Where technology meets anthropology, conservation and development
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Posts from — November 2006

Playing and learning in the global village

I admit that I’m not too much of a gaming freak these days, although I did go through a spell a ‘few’ years back when I was the proud owner of a 16-bit Sega Megadrive. There are enough challenges and puzzles in real life to be getting on with – I don’t need a bunch of virtual ones to add to the list.


So when a game manages to grab my attention for more than just a few brief moments, it’s worth taking a look. The game is called Village, and it’s a multiplayer online strategy game (in the style of Warcraft, Second Life and so on) which immerses the player into the role of an entrepreneur. The overall objective is to build companies to bring prosperity to the villages of the third world.

“Fly over a remote village watching people walking about, farmers tending to their crops, people buying and selling goods in the town markets. Browse anybody in the village and see what income, jobs, education they have. View the stores in the town centre to find out what is selling well, and what’s missing entirely. Set up your own store fronts to offer microcredit, kickstart pumps, solar cell rentals, all the self-sustaining businesses that will have the greatest impact on the villagers. Watch as farms flourish, villagers build new homes, and schools grow larger with more healthy children”

The Village is certainly a grand vision, and an incredibly innovative one at that. There’s even hope that some day the virtual villages – or components of them – may become a reality. Imagine… Some organisations have also been quick off the mark and picked up on the fundraising and awareness raising potential of the game. According to Darian Hickman, the Village ‘leader’, “Organisations such as Ashoka, Technoserve, Acumen Fund and Habitat for Humanity have a vested interest in seeing this game reach a wide audience as it will bring awareness and donations to their causes”.

People are already beginning to make quite tidy sums buying and selling in the virtual world. Adding philanthropy to the mix is a very neat, and a very nice, idea.

Keep an eye out for the Alpha version of the game, due in the new year, on the Village website.

November 23, 2006   No Comments

Perspective

I bought a couple of homeless people drinks tonight, as I passed them there on the street. University Avenue. A vanilla bean frappuccino and a coffee, milk and sugar.

It seems so very wrong that people should have to live like this in a place like Silicon Valley…

November 21, 2006   No Comments

Could this really be the “coolest thing in conservation”?

A new partnership has recently been announced, designed to tackle the age-old problem of how to attach ‘value’ to the environment, or to ‘ecosystem services’, however posh you want to make it sound. Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) are collaborators in what’s become known as the Natural Capital Project.

Described by Carter Roberts – President and CEO of WWF – as quite possibly the coolest thing in conservation today, the Natural Capital Project, in its own words, aims to “make nature a regular column in our spreadsheets and cost-benefit analyses”. It may not sound that cool, but attaching value to a forest, river, mountain range, savannah, swamp, insect or whatever will take some doing.

Take the humble honey bee, for example. Their value to a bee keeper in Tanzania is undisputed – without the bee there’s no honey. But for a coffee farmer who relies on the same bees for pollination, a shift in population might instead ‘just’ effect his crop. It might not destroy it, but 25% less yield could be the difference between feeding or not feeding his family. So, using bees as our example, a healthy bee population, supported by a healthy forest home, is a key issue. For the bee keeper or the coffee grower, it’s in their interests for the forests to remain intact. What the Natural Capital Project hopes to do is attach some financial ‘value’ to this forest. As they readily admit, however, “putting a price tag on ecosystem services won’t be easy”. Clearly, if it was then someone would have probably managed to do it already.

It’s worth remembering at this point that we already have monetary values for the very services that this project seeks to value. A mahogany tree, for example, is worth several tens of thousands of dollars; a chimpanzee as a pet perhaps a couple of hundred dollars. But these are prices with the ‘ecosystem service’ removed from the ecosystem – not the price to keep it there. This is the key difference.

The problem will be, of course, in convincing as many parties as possible that it’s in their interests to keep forests, rivers, swamps or whatever intact, however many dollars or pounds appear in the financial columns. If the coffee grower owns the forest, then that should be relatively straightforward if you can present the sums, aided, of course, by that spreadsheet. But when external, third parties have vested or varied interests then the value could vary dramatically, down to quite literally zero. Attaching ecosystem value could well help at policy level – which is where the Natural Capital Project is pitching – but it won’t stop illegal logging from outsiders, or ‘travelling bushmeat traders’, or unscrupulous companies or corrupt government officials. It’s in some of these areas where the most pressing barriers to conservation perhaps lie.

This is a brave project which will be quite literally judged on its results. Success – however that is measured – needs to be turned into something tangible, with real results on the ground.

After all, this is where the actual conservation takes place.

November 19, 2006   No Comments

Mobile2.0 or just another Gathering2.0?

This Monday, me and Erik Sundelof – a former Digital Vision Fellow – headed up to San Francisco for the day to attend the Mobile2.0 Conference, a mobile showcase which preceded the grander, more popular and longer-by-one-day Web2.0 event.

This was a first attempt to bring together individuals, companies, operators and mobile manufacturers to specifically discuss the emerging Mobile2.0 phenomenon. Sadly, it was largely an opportunity missed, although it was useful as a reinforcing exercise. Everyone left the room knowing that it wasn’t just them suffering from the lack of handset standards. Once again, trying to work out a solution seemed way off the agenda, as I guess it would be for a short one day event.

Instead, practical debate was replaced by excitable handset manufacturers and service providers plying their own particular solutions. This in itself was interesting, but at the end of the day the problem will continue to exist until the big players sit around a table and agree to something. But at least we now know that there’s a much wider range of sticky plasters which can be applied in the meantime.

What was interesting, though, was how delegates saw the transition of Web2.0 functionality onto the handset. What wasn’t quite so clear was whether or not the user wanted it or not. Remember, mobiles have tiny screens and fiddly keyboards, and as such aren’t necessarily the ideal device for editing or creating user generated content. The size factor does, of course, work both ways. If they weren’t small then they wouldn’t be mobile. Also, for many the mobile camera will be the only one they have with with them if something interesting or funny should happen in their vicinity, or if they feel compelled to capture a moment digitally. Combine this with location-based services and there is clearly a huge opportunity if it can be grabbed.

For me, one of the key issues here is in definition. We need to decide what we mean by Mobile2.0 – it’s clearer with Web2.0 but the current craze to add ’2.0′ to everything doesn’t always add value (anyone fancy a Coffee2.0?). The user doesn’t care whether he’s using a 3.0 or an 8.0, as long as he or she can seamlessly and simply carry out whatever task he or she wants on his or her device of choice. If the mobile is simply going to be the originator of content – a photo, video, sound clip or plain old text – which is then uploaded to a web service for ‘mashup’ or whatever, then that’s cool. However, if we’re looking to allow the creation, editing and posting of content directly from the phone itself then that’s a totally different ball game.

If we mean the former then Mobile2.0 is a lot closer than you may think. If we mean the latter, put on the Kettle2.0 – you might be in for a long wait…

November 7, 2006   1 Comment

Thank goodness for the non-American system

It’s always a very eye-opening experience when you first arrive in a new country. From driving on the opposite side of the road to experiencing different mannerisms and ‘language variation’, not to mention coping with the excessive patriotism (proudly displayed in the form of countless American flags and enthusiastic tributes to “The American Worker”), there are more practical actions that need to be taken, such as getting attached to a mobile phone network (sorry, cellphone network).

This has been a particularly eye opening experience. And all I can say is this. In Europe, mobile networks are being squeezed by the consumer and various EU bodies, but here in the States they’re having a field day. If the rest of the world, and developing countries in particular, adopted their practices then there would almost zero growth in mobile use among the poor, and quite probably also zero initiatives using mobile technology for social good. I’ll explain why. There are two reasons…

Firstly, for some crazy reason users here have to pay to receive a text message. The sender pays, and the recipient pays. If poor, rural phone owners in developing countries were forced to maintain credit on their handsets to receive texts, then many wouldn’t be able to do it. They might also object, or opt out, of receiving valuable health or other information messages. The use of handsets to help bridge the digital – or information – divide would be nothing more than a dream.

Secondly, pre-pay (or pay-as-you-go) customers on some networks are charged a daily ‘connection’ or ‘service’ fee of 99 cents just to keep their number connected. They pay 99 cents each day whether they use their phone or not. It’s ironic that this almost equates to the $1 dollar per day used to measure the number of people living in extreme poverty.

In reality it was the adoption of the pre-pay system which truly liberated disconnected rural communities in developing countries. The ability to connect to the network without needing a bank account, credit history or an address was the key which finally unlocked the digital door. A daily service charge of any kind, for many, would have slammed that door right back in their face.

Combine either – or at worst, both – of these in a developing country context and the effect would be disastrous. Thank goodness we have an alternative to the American system.

November 5, 2006   No Comments