The hidden world of “how stuff works”

When things work as they should, we often take them for granted, rarely stopping to think about their inner workings. It’s only when things go wrong, or something unusual happens, that we get a glimpse into the secret world of “how stuff works”.

This is an image from Google Earth, taken as a satellite passed over Hyde Park in Chicago, Illinois. (Click on the image for a larger version). There must be thousands of pictures like this given the number of planes in the air at any one time, but it’s the first time one’s passed under my nose.

Thanks largely to the Internet, many of us have unprecedented access to satellite imagery we’d only have dreamed of a few years ago. Flying around landscapes trying to find our homes, for example – something many of us have done on Google Earth – would have likely cost tens of thousands of pounds not so long ago (and maybe friends in high places).

If you’ve ever wondered how satellite images work, this one might give you a clue. If you’re still not sure or are hungry for more, check out this useful resource. It’s all good stuff.

A very public tribute

It’s been difficult to know what to write about our Mother. She was a big fan of this blog, and immensely proud of my work, so it felt right that I say something. Not surprisingly, I’m not the only one who felt this way, going by a report in last week’s local paper. Clearly, many other people feel the same as me, and many other people will also miss her for many different reasons. A wonderful person, who also happened to be my Mum.

The dollar-a-week “mobile challenge”

Some people go on long walks. Some climb mountains. Others run marathons or go for weeks without smoking, drinking alcohol or watching television. There are many ways to raise money for charity these days, although many don’t have a direct connection with the area of focus of the charity itself. Even less put the fundraiser in the shoes of the target audience the charity’s very existence seeks to help.

Trying to live off a couple of dollars a day is an exception. Starting yesterday, thousands of people across the UK started doing just that – living off £1 (approximately $2) a day for a total of five days. That needs to cover all their food and drink needs. According to Live Below The Line, they’re doing this to:

get a better understanding of the challenges faced by people living in extreme poverty, and to raise funds for crucial anti-poverty initiatives

One friend who will be shortly joining the challenge is Laurie Lee, Deputy Director of Policy & Advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can follow Laurie’s progress on Twitter, along with Live Below The Line’s own updates. There can be few better ways of helping people understand the challenge hundreds of millions of people around the world face than to put them in a similar position or predicament.

So, it got me thinking… I wonder what the equivalent challenge might be in the mobiles-for-development sector?

Some time last year we passed a critical point in the history of mobile when more people on the planet started owning one than not. Projected penetration and ownership rates vary, but within the next year or two we’ll be over the five billion mark, which is quite incredible.

Of course, ownership alone doesn’t tell the whole story. The hundreds of millions of people having to eek a living off a couple of dollars a day are not only trying to buy food and water for them and their families. They’re also trying to save to send their kids to school, to buy medicine, to keep a roof over their heads. In the context of their phone ownership, they also need to find extra cash to keep their phone charged, and to keep it topped up, usable and functional. There is already growing evidence which highlights the tough decisions mobile owners are having to make when balancing a restricted household budget.

So, what would an equivalent “$2 a day” challenge look like for mobile? Well, for a start we’d have to calculate the average telecommunications spend for an average mobile owner in a developing country. Without specific data to hand, I’m going to take a stab at $1 per week. If I were to cancel my mobile contract today and move to pre-pay, how would I manage with that kind of budget, and what decisions would I have to make on a daily basis before hitting “Send”, “OK” or “Dial” on my phone?

Let me take another stab at some of the things I’d likely have to do.

Service costs
For the first time I’d need to read up and make sure I fully understood all of the price plans and offers from each of the mobile operators in the UK. Right now I have no idea, because I’ve never needed to know. If I’m to maximise my $1 per week I need to know under which conditions which operator will be cheapest.

SIM choice
I’d need to go out and acquire one SIM card for each of those operators, and get used to swapping it in and out on a regular basis before making calls, sending texts, tweeting, checking emails, and so on in order to maximise my budget. Ideally I’d have a phone which takes multiple SIM cards to make this all slightly less painful, only they’re not available where I live.

Assuming I’m able to access the Internet and can afford to (see “Web challenges” below), whenever I do switch SIM cards I’d need to learn how to change the WAP/Web configuration settings on the phone (which are network dependent). This can be a challenge at the best of times, and even more so for less technical users.

Web challenges
Assuming my phone and SIM are data enabled, I’d be able to access the Internet. Only problem is I have very little idea what the costs would be. Right now, with my generous browsing allowance, I can pop onto Twitter or read the news, but if I had to pay for each page view or chunk of downloaded data, how would I know what the costs are ahead of time? Again, I’d need to make a conscious decision whether or not I could afford the luxury, and confusion over data costs could easily (and quickly) be the death of me.

My friends and family network
I’d need to make sure I knew which network each friend and family member were on, so I’d know which SIM to switch to before making a call, or texting (same-network calls or texts are cheaper in many countries). And with many of these contacts also likely having multiple SIM cards, I’d need to be confident that I could manage a complex address book.

To call, tweet, text – or not call, tweet or text?
Before making a call, or sending an SMS, I’d need to make a conscious decision whether or not I could afford it, and weigh up any cost with the anticipated benefit. Gone would be the days of having the luxury of thousands of minutes and texts to ‘waste’ away.

I’d need to put aside a few pence per week to cover the cost of charging (electricity isn’t free), depending on how much I used the phone. If charging costs were prohibitive then I’d need to make sure my phone was off when I didn’t need it (or wasn’t expecting a call) in order to maximise the time between charges.

Flashing and beeping
If I did need to contact someone urgently, and assuming I was okay with them being burdened with the call cost, I could “flash” or “beep” them (ring their phone a couple of times, and hang up and wait for a call back). Since there’s no real culture of this where I live, I’m not sure if it would work, and if the person I was calling was also short of credit, we could have a stalemate. (For an excellent article on the culture of flashing and beeping, check out this Jonathan Donner article).

Calling codes
For short, regular messages – “I’m at work okay”, “I’ve got the shopping” or “Leaving now” – I’d possibly need to devise a system where I could ring a recipient phone and use a set number of rings (or sequence of missed calls) to relay the message. I’d need to come up with a range of “survival strategies” in order to protect my phone credit.

Regardless of how well I did, one thing is abundantly clear – me and my phone would have a very different kind of relationship than we do today, and I’d certainly have to be a lot better organised than I am now. Both of those could, of course, be seen as a good thing.

If anyone else has any other “survival strategies” I’ve missed, please let me know (there are bound to be many). Either way, this would be a fascinating exercise, and well worth a try if anyone’s interested in putting themselves in the shoes of many mobile phone owners throughout the developing world.