“Inappropriate” appropriate technology?

For some time things have been hotting up in the mobile for development space, and new tools are emerging all the time. But while these solutions extend all the way across the technological spectrum, almost all claim to be “appropriate” in one way or another. Clearly something isn’t right.

An appropriate use of Twitter?

For a while it was “scale”, and then “enabling environments”, and now it seems to be all about “appropriate technology”. I remember studying sustainable development at university, and coming to the conclusion that the term was so widely misunderstood and overused, it had almost become meaningless. I think we’re in danger of having the same thing happen with many of the terms we wildly band around in mobile. Part of the problem is that people are rarely asked to justify their positions or claims, so we never really quite know what anyone means.

In a recent PC World article I wrote, entitled “Appropriate Technology and the Humble Mobile Phone” funnily enough, I broadly defined appropriate technology as “anything that is suited to the environment in which it is used”. There are many factors that need to be considered in deciding how suitable something is – how complex it is to use, whether it can be used largely unaided, whether it can be fixed or maintained locally, how easily it can be localised, whether it can stand the field conditions, and so on.

You could also add to that whether or not the underlying infrastructure is in place for the technology to actually work. Makes sense, no? If we take anything that uses “the cloud“, for example, then I’d argue that it’s largely “inappropriate” unless you’re working in predominantly urban areas or in predominantly ‘developed’ countries. Many of the projects I see are aimed largely at the opposite – developing country and rural. On top of that, many of the areas where I’ve worked have little or no Internet access of any description, and very few people have devices that could access it, even if it was there.

In a recent must-read post – “The sun is shining in Africa” – Miquel provides some compelling arguments as to why “the cloud” is not an appropriate technology for much of the developing world:

The other big point missed in all this Cloud business is how it’s screwing the rest of the world outside of well, the US, and maybe Europe. This is the problem in how when people who proselytize a new technology don’t know understand the underpinnings of it, they often miss big gaping holes in the actual implementation of it

Maybe it’s no coincidence that there’s been a rise in use of “the cloud” and “appropriate technology” terminology at the same time. Let’s just get one thing straight, though. Technologies that use “the cloud” are not bad technologies, just as technologies which base themselves on simple SMS aren’t either. People that build and promote mobile technologies for developing regions just need to be clearer where their target audience are, and base their technology choice on what works – and what’s available – in the places where those people live and work.

63 thoughts on ““Inappropriate” appropriate technology?

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  7. Matt Berg says:

    I would tend to take a more nuanced approach. While I understand some of the short term argument. In the near future, I would argue trying to maintain hardware in institutions like clinics vs relying on the cloud would actually be less appropriate.

    The data quality of GSM networks in places like Africa is improving dramatically and will soon offer (if they don’t already) performance comparable to the West. Assuming the well funded operators can weather the growing pains of widespread data adoption, I think we can expect the quality and reliability to improve. Also in terms of GSM networks rural areas will increasingly = urban areas as operators extend services.

    This gets back to my basic point. If I’m a government, I’d much rather have my clinic records maintained on the cloud accessible by smart phone or pc thin client (with some form of local caching) then trying to support a server locally. Netbooks are a great start but need to be coupled with a robust backup strategy. System maintenance is a major challenge in rural areas (look at solar). I much rather put my faith on operator supported infrastructure then expecting to have the capacity and resources in place to support everything locally.

    Sure there is a cost associated with the data. But let’s not forget the hidden costs of trying (and sometimes failing) to do it all yourself.

    Finally, I think cloud based services like Episurveyor are already showing that there are ways to take this approach to the end user and be appropriate.

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  10. Michael Downey says:

    I had written a much longer response, then decided to scrap it to say this: Both Ken and Matt (and James et al who have been involved in this discussion today) are correct.

    “Appropriate” technology is based 100% on context of who users are and the environments in which they will work and live. Thus, there’s a danger of over-generalizing any technology, such as emerging platforms like cloud computing, and even more proven platforms such as mobile devices.

    Perhaps most will agree that the current state of telecommunication infrastructure in the global south is not robust enough to support cloud computing. I, for one, agree with this statement. But those who watch these areas should know that the state of things is rapidly changing with new projects like Seacom and the just-announced fibre link between Kampala and Kigali.

    The good news is that while it’s not widely known, there are some quiet research projects going on in the worlds of academics and corporate R&D about this very issue. I only hope that most of them stay cognizant of this contextual appropriateness and don’t continue the trend of pushing ICT4D projects for the sake of advancing the latest technology.

  11. Matt Berg says:

    Mike well put. Agree completely that “appropriate” is 100% based on the context and use case. I understand and seen first hand the appeal of cutting edge, especially with donors. I would generally try to avoid assuming that projects that opt to build around a technology like Android, for example, are doing things for technologies sake. One needs to look at context and as you say avoid the trap of over-generalizing not only the technology but the use case and constraints. This is a tendency I’ve been noticing a lot of late in the m-space debate.

  12. Paul says:

    It strikes me that there isn’t much of a debate going on here. In this context, broad generalizations will always fail under scrutiny and I’m sure that the technologists commenting here (Matt, Michael, etc.) would all agree that a solution has a higher likelihood of succeeding when the technology that works is implemented. So, deploying a solution that requires the cloud won’t work when the cloud is inaccessible. Simple enough.

    That said, I like the direction these comments are going. What does tomorrow look like (or today in countries with developed telco infrastructure)? What combination of localized tech and cloud-based computing will make solutions work better, best, etc.? This question involves every aspect of program design and deployment (IT infrastructure, institutional motivation and capacity, etc.) and, again, broad generalizations won’t serve us too well.

    In my view, Ken is simply cautioning against unchecked hype, a welcome reminder considering the state of today’s infrastructure in the places that many of us work.

  13. kiwanja says:

    Thanks for your comments Matt, Michael, Paul

    @Matt – Can’t disagree with much of what you say, but can add a few things. When it comes where solutions ‘sit’, I swing strongly towards local ownership. I’m a much bigger fan of distributed systems and would be with or without the web. I don’t 100% believe that ultimately the best solution is one run by a government department (for example). Even with thin clients (or netbooks) spread around the place, it’s possible to sync data somewhere (maybe in the cloud, maybe not). As for appropriate technology more generally, for me it’s a ‘present tense’ thing – today, either a technology is appropriate or it isn’t. You could argue that one day ALL technologies could likely be appropriate, but that doesn’t help an NGO today, tomorrow or the day after. For me, the mobile revolution needs to be shared, and not be the exclusive domain of larger NGOs or projects.

    @Michael – Wish you’d kept the original message – I’m curious! I’ll point you to my final comment to Matt, above. I agree that one day the cloud will most likely be a reality, and one day the developing world will be full of CHW’s carrying Android phones with cool apps, with an always-on 5G connection, but we’re some way off that. But you’re right when you say it’s all about context. I just think people need to be clear what that is when they use the “appropriate technology” tag.

    @Paul – Totally with you on building for the future. I just think there is a disproportionate amount of mobile development concentrating on underlying hardware and infrastructure which still isn’t viable in many of the places people claim to be working. Sense-checking is important – vital – and it’s great to be in touch with people like you (and others who have commented) who know the issues all too well.

  14. S. Hyder says:

    Lets not miss the point. Cloud computing still uses the classic ‘client-server’ model albeit with much higher data communication between the endpoints. This naturally comes from the fact that data communication has become more effecient and economical.

    Now take a look at it this way, I access my Gmail via mobile from Lokichogio, Kenya. Authentication could hypothetically be processed via a co-located server in Kenya or Egypt and my mail coming from servers in Mountain View, adverts being served from Baglalore, docs from London and maps from Zurich. Isn’t that cloud computing?

    The economics, scalabilty and speed of deployment all point towards the cloud.


  15. Joy Tang says:

    Would the concept of ‘open manufacturing’ be helpful in the design stage to consider the economic, geographic and cultural factors into the development process?

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  24. James BonTempo says:

    As per usual, Ken, I’m right with you. I need solutions that work today not 5 years from now. I understand the importance of planning for the future and experimenting & conducting research in preparation for it, but those activities need to be balanced with (at least in my case) the need to improve health outcomes and save lives right now.

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  29. kiwanja says:

    @James – Thanks. There is definitely a split between those building things that need to work now, and those building for future scenarios. That’s impossible to really argue against – either it works today or it doesn’t.

  30. Matt Berg says:

    @kiwanja I agree the distributed approach is critical and any service delivery model will be a combination of grass root and gov’t/ngo provided services. Empowering the end user will always be key.

    I’m a huge SMS proponent as you now but I think there are applications in which we should be using android phones right now because they work. Yes – it’ll take some time to equip each CHW in a country with a smart phone and maybe that should never happen. However, a smartphone could already provide a great platform for managing a large network of SMS toting CHWs. A smart phone could also be better at managing complex HIV or TB treatment programs whose operating costs dwarf any technology related piece. The same can be said for large scale data collection exercises. I also don’t think most people are actively building tools if they don’t think they could work right now. There are a lot of immediate needs and none of us have the full solution.

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  35. Alice Liu says:

    Great discussion going on here. I’m in agreement with a lot of the comments advocating for the context and doing what works. In one environment they’re ready for the cloud, in another they’re not. Also, keep in mind that the cloud doesn’t necessarily mean connecting back to California as another person mentioned. MTN in Kigali, for instance, offers data center/hosting services and many governments are setting up their own data centers and IT service centers to serve other government units. I’m hoping this takes off, because in govt they’re all competing for the same scarce IT resources. These places have or will have the economies of scale to invest in IT and hire the best local people to manage these systems and follow best practices, so this model could work and still build local capacity. I especially want to see best practices taught and adapted to local environments, and local adaptations rolled back into best practices.

    There’s a lot of hype these days around mobile tech, open source, etc. Most of us in tech know this but it’s worth repeating – there’s no silver bullet, no one-size-fits-all, turnkey solution. Full disclsoure – I’m a consultant, been doing work for Voxiva and research on outsourcing as an option in developing countries. My past tech work was almost 100% Unix-based so my heart wants to see the promise of open source realized, but my real priority is to cut through the hype, hard sell, or temptations and give people the tools to make an informed decision and successfully use IT sustainably to achieve their goals.

  36. S. Hyder says:

    @Alice the California/Google example was just an example as much as Twitter which runs on Amazon’s cloud could be another. It does not matter whether consumer data spans the same geographic or different geographic areas. In principle we are hooked to ‘cloud’ without realising it. At the end of the day, it simply a matter of value additon and economics.

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  39. Andrea Bohnstedt says:

    Well, the word ‘appropriate’ IS meaningless unless you define what it is appropriate for. Something that works well in, say, London is obviously appropriate for London. Something that works well in ‘the field’ (how I hate that term – wonder what those guys living in rural areas in developing countries think of being relegated to ‘the field’ – and where does it stop? Is Nairobi still ‘field’?) is appropriate for that area.

  40. Merrick Schaefer says:

    As a proponent of SMS based solutions that don’t rely on the cloud I must say I agree with Ken. That being said I am constantly surprised by the pace of technological change. Here in Zambia, there is Edge coverage where ever there is cell coverage. We have picked it up in remote clinics in the northern province of Luapula. And both Zain and MTN are rolling out 3G at the start of the new year. I think it is a lot less about network and more about the price and spread of handsets. All of the youth in Lusaka who can afford it have phones they can use facebook on. And here data is one order of magnitude cheaper than SMS for the same set of characters. A lot of the local developers would rather tweet or email a reply to us than SMS for cost reasons.

    I think that Ken’s original definition of, “anything that is suited to the environment in which it is used” combined with “and solves the problem you are trying to solve” is the definition that I will stick by for now.

    One of the amazing things about working in Africa right now is the pace of change and innovation. I hope that the solutions all of us are developing this year are obsolete in a year or two!

  41. kiwanja says:

    @Merrick – Thanks for the comments. Suffice to say, I’m totally with you on this, too. Although I’m always pushing SMS, that’s because it’s the only thing that generally works today for most users I speak to, but as you rightly say it won’t be that way forever. When I built the first FrontlineSMS in 2005 I would never have thought that SMS would still be so dominant over four years on. We’re also adding cloud-based functionality, but it’s an add-on and not a show-stopper for non-cloud users. As for the rate of innovation, I agree that it’s rapid and accelerating, and some very cool stuff is going to emerge. I’ll leave others work on that for now, and just keep focused on our small section of the “long tail”

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