Rapid Prototyping and Tech Stewards: reflections on recent field work

We are delighted to share this post from the Mobilizing Knowledge for Sustainable Agriculture Project, with permission from Principal Investigator Dr. Gordon Gow. Having made some excellent contacts during our recent meetings and workshops in Sri Lanka, the project team now needs to consider how those will translate into pilot projects using low cost ICTs.

At the heart of our project is the community of practice concept, which refers to a group of like minded people connected through a process of social learning. A CoP does not necessarily conform to organizational boundaries but rather to interests and interactions, and during our meetings we discovered some important relationships between organic farming movements in Sri Lanka and other organizations, including the Department of  Export Agriculture.  In the language of communities of practice, these groups share a common domain of interest.  To the extent that they engage in sustained interactions, we can talk about them as forming a learning community that seeks to improve its practices through mutual engagement and knowledge mobilization.  Our research is focussed on the question of how low cost ICTs can enhance knowledge mobilization and social learning within this learning community.

Nuwan assists participants with text messaging during a rapid prototyping exercise in Melisiripura
Nuwan assists participants with text messaging during a rapid prototyping exercise in Melisiripura

Technology Stewards are important

Field work carried out in the past few weeks by the Rapid Prototyping Working Group confirmed that there is considerable interest in the use of low cost ICTs by various farming groups, including those affiliated with Dept. of Export Agriculture, CARE, and Practical Action.  However, it also became clear to us that farmers themselves may not be the right target group for rapid prototyping--at least at this stage of the process.  While many farmers and their families have access to a mobile phone or listen to farm radio broadcasts, they are not likely in a position to take on a stewardship role with the technology.

This comes as no surprise, as we know from research into social learning that it is neither realistic nor practical to expect each individual to contribute equally in a learning community.  CoP practitioners refer to this as legitimate peripheral participation (although the concept has apparently been incorporated into a larger construct referred to as duality by Wenger).  Moreover, the so-called Long Tailphenomenon observed with open social media sites like Wikipedia, suggests that a few key individuals will be responsible for providing much of the content and leadership in any peer-to-peer based initiative.  Casual contributions from a wide user base are critically important but the role of the steward is instrumental in moving the initiative forward by connecting people and ideas together.

Village coordinator assisting with rapid prototyping during field visit to Maha Oya in NE Sri Lanka
Village coordinator assisting with rapid prototyping during field visit to Maha Oya in NE Sri Lanka

So we ought not to be surprised by these observations.  More importantly, though,  on each of our demonstration cases we were able to identify at least one individual connected with the local group that was capable of serving a stewardship role.  In two cases, Chandana installed FrontlineSMS on laptops belonging to these individuals and will plan to do further follow up work with them in the coming weeks.

The lesson learned here is that technology stewardship is a fundamental consideration when it comes to deploying low cost ICTs. Identifying a technology steward in the community ought to be part of the social practices investigation that takes place early in the rapid prototyping stage.

Training and ongoing support is necessary

Having identified a technology steward in the community, the next step is to provide them with necessary training and ongoing support. This involves, at a minimum, training in the use of the open source software platform (e.g., FrontlineSMS) and some basic technical skills required to connect the platform to the cellular network, or Internet as the case may be.  But technology stewardship is also more than simply being technically capable, it also involves a leadership role with the community in terms of helping to identify knowledge mobilization practices and opportunities for enhancement of those practices. Stewards work with the community members to introduce new ideas but also to take ideas and think about how they might be realized using the technology. Stewards also play a key leadership role promoting and encouraging community members to use the new technology, as well as gathering and responding to feedback from the community based on its emerging experience with the technology.

A projection of FrontlineSMS for participants to see during our rapid prototyping exercise with cinnamon farmers in Polgahawela
A projection of FrontlineSMS for participants to see during our rapid prototyping exercise with cinnamon farmers in Polgahawela

So a tech steward plays essentially a socio-technical leadership role within the community of practice and needs training and ongoing support for both technical skills as well as social skills related to knowledge mobilization practices, communication, and leadership.

Resourcing remains uncertain

While our emphasis is on low-cost ICTs, there is always a resource issue to consider.  Basic setup and operation of something like FrontlineSMS can be done for relatively little expense if the community has access to a laptop or PC.  Ushahidi requires Internet access and GPS-capable handsets if it is to be most effective but these are becoming increasingly available to many individuals and communities.

The research team meets with a group of farmers near Vakarai
The research team meets with a group of farmers near Vakarai

Technology stewards need to be resourced to cover the costs associated with setting up and maintaining the ICT platforms.  They also need to be resourced for their time and training.  The question remains as to how these resources are provided.  If a technology steward carries out their role within the context of an organizational responsibility, then it is conceivable that resources are provided by the organization as part of its overall support for that individual.  In other cases, it is not clear where such resources might come from and whether they are sustainable over the long term.

One important question, for example, is with regard to training and ongoing support.  Wayamba University and the project team have discussed the idea of establishing a certification program that would train technology stewards for the field.  However, the program would run on a cost recovery basis, meaning a cost to those taking the course.  Who will be willing and able to pay for such training remains uncertain at this time.

A campaign model is worth considering

One of the insights that has come from our recent field work is that in some instances, the need for text messaging or crowdmapping is situational and/or seasonal.  Pepper farmers, for instance, talked to us about the need for access to market prices during harvest seasons (twice a year).  Text messaging is a cheap and effective way to provide these prices as a critical input for the community about the value of its product.  It suggested to us that in some cases, the technology is needed only for brief periods of time during the year to enhance KM for a particular activity.  Perhaps, FrontlineSMS is needed only for several weeks out of the year to provide information to farmers during harvest and market periods.

This insight led us to what we are calling a "campaign model" or situational use of low cost ICTs for these communities.  A campaign model is established around a specific event or recurring seasonal activity, such as harvest.  The technology is set up and used for that period of time and then is taken down and put away for the next time.  For example, with the pepper farmers we met, it might be the case where FrontlineSMS is used for several weeks during each harvest season, then put away for the remainder of the year.

Nuwan and Chandana carrying out a rapid prototyping exercise with a community group in Melsiripura, near Kurunegala
Nuwan and Chandana carrying out a rapid prototyping exercise with a community group in Melsiripura, near Kurunegala

A "campaign" involves more than technology, however.  The campaign includes awareness building, promotion use of the system, ongoing evaluation and adjustment of the system, and a wind-down or concluding stage.  Campaigns could involve key actors in the process as part of a wider initiative that happens in conjunction with the activity or event.  For example, with pepper farmers, a campaign could involve the Dept. of Export Agriculture and other stakeholders working together to mobilize a wide range of knowledge about harvesting and selling pepper.  The text messaging component becomes part of the wider initiative linked to improving harvesting and selling of the product.

Resources could be allocated for that particular campaign rather than having to be dedicated year round for an ICT service that may not be necessary or useful.  In addition, the campaign being a specific event could provide a helpful framework for evaluating the value of the ICT service in relation to its contribution to a larger outcome objective (e.g., prices for pepper, or reduced transaction costs associated with harvesting and selling the product).

How a campaign plays out in practice is uncertain at this time but worthy of further exploration and piloting.

The key point here is that low cost ICTs involve low overhead in terms of set up and training, making it feasible to operate on an ad hoc or situational basis.  The technology is available at any time and can be invoked at a moment's notice to support opportunities as they arise.  Campaigns are not simple to design or manage but one contribution we could make with the project is to develop a model that could act as a template to simplify and streamline the process.

Next steps

The field work has provided us with a wealth of insight into rapid prototyping and some of the key considerations for introducing low cost ICTs into these communities of practice.  Our next steps involve doing further iterations of our rapid prototyping and working toward an extended pilot project along the lines of the campaign model.  Training and capacity building will be an ongoing focus for the team and we are exploring the possibility of working with Wayamba University to develop training materials and delivery model to support technology stewards.

This partnership development project is made possible with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The free and open source software platforms being used in the project have been developed by FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, and Freedom Fone.