Thoughts and Talks at web4dev

I’m in New York City for the next few days at the web4dev conference taking place at UNICEF. I’ll be speaking tomorrow on Ushahidi and using technology for monitoring and evaluation. I got in a little late, so I’m only throwing up some of this afternoon’s notes.

Clay Shirky is leading this session, of whom most know I’m a big fan of his book. My favorite quote:

“Access to information is such an abstraction, but mainly what people use communications platforms for is for communication, which everyone seems so surprised about.”

Participation vs Information

Steve Vosloo, a Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa leads off this afternoon’s discussion around the importance of access to participation, not access to information. He’s not saying that access to information, especially in an African context isn’t necessary, but that when there is a network of participation, it is much more powerful.

Steve asked, “are we a participatory culture (in Africa)?” Yes, we are. It just looks different. It’s mobile and it’s light, low-tech and works in ways that those with a Western paradigm find it hard to grasp. Nothing new, but different: cheaper, easier, faster, more visible and has the potential for more people to be included.

The Challenges in Rural Africa

Grant Cambridge, of Digital Doorway, makes tough, rugged computer terminals for rural Africa. He spends a great deal of his time talking about the reality of doing tech work in rural Africa, not the fantasies talked about in the gilded halls of the West (like here in the UN…). :)

Some takeaways.

On internet and computers:

  • Virtually no access to computers
  • Limited access to knowledge and information
  • Where a child’s potential to learn is directly proportional to the knowledge of the teacher
  • Many people have never typed their names on a keyboard
  • Where the edge of your world is as far as you can walk in a day

On mobiles:

  • Reasonably widespread due to prepaid approach
  • Seen as a status symbol
  • People walking up to 3 miles several times per week to recharge the battery
  • Users sometimes forgo basic necessities and skip meals to maintain the phone
  • In rural communities, resources are diverted to purchase airtime

On challenges:

  • Exposure to technology is limited
  • Hard to get parts, things break way out there. Servicing.
  • Information literacy and computer literacy
  • Connectivity: cost, bandwidth, theft of copper & optical fibres, vast distances
  • Robust solutions for harsh environmental conditions and vandals
  • Cost (affordable, local manufacture)

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