A second coming of age

Exactly eight years ago it was me walking across that stage to shake the hand of the great Richard Attenborough before collecting my university degree. (Richard Attenborough is Chancellor of the University of Sussex, by the way, and a very fine Chancellor he is, too). This time it was my wife-to-be’s turn to do the walk. Same university. Same event. Same famous person. Just a different degree.

It was nice to be back at Sussex. And the whole event felt that little bit sweeter when I found out that the Graduation Packs, handed out to the hundreds of guests, included a copy of the latest Falmer Alumni magazine. But this wasn’t just any old copy of Falmer. This one contained my recent interview with the university. It almost felt like a second graduation, a kind-of ‘coming of academic age’. There’s something nice about maintaining this kind of relationship with your university. Sussex’s continued interest in my work feels like an endorsement of my chosen post-degree career path, and comes after earlier comments from one of my former anthropology professors who described me as a “credit to anthropology and a credit to Sussex”. Right now it all makes sense, and everything seems to be falling into place. It didn’t feel like it back in 1996.

All I missed out on on the day was a photo opportunity with Mr. Attenborough. I have one with his famous brother – David (see my Photos page) – and a full set would have been nice. Maybe next time. I’m sure Sussex hasn’t seen the last of me yet.

A little reminder…

I’m sitting here, my radio broadcasting news on the continued flooding around Britain, waiting for my broadband to come back to life – the fault is no doubt flood-related – staring at a $10 tiny 1Gb microSD card which arrived in the post this morning. I remember when it took a whole 5.25″ of flat, bendy, shiny material to store just a fraction of this at something not a million miles off the same cost.

Technology, amazing as it is, clearly has an uncomfortable grip on us. My internet connection is obviously back now – I’m able to post this blog entry, after all – but for a good couple of hours I experienced that awful disconnected feeling. A little reminder of my uncomfortable reliance on technology – our uncomfortable reliance on technology – and something we should all keep in mind as we promote the very same high-tech solutions throughout the developing world.

The hidden library

As interest in the phenomenal impact of mobile technology grows, so does the volume of literature on the subject. Reports are now published on an almost weekly basis, although many are commercially-produced and come at (quite) a price. Other more freely available studies are generated through high-level research by Phd candidates or Professors at western universities. Sadly, less seems to come from the developing countries themselves – those who find themselves most directly affected by the mobile revolution. But this may be beginning to change.

Recently I was fortunate to meet Christiana Charles-Iyoha, editor of a fascinating book published in Nigeria late last year. “Mobile Telephony: Leveraging Strengths and Opportunities for Socio-Economic Transformation in Nigeria” describes the impact of mobile telephony from an African perspective. Dominated by the voices of women’s groups, market traders, businessmen and women, students and members of the public, the book gives a unique insight into the impact of mobiles at the grassroots level of Nigerian society. It’s also full of little gems.

Take, for example, a survey on the obstacles to use of mobiles in rural areas among market traders. Some of the replies are particularly enlightening:

87% had issues with erratic power supply
75% were worried about the risk of theft
75% highlighted the high cost of re-charging
52% were worried about network failure
47% were concerned about network congestion
42% had difficulty understanding the phone menus
37% had issues with the low validity period of top-up vouchers

Gaining a better understanding of these kinds of issues is critical when planning and designing mobile-related projects in developing countries, but sadly it is also often lacking. For those who have overcome these barriers, however, the book is also full of quotes and nice anecdotes on the huge benefits that mobile telephony is bringing to Nigerian citizens.

“It has helped me to communicate easily with people. Many people would readily confess that they do not have to travel as before to get in touch with others who live far away”

“Given the number of people, especially the youth currently involved in the commercial phone business, there is no denying the fact that GSM is a tool for job creation in the country today. It has reduced the rate of unemployment”

Mobile phones may have made it easier for us to organise our social lives or keep in better touch with our friends, but for people in the developing world the technology is proving to be a real lifeline. Although we hear much about the positive impact it has made on the everyday lives of Africans, it’s not until we get to hear the story directly from the horses mouth that we begin to realise how positive this change really is.