Questioning technology and its implementation

Reflecting on some of my past projects, and trying to study the thought process of some of the projects that I have worked on, I thought of laying out some questions which can act as a set of “tips” for my future projects.

  1. Invest some time to understand the problem & hear it directly from the concerned parties or communities.
  2. Ask yourself: Is technology really needed here? Or is there a solution lying elsewhere?
  3. Study what technologies are already lying around or have been used by “concerned parties” or communities and how they are currently using it.
  4. Can your solution be built using existing technology that the people(“concerned parties” or community) already use? If not, try to spend a decent amount of time to find the answer to this question again. Chances are, it’s possible.
  5. Keep in mind that your solution should require minimal (or no training) i.e. The focus should be on a lower barrier to entry & a decreased learning curve. [If answer to 4 is still no]
  6. Build your solution in a way that you wouldn’t be needed at all after the implementation.

1. Invest some time to understand the problem & hear it directly from the concerned parties or communities.

When you are told about a problem that possibly requires a tech solution, you might start immediately with brain storming in your head(alone) and maybe search for existing solutions that have been tried and tested elsewhere in this world. While that might seem to be a good thing to do, I feel the first thing should be to have an open mind and just try to understand the problem statement at hand. That should be done by direct interactions with everyone involved in the process that involves the problem. For an NGO, it could be project staff, administrative staff, the community or volunteers. Technology enthusiasts often let invention be the mother of necessity. They think of the new thing on the block and then force it to work as a part of the solutions, even when it does not fit the context they are working within.  So having an open mind that isn’t clouded by the next big thing that you’ve read about in the technology world or any other special tool that you fancy, helps in coming up with a more just approach to finding a solution to the problem.

2. Ask yourself: Is technology really needed here? Or is there a solution lying elsewhere?

Start by asking those involved, “What if there was no technology available?” How would they then, solve this problem? In any case, technology is mostly just a tool and real solutions are only aided by technology. So in a parallel universe, where no form of technology exists, how would this problem be fixed? I think that if a significant amount of time is spent trying to find answers to the above two questions, things would become clearer as to whether the solution should have anything to do with technology or not. If the answer is in the negative, as a technology practitioner, it’s best to move on and call it a wrap.

3. Study what technologies are already lying around or have been used by “concerned parties” or communities and how they are currently using it.

The keyword here is “observe”. What exists around? Radio? Computers? Mobile Phones? What kind? What make? How do they use it in their daily lives? What is the extent of their usage? Are they able to use all the features of a mobile phone? What Operating System are their computers running? What tools/software do they use frequently? How do they power these devices? We should observe the behaviour of the people who are supposed to be part of the solution as well, because in the end they are going to use whatever you propose to them. So studying their current level of knowledge in using technology & general behaviour is useful to understand the user experience aspect.

4. Can your solution be built using existing technology that the people(“concerned parties” or community) already use? If not, try to spend a decent amount of time to find the answer to this question again. Chances are, it’s possible.

The idea here is to include existing technology as a part of the solution if possible, or to understand the extent of effort that might be required in case something new is proposed to them and then match the training aspect with their current behaviour so that it saves time and effort later on and learning becomes easy.

5. Keep in mind that your solution should require minimal (or no training) i.e. The focus should be on a lower barrier to entry & a decreased learning curve.

I read somewhere that “the best technology is” that which is “invisible“. It’s something that we should keep in mind always, from the usability perspective, when designing solutions. I tend to focus on decreasing the time and effort I need to spend in training people to use the solution I design for them. How does one achieve that? The best way would be to include existing skills that have already been trained to them(by their own self or otherwise). If they know how to make a phone call using their mobile phone – let’s try to think if we can do something using their mobile phones which just involves making or receiving a phone call. If they know how to write an SMS, maybe we setup an SMS system and interact or communicate with them using that. What if the staff only knows how to use Excel and to check their email? Then maybe, I’d design a web form simple enough to do their task.

6. Build your solution in a way that you wouldn’t be needed at all after the implementation.

If people are still calling you with questions on using the system or with some problem they have, quite frequently, chances are that the job was not well done. Implementation includes training well, troubleshooting and hand over the system to its users. Of course there will be problems, but the idea here is to minimise that by training the ground staff completely.

This post also appeared on ICTWorks in 2012: http://www.ictworks.org/2012/07/16/6-simple-guidelines-ict4d-project-success/

Uttarakhand Government’s Operation Connect and How can you help!

As a part of the ongoing efforts by the government, the task of reaching out to families seeking information about their relatives has been on top priority by the government officials. I was amazed at the government’s quick deployment of the “people finder” on the Disaster Management portal of the Uttarakhand government which initially had information about tracking rescued people, since army was involved in evacuation or search & rescue. Progressively the site kept being updated with more information and data being gathered and managed by the Uttarakhand government. When I saw a lot of people online volunteering to help with data collection and putting everything at one place and have their own versions of the same task which was already done by the government round the clock, I was just worried about this whole duplication of effort as something that was adding to the chaos. While I was traveling back to India and was in London, I just called the District Information Officer of Rudra Prayag, to check information and convey that some of the documents of rescued people that was being uploaded on their website were actually printed and scanned documents (some word documents but still printed and scanned and some hand written, both in English and Hindi – ref: Screenshot) are not easy to search and ask them if they can upload at least in some searchable format. That is when he informed me that although some of the documents being collected at district offices are scans, there is a separate team that is also translating (from Hindi to English) all the data and putting it online on their own DMS site in searchable format. Now on the same website, you see all the information being managed by any of the offices being put at one place. Like the website says: “This search module has been provided to track a person as per the information provided by concerned District Administration. The original list provided by District Administration has been re-entered/converted in English at State control room to facilitate its users.Kindly refer original list of District Administration to confirm the information provided through this website.” Ref: Screenshot here & Direct website link here.

There is a lot of information coming in and the need to effectively communicate to the families any relevant news and update the status of missing or found people on the database regularly. One of the ways the government is doing it is by Operation Connect where they are reaching out to the general public through Facebook and Twitter and integrating all that information coming in from existing mechanisms like the phone helplines and feeding everything on the central DMS system. They are also reaching out to any organisations, NGOs working on ground who are helping affected people with relief materials to supply them with the information of the people they are taking care of and make use of the already available information.

Mediums – Phone, Fax, Email, Facebook, Twitter. So organisations or people can report or access information about missing or found people using any of the mediums. The team aggregates information from all sources and puts it into the centralised database and ensures any new information is instantly added to the database and made available.

The team designed a form that any organisation can use, they have the same form available on their Facebook page under and various other information being put up online which is also being fed to their twitter feed.

The page has links to the following information and forms that you can access/fill up on the facebook page itself like the List of Missing People, Report Missing Person, Report Found Person, Request Supplies (for people/organisations on ground involved in relief), Sponsorship (for donations) and Operation Connect Found People (list of people found using this operation). You can visit their facebook page directly to check those forms or check their screenshots below or by clicking here.

How can you help?

  • Encourage people to use the government official site/tools in case they are looking for someone.
  • Spread the word. A lot of people are still missing and being found. Just by sharing a photograph of a missing person you might be able to connect missing families.
  • If you are involved in relief activities and are part of an organisation – provide them with any information you have over email or any other medium you have access to (refer contact information below). Help all information reach a central place, and prevent scattering of information everywhere.

Contact Information:

  • Official Site: http://dms.uk.gov.in/ (this website also has links & information on how you can donate directly)
  • Email: missingcell.uk@gmail.com
  • Phone: Missing Cell – 0135-2104175, 0135-2104176,0135-2104180, 0135-2104181 (more numbers on the site)
  • Facebook. Twitter.

If you look at the following images, you can see the team behind this is engaging and constantly updating information.
operation-connect-uttarakhand-united-10July

operation-connect-uttarakhand-1

operation-connect-uttarakhand-2

What do you need the most? Knowledge and Education.

Its been over an year now since I started working at, what they say, grassroots level on projects around livelihoods in Rural India. Well mostly UP and then Bihar, Rajasthan. When I look back at my very first interaction with the villagers on a project I was assigned the picture in my mind is still fresh mostly because of the conversation I had. It remains firmly etched in my memories.

May 26, 2010: I went on to meet the people of Ramkola Village, which happens to be surrounded by water on all 3 sides and gets submerged (read: flooded) with water every time there is heavy rain or a flood situation. Its like a “for granted” situation for them which they have accepted as their fate every year. They also have their own coping mechanism and mostly survive the after effects of flood each year.

 

I went to meet the men, women, elderly and kids to understand the situation there to plan and implement an “Early Warning System” which I had been assigned. I interacted with them as an outsider so that they could feel free to talk and share complains about the organisation I worked for, in case they had any (fortunately they didn’t 😉 only complaints about the government).

After the hour long conversation with the group, I happened to ask one question to them in the end.

“What is it that you need the most here?”
The First Interaction
Response from one of the male members (around late 30’s or early 40’s) who appeared to be the smartest or wisest,  was

“अब क्या बताएं, यह बाढ़ वाढ़ से तो हम निपट ही लेते हैं॥ हमें तो चाहिए ज्ञान और पढ़ाई लिखाई॥ उसी से हम सबका भला हो सकता है और तरक्की हो सकती है हमारी”

Translation: We know how to deal with floods each year. All we need is education, knowledge. Its the only thing that can really help us develop and bring good to our families.

Knowledge. Education. They know how to survive and cope with floods and they don’t really need help there. They understand where there real upliftment lies in.