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[berkman] Beth Kolko: Form, Function and Fiction

Beth Kolko is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk on what her group, Deiagn for Digital Inclusion, has been doing. It’s an interdisciplinary group.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

[Beth talks quickly. Hard to keep up.] The questions driving her group’s work: What ICTs are adopted in diverse communities and why. What do they do with ICTs? The aim is to design better technologies and policies.

When we name a technology, she says, we assume technologies have consistent meanings across cultural contexts. But that’s not true. There’s a whole lot of slippage. If you study diversity across disciplines, there’s a lot of research that says that diversity lends robustness. Without diversity, systems are fragile. He groups wants to make design more aware of diversity.

How do you have a conversation that brings in the hardware and software folks, and the social science folks? She says that in her talk, the division between form and function will get smudgy.

Beth says that if you say you study the developing world, they get sleepy because they don’t see how it relates to what they’re doing. So, she and others have reframed this as “resource constraint.” This removes the geographic focus. It also makes it dynamic, not static. Resources can be anything from economic and educational to screen size. The question is: How do you design to accommodate this complexity.

She goes through the methods for the Central Asia portion of her work. It’s quantitative and qualitative. Surveys every year, four countries, 1000 people in each. Interviews with different populations, usabilities tests, ethnography.

Form of tech in resource-constrained environments

1. Internet as weather-dependent technology. In Cambodia in a small village, the Net goes down after it rains because it interrupts the satellite access. The Net is neither ubiquitous nor constant. In Central Asia, access is far more sporadic and they are on for far less time in each session than is typical in, say, Cambridge, MA.

2. Internet as a public resource. Beth’s Central Asian research use the Net about equally at a home, at a friend’s home, and at school/work.

3. Mobile phone as bank. The use of phones for banking has design implications, e.g., how visible is your password?

Function of tech in resource-constrained environments

1. ICTs as strengthener of social neworks. With demographics taken off the table, people who use conventional social networks are more likely to use technology. And people who use technology are more likely to trust others. [I think I got that wrong.] Most people in Beth’s studies use their mobile phones at least once a day.

2. Mobiles as a platform for fraud. Beth got a 419 Nigerian scam SMS msg when in Kenya. “What we use mobiles for is complex.”

3. SMS as a weapon. The role of SMS in revolution. She points to Iran.

4. Games as tech training. Games provide the first touch of ICT for many people. It’s cheaper in Cental Asia to play LAN games than access the Net. About 64% of game players are urban, and 63% are men.

From understanding to building

In one project, they studied how people used mobiles, they’re use of social networks, and the pain points of everyday life. (This is “design ethnography.”) They decided to look at mobile social software (MoSoSo), and a public transporation project (Starbus). They tried to adopt the notion of “personas” based on their surveys and interviews. (Personas are models of typical users.) MoSoSo allows recommendations filtered through one’s social network. Starbus addresses the problem that intercity buses don’t depart until they’re filled. Starbus puts a GPS box on the buses so they can send SMS msgs about where the bus is. You can text it to find out when it will come to the stop near you.

MoSoSo and Starbus both arise from the research that drills down into what it means to be an Internet user.

Q: When do porn and gambling enter the equation?
A: Not gambling because of banking issues. Plenty of porn.

Q: Why do people who use the Net report higher levels of trust?
A: Don’t know.

Q: Correlation between quality of life and Internet use?
A: Hard to know what that means.

Q: Are the public access centers set up by gov’t agencies or entrepreneurial people?
A: The latter.

Q: [me] If I were a businessperson designing for a market…
A: Avoid generalizations about that people X do Y. Get real data about how people are actually using the tech. E.g., if people don’t have GPS in their phones, Starbus opens up the GPS on the bus as a community resource.

Q: [lokman] You have longitudinal studies. Does the slower adoption rate come because of a lack of local content.
A: We’ve done captures of web sites from ’03 or ’04. We’ve looked at the change over time. Until ’07 or ’08, the government site at Uzbekistan said the purpose of the site was to restrict info. I suspect the variance in adoption rate has to do with the split between communication and information tech. Abstract info doesn’t resonate in resource-constrained environments.

Q [colin]: Also, the lack of new media literacy. How does trust and social networks feed into that?
A: The issue of info literacy gets complicated in a post-Soviet context. What looks like media illiteracy may be a different type of media literacy. People sometimes mimeograph materials off the Net and distribute them, which is a different type of media literacy. [Tags: ]

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