of Jonathan’s and professor at UCT, Gary Marsden, introduced us to several of his MA and PhD students who are developing innovative uses of ICTs, also using Bluetooth. Working in a country with approximately 10% of the population using the Internet, they are focusing primarily on developing the potential of mobile phones to meet the communication needs of marginalized and under-resourced communities. (There are of course communities in U.S. that face similar economic, political and social constraints to internet access and digital participation.)
Of relevance to Mobile Voices and others working with digital storytelling tools is a project that Thomas Reitmaier is working on as his masters thesis to create a mobile-based digital storytelling software for oral and sometimes illiterate users. The software functions have visual icons for each command (instead of text), and stories can be pieced together from photographs and audio recordings taken on the phones. The software allows you to edit the story in the phone using a carousel layout. They started the project in collaboration with Nicola Bidwell who spent 3-4 months in the Eastern Cape of South Africa doing an ethnographic study to assess the needs of oral users and inform the design. Here is a video about it.
This is an intriguing project because it allows for easier editing within the phone, it can–at least in theory–run on any phone that has photo and audio recording capabilities, and most notably, does so with a respect for different forms and levels of literacy. But there are also a few drawbacks. Most significantly, perhaps, is whether this project will be fully developed and sustainable since it is a student project with minimal funding. So far it has been piloted with communities in Kenya and is currently being evaluated in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, but whether and how it will be distributed remains uncertain.
Another project that Gary is overseeing, supported by Microsoft Research, is the development of a “Big Board” that uses Bluetooth technology to cut out the costs to end users of sharing information with an unlimited number of people via mobile phones (see http://people.cs.uct.ac.za/~gaz/proj/bb.html). The Big Board is a large poster or TV screen with icons to represent information on various topics; the user can take a picture of the icon on their phone and send it via Bluetooth to the server (a Microsoft based mobile phone or computer) that will then send the relevant information to your phone (again via Bluetooth) in the form of an SMS. At the low-budget end, organizations or communities could use a paper poster as the Big Board, and the system could be programmed to recognize the icons on the poster and send the user the relevant information. A nearby cell phone acting as the server could be the information hub. This could be an interesting way of using mobile phones to inexpensively share information and organize communities, if community members know how to use Bluetooth and are trained to use the Big Board. At the higher-end, using a flat screen TV as the Big Board could allow for more interactive use and more easily updated content.
We have explored Bluetooth as a tool for the Mobile Voices project, and some of the workers who are helping develop the system have been using Bluetooth to transfer their photographs from their phones to computers. However, given resource constraints and IDEPSCA’s interest in being able to send information (e.g. action alerts) out to their dispersed network of workers and organizers using our system, we were unable to limit our system design to Bluetooth technology. Unfortunately, this means we remain dependent on cell phone service providers to send stories via SMS and MMS. The cost of doing so is one of the challenges and limitations of our system, which is why the work being done at UCT was particularly interesting to me.
In addition, it seems that some of the challenges facing the developers at UCT are ones that we wrestle with in Mobile Voices; e.g. how to bridge the academic-community divide, how to ensure that ideas are developed collaboratively with the direct involvement of the community/users, and how to make them sustainable. It has also been interesting to learn more about the interface of corporations like Nokia and Microsoft with research on ICT use in the ‘Global South’, where different communication contexts, needs and creativity are driving different kinds of appropriation and innovation–and attracting the attention of corporations in search of new ideas and emerging markets. But that is a topic for another post.
[Nota: Espero que traducir esto a espanol pronto!]