Is this really the right answer?

You’re hungry. We enter a small cafe. The menu looks normal enough. But this is no normal cafe. It’s one of those “eat all you like” set ups, but with a difference. The portions are tiny, only one food item is available, and I have to repeatedly answer questions before you can take a mouthful. Sound fun? Well, I guess it could be if your life didn’t depend on it. For many other people, it may.

If this sounds like fantasy to you, or a great idea, or a crazy one, then you may like to know that this very game is being played around the world by thousands of people. Right now.

I can’t quite describe my reaction when I first heard about “FreeRice”, a website which helps people master the English language while they earn grains of rice to feed starving people around the world. Sure, there’s a real need to engage ordinary citizens – and educate people – in some of the most pressing issues of our time, and hunger is without doubt high among them. But does ‘blending’ it with an English language quiz really do anybody any justice?

Our planet is full of extremes. Take this one. There are nearly 800 million people in the world who go hungry every day. And then there are another 800 million diagnosed as clinically obese. “It’s the ultimate contradiction and two sides of the same problem” says US academic and former World Bank employee, Raj Patel, in his latest book “Stuffed and Starved”.

The “FreeRice” site interestingly pitches itself more as an English language aid than a place of compassionate, charitable giving. Why do I say that? Well, when I went to the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section, I was really interested in the whole concept of ‘earning’ rice for hungry people. This, after all, is what the name of the site encourages. It’s “FreeRice”, right, and not “FreeLanguageQuiz”? But no. The first five answers on the FAQ page all talk about how much better your chances of getting a job might be, or how your reading and writing could be dramatically improved, if you master your English vocabulary. The fact that you happen to feed people as you go – twenty grains of rice at a time, by the way – isn’t seen as quite so important. Rice only enters the equation at “Frequently asked question” number six.

It’s a huge challenge engaging ordinary members of the public in development issues. With so many charities in desperate need of funding, anything which stands out has the greatest chance of success. This is one of the reasons Comic Relief in the UK is so successful. Not only does it give something back – in the way of a great night of comedy on the BBC – but it also takes people on a gut-wrenching rollercoaster ride through images of absolute suffering and despair, intermingled with comedy clips and top-quality family entertainment. The contradiction is almost as powerful as the 800 million people sitting on each side of that ‘hunger line’.

Giving out free rice also has its own problems, as does seeing famine and hunger as purely a food distribution issue. Studies have shown that most recent famines have more to do with war and politics than a plain shortage of food. In an effort to reduce the damage that dumping food has on local economies, CARE International recently took the brave step of refusing food aid from donors. Similarly, a DFID project in Malawi recently started an interesting experiment, handing out money to villagers in Malawi rather than handing out food (see an earlier posting).

My reaction to “FreeRice” was a mixed one. Whilst it does bring wider attention to global hunger it does it in a way which, to me anyway, seriously trivialises the issue. Answering questions and seeing a little bowl fill with rice which fundamentally decides if someone will eat or not gives me – and excuse the comparison – a rather sick feeling in my stomach.

Of course, it’s easy for us to sit here and openly criticise, praise, unpick or condemn these types of initiative. The people you’d have to really ask would be those whose bellies have been filled by the near-four billion grains of rice donated so far. They’d be able to tell you if they really cared where it came from, or how it got there.

The right answer? Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll need to pass on that one. Ask me another?

In celebration of a blogging century

While I was writing my blog last Wednesday, I was pleasantly surprised when I realised I was getting tantalisingly close to a hundred entries. This, combined with kiwanja’s soon-to-be fifth anniversary, seemed worth celebrating in some way. So a couple of misguided evenings later (spend down my local Peets) plus, of course, last Friday’s entry which took me to that hundred, here it is. It’s been an interesting exercise, and I’ve enjoyed it – a little collection of some of my favourite entries from the past eighteen months.

Battleship Google fires its new gun

The smoke has finally begun to settle. At times it reached almost fever pitch. Rumours that this was going to be the big shake-up the industry needed were followed, as reality set in, by sobering recognition of the challenges that lie ahead (and a scratching of heads as people tried to fill in much of the missing detail). Yes, this week Google decided time was right to officially show its intent, setting its sights squarely at the mobile industry and announcing not the much-hyped GPhone but Android, a new open mobile platform. As mobile continues to hot up, one of the biggest guns of them all has joined the battlefield and fired an early warning shot.

It’s been interesting to read through some of the comments over the week, both on international news sites and in the blogosphere. All is not well. Not only are we starved of some crucial detail but this has created a secondary problem of contradiction. On the detail side, for example, the SDK (Software Development Kit) isn’t being released until next week, and then it’s only an initial tentative sneak of what’s to come (“Comments welcome”, as the website says). The SDK is going to be rather important since it will dictate the nature of the open development which Android will live or die by. On the confusion side, we have headlines such as “Will GPhone kill off the iPhone?”. As far as I can tell, there really isn’t going to be a GPhone as such – Android is a software platform, an operating system, and environment. Unless we find out to the contrary (and let’s be honest, we don’t really know a huge amount yet) Google aren’t going to be branding any phones and certainly not designing any. As things currently stand Google will have as much control over the hardware their platform runs on as Microsoft do over the design of PC’s and laptops – in other words, not much. I doubt the iPhone has much to worry about quite yet. (Recall: Wasn’t Zune meant to be the iPod killer?).

Announcements about Linux-based open mobile initiatives, which Android is, are not new. There have been a number this year already, and Android joins a growing list which includes the likes of LiMo, OpenMoko and Qtopia. Analysts do seem to agree that Linux has a huge role to play in the future of mobile, but whether Google’s approach is going to be the breakthrough they believe is needed only time will tell. Yes, they may have an impressive list of around 30 partners, but many of these either aren’t doing particularly well right now, or are bit-part players in the mobile space. Nokia, the company with the dominant market share, and a vested interest in its own Symbian platform (technically an Android competitor) is conspicuous by its absence.

In the area where I spend most of my time – the use of mobiles for social and environmental benefit in the developing world – I have seen similar excitement at the announcement, with hopes that Android will open up a new world of opportunity for the community. Again, few people are being particularly specific about what this opportunity is, what it might look like and what problems it might end up solving. There is just a general hope that something good might come out of this. I wonder.

What is it, for example, that we can’t do now? What is it that we want to do which can’t be done with a combination of some of today’s tools, such as – say – SMS and Java? (Interestingly, Java is slated to play a key role in the Android platform). They’re pretty powerful and, although restrictive to a degree, many of the great things that have been going on in the “mobile for good” space lately have centred around one or the other. They’re both widely available, too – every phone out there can handle SMS, and a reasonable number of those can also run Java applications. Text messages are being used for all manner of communication – health messages, education, job postings and election monitoring among many others – and Java-based applications are enabling data collection and educational game development. Sure, we need to “think out of the box” and, more often than not many of the best ideas emerge that way. But we can think out of the box at any time, and should certainly never do it from a technology perspective. We shouldn’t approach this from the “What can Android do for us?” angle.

As far as I’m concerned, you start with an understanding of a ‘problem’, an understanding of the users and the environment, and consideration of the technology comes at the end. And, if it turns out that there’s not a viable, sustainable, appropriate technology-based solution to that problem then so be it. There won’t always be.

Android is only likely going to run on high-end devices such as smart phones. If we’re thinking about putting socially and economically empowering applications in the hands of the masses – and in this context I mean the couple of billion people at the bottom of the pyramid – then they’re going to need to have one of these phones. That might be a problem for quite some time to come, maybe even years. If, however, you have a nice control group – say fifty nurses who travel to remote clinics on a weekly basis – it’s not going to be too much trouble equipping them with a bunch of these handsets and running a neat health-based application on them. This is already being done in a number of countries and in a number of areas outside health, too.

We’re still about a year away from seeing anything running on an Android-powered device, and it may be at least another year or more before people sitting at the bottom of the economic pyramid start to own them in any significantly useful numbers. In the meantime there is plenty we can be getting on with.

Let’s face it, we’re only really beginning to scratch the surface with the tools we’ve already got.