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Bridging the knowledge divide

A common theme in my work, and in many of my conference talks, centres around a very simple message – appropriate technology. It’s nothing new, and as a concept has been around since the 1970′s with Fritz Schumacher’s defining book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered”. During my recent interview with Nokia’s “New Horizons” magazine, however, it was interesting that the conversation was entirely appropriate-technology focussed. I was expecting questions about FrontlineSMS, my work on wildlive! and my developing-country technology experience. Instead, the interview was dominated by my focus on “needs-based”, “human-centred”, “grassroots” and “appropriate” technologies. Believe me, I was more than happy to talk about these things – I don’t think enough people do.

It still surprises me – sometimes even saddens me – that we live in an era where there’s a general tendency to over-engineer solutions. Not only is this a waste of time in my view, but it’s a waste of money and effort. It also raises expectations. Believe me, there’s plenty of this going on as we speak (sorry, read). I come across this at conferences where I meet hugely technically-abled people who spend their time trying to find homes for the very latest technical gadgetry. And because of where I work, and the circles where I mix, the home they are looking for is usually in a developing country. This only serves to exaggerate the problem.

Take the recent use of my FrontlineSMS system in the Nigerian elections. FrontlineSMS is not rocket science. It’s so simple, in fact, that it slipped under most people’s radars. One comment on Slashdot discussing its use highlights this over-engineering view well:

It’s too simple. You guys don’t know what you are talking about. Doing it all with one computer and an SMS modem? You can’t future proof it that way. I want to see some mention of CORBA and SOAP. How can you have a system without middleware? Can you use dot NET? Everybody uses that these days. And what if I want to use it when I am already on the phone. Can’t it have a WAP interface as well? I want to sell a thousand copies of this thing and nobody is going to pay a million bucks for something which doesn’t use a single cutting edge technology

There is certainly no written rule that everything has to be cutting edge. Very little, in essence, is. Is Google cutting edge? There were plenty of other search engines around before they came along. All they did was see the opportunity, do it better and hit the target. Over the coming weeks I’m going to be spending a lot of time discussing mobile phone use, and web access, in developing countries. I’ll soon be presenting a paper – the same one presented at W3C in Bangalore last December – at the 16th International World Wide Web Conference in Banff, and sitting on an expert panel at the same event. And my message will be the same as it has always been.

Although it should come as no surprise that there’s a gulf between many developers and the realities of life in developing countries, there have been attempts to bring the two together. Some have worked better than others, but at least there’s a realisation that a meeting-of-minds is needed. If you want a simple, effective example as to why, take a look at the handsets being used by the majority of rural people in developing countries (see photo, taken in India this January). Then have a think about how Java, Flash Lite, WAP and smart-phone applications would go down with these users. Okay, one day these technologies will become relevant, but right now I would argue that they’re not. SMS is still the killer application, like it or not. And, on the subject of web access on mobile devices, I would also argue that we haven’t quite mastered it ourselves yet. Generally-speaking the user experience still leaves a lot to be desired.

I’m not the only person who thinks this way. Far from it. And I’m looking forward to meeting the others, and our technically-minded colleagues, in Canada next month. Time to re-open the debate…

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