Archive for July, 2010


July 12, 2010

A two-and-a-half week trip to India was very productive for the Jester. He gave talks at an ICT4D summer school, spent quality time with friends and NGOs, and consumed six months’ worth of genuine Indian food, to make up for the six months since he was last there.

During this time, and in the synchronicitous ways of the world, the Jester encountered many groups of people who were tremendously excited about ICT4D. The summer school was attended by 70-odd students and would-be ICT4D-ers all eager to learn about ICT4D. And, many of the NGOs the Jester visited were beginning or continuing experiments with ICT4D. Although it was rumored that the Jester’s musings on “10 Myths of ICT4D” convinced one or two souls in the summer-school audience to reconsider ICT4D altogether, most seemed invigorated, perhaps in the manner of reckless, young, race-car drivers who taste adrenaline at the sight of crash and burn.

Their excitement was captured best by an e-mail the Jester received. In a strange juxtaposition of technological irony and global serendipity, the message was received while he was in India, but it came from America, and it was written by an Indian. The subject line announced, “Request for Guidance!” In it, the author (let us call him “Abhishek”) says… “During my final year at [university], I started to ask myself the question ‘What is the purpose/ultimate goal of my life?’ After a lot of thought process I came up with an answer like ‘do work which impacts the lives of millions in the poor communities’. What I am now trying to figure out is the suitable path through [which] I can contribute most effectively to these developing communities.” Earnestness like this, you can’t buy at a chai stall!

It turns out that Abhishek has recently joined a US technology company, but he feels that he can best achieve his purpose in life through ICT4D. Although there are some kinds of puffing-up the Jester enjoys deflating, he finds no joy in mocking sincere seekers. (Not much joy, anyway.) Too, it seems wrong to shut the gate on those who walk the path the Jester trod not too long ago. After all, as a great king of jesters once said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” What then, does the Jester say, to the excited ICT4D newbie?

Jump in!!! And, jump into direct experience, not piles of books, papers, and other second-hand accounts. The most important thing, if one is interested in impacting other people’s lives, is to become intimately familiar with what their lives are really like. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a visit is worth a million. Whatever it is, the Jester encourages any way to actually get involved with work that requires very close contact with the people one hopes to impact. This could be done in a number of ways, through volunteering, internships, jobs, etc. Many such opportunities are often posted on online websites (e.g.,, as well as mailing lists (e.g., the TIER mailing list: ), and a good fraction seek people with technical skills. The important thing is to sign up for an opportunity that involves significant engagement with poor communities – the more time with them, the better; don’t take a job that only involves coding in an air-conditioned office, especially if it’s in a rich city in the developed world. Then, once in the job (or internship or volunteer opportunity), keep volunteering for work that requires working with relevant groups. Find out as much as possible through questions, observation, living with them, etc. Do not complain to the Jester about language differences, cultural barriers, inconvenient weather, or guerillas brandishing guns. (Hmm, perhaps the latter are a valid reason for concern.) Where there’s a will, there’s a way. ICT4D intervention is a good entry point to development for those with technical ability. It can be used as a way to get an understanding for real development issues.

Meanwhile, the Jester recommends reading as much as possible about international development. Books, websites, papers, etc. Reading is valuable not so much because it describes what development really is (that sense – often a very personal one – is best gained through direct experience), but so that one becomes comfortable with the jargon and discourse of development. Among the most enlightening of writings is an obscure blog known as the ICT4D Jester. The Jester recommends reading every post. Thrice.

In short, ICT4D is the perfect entrance for technologists interested in development. (The key phrase here is “for technologists.” For those coming from a development background, the Jester says, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter ICT4D!”) It offers a means to engage with the complex, multi-faceted endeavor of development, while allowing a technologist to contribute a little technical support here, or a bit of electronic innovation there. ICT4D is a broad perch from which to learn about development, because technology’s tendrils can extend into every domain of development, whether it’s education, agriculture, microfinance, governance, livelihoods, gender issues, et cetera.

The Jester thus encourages a foray into ICT4D for technologists, albeit with the hope that wanderers will not stop there, but continue onto even more meaningful aspects of development. For technologists, ICT4D is a step in the right direction. (The Jester only requests that those taking this step remember his Golden Rule:  If your goal is to accomplish something in development, then work with people who are already doing competent work in development; then, apply your technical skills to support those people.)

The Hand that Flips the Power Switch…

July 6, 2010

The Jester gleefully welcomes a comment by Satyajit Nath[i] on a recent post. The following is an edited version of his comment (the full comment is here, below the original post):

SN> Sometimes, the focus of consciously applied technology can be to *diminish* the impact of crafty/ corrupt people who impoverish others and make the “victims” less than what they can be.

For example, the electronic train ticketing/reservation system in India simply eliminated the corruption rampant through reservation clerks, train conductors, and others. I remember 20-25 years ago when any long distance train travel meant interminable hours waiting in line at the station to book tickets, bribes doled out by those passengers who chose to/could afford them, and no travel/poor travel for those could/would not. And today, my brother-in-law just booked my confirmed train reservation from Mumbai to Hyderabad in 2 minutes at the local store! And what is true for him is true for anyone in India today.

Yes, behind that system were dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations who understood the appropriate use of technology. But the main benefit of the technology was to eliminate the impact of a huge number of corrupt/crafty ones.

So, I would argue for a transcended definition for appropriate use of technology that includes (1) to magnify good human intent; (2) to diminish bad human intent.

Satyajit – thank you, thank you, thank you! You have given the Jester a day off from playing the fool, because you are doing it so well! In fact, the Jester confers upon you the title of Fool for the Day (or F4TD, to simultaneously honor the genius who came up with “ICT4D”).

The idea that technology diminishes bad human intent is one of the classic traps that snare many an ICT4D enthusiast, and the Indian Railway System is the perfect example of a good technology system whose mechanism is misinterpreted by techno-utopians.

The Jester starts with his favorite broken record: Technology magnifies human intent and capacity. But, which humans’ intent and capacity? There are typically two relevant groups: (1) the people who produce the technology and/or operate it, and (2) the people who consume the technology or its output. Some combination of these groups’ intents and capacities are what technology magnifies.

In the case of railway computerization, the technology operator is the Railway Ministry, and the consumers are passengers. As our F4TD confirms, the intents of both the operator and the consumer were aligned with the positive goal: “behind that system were dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations”; and, just as his brother desires to buy tickets easily, “what is true for him is true for anyone in India today.” Thus, the relevant groups are positively inclined, and the ministry had the ability to follow through. Technology amplifies that, so it’s no surprise that the outcome was mostly good.

What of corrupt railway employees? It’s true that much of the old style of corruption was eliminated, but this in no way contradicts the Jester’s claim. If two groups of people have opposing intent, the more powerful side can impose its intent on the other, especially if it has suitable technology. In war, the side with greater intent, ability, and superior technology, wins. In this case, the Railway Ministry, which to start with had the position of power over railway employees, was firmly intent on implementing a fair, efficient system. With that kind of power and political will, it’s again not surprising that corruption was diminished.

However, there are plenty of instances that appear similar on paper, but where the political will or the organizational capacity is lacking. If human intent is negative, or capacity near-zero, technology will not contribute positively. This is, alas, the situation with many of the governments that ICT4D hopes to fix with e-government.

The Jester remembers one political science professor who claimed to tell a story of ICT supporting democracy, but then ended up telling exactly the opposite story: A well-regarded NGO in Bangalore once convinced the municipal government of that city to install a computerized financial tracking system with public access. For a couple of months, the NGO found irregularities or injustices in the city budget and lobbied publicly to get things fixed, with good results. Triumph for ICT, right? Wrong. Soon after, the government shut down the system, and it has not come back up since. If the government doesn’t want to be monitored, it won’t be monitored. The hand that flips the power switch is the hand that rules the ICT. And, behind that hand, is again, human intent.

There is no end to these examples in e-government. India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is struggling to authenticate workers, so that they can be paid correctly. But, without an inherently strong bureaucracy, fingerprint readers and other technology are readily sabotaged by people in the payment chain, who’d rather not have their skimming of government funds detected. In failed and failing states outside of India, ICT often presents a way to get the word out about gross injustice; but no amount of protest or harangue online about the government changes leaders secure in their absolute power. And, in repressive regimes, Internet and mobile-phone networks are even bent to the will of a controlling government. Websites are actively censored; e-mails are subpoenaed to track “enemies” of state; and the government-sponsored press preaches its propaganda online. Without positive intent and institutional capacity in the government implementing the technology, e-government doesn’t work. At least, not for the public good. 

The Jester also notes that the corrupt intent of lower-level bureaucrats also requires something more than technology to stamp out completely. In the case of the railways, our F4TD may be aware that even today, in the case that a train is full on the publicly available online system, he can often go to certain travel agents and purchase a seat for an additional fee. Behind the scenes, however, these tickets have been sold under the table by those who have inside access to the computerized system, who undoubtedly receive a portion of the “fee.” The Jester himself has also gotten on ostensibly full trains that were already in motion (and therefore, beyond the online booking system), only to find empty first-class sleepers for which the price seemed a little high. (The Jester is no activist-saint; he happily paid and got a good night’s sleep.) Corrupt intent doesn’t go away with technology; it just works around it.

So, does technology “diminish bad human intent”? Not in and of itself. Technology only magnifies intent and capacity. If technology is operated by the just and competent, it certainly can help them — this is what we’re all after in ICT4D. But, it’s not the technology alone that does it. If technology is put in the hands of the powerless, it has nothing to magnify. If technology is wielded by those with negative intent, it only magnifies that. For these latter situations to be turned around, only a change in the underlying human intent or capacity will allow the technology to magnify things in the positive direction. Technology’s impact is multiplicative, not additive.


[i] Note to empathetic souls: The Jester knows Satyajit in person and has great respect for him. Satyajit, an otherwise accomplished person, has recently thrown himself body and soul into ICT4D. The Jester’s jabs are only friendly ribbing. Or, at least, the Jester hopes he will take it that way, despite the public spanking to follow.

Digital Green is actually People Green

July 4, 2010

In the middle of vast tracts of terraced rice fields, haphazardly partitioned into small half-acre-ish plots of land, villagers slowly begin to gather into the local primary school courtyard just around sunset. By the time it’s completely dark, a mixed-gender group of about fifty people ranging from infants to gray-haired grannies sit cross-legged on the ground, surrounding a 1.5’x2′ makeshift screen that is nailed against a schoolhouse pillar. A man stands next to the screen and begins to play a video using a portable pico projector — the only video-playback device in the area for miles around. The video demonstrates a particular method of preparing the soil before planting rice, and it features a farming couple from a nearby district building gridded plateaus of mud on their own land. Amidst the din of crickets, the audience strains to hear the underpowered audio; even the babies are quiet. Every minute or two, the session leader pauses the video, and asks the audience a question. Most questions meet with quick responses, but in a few cases, an extended discussion takes place. After about a half hour, the session leader takes attendance, responds to further questions, and asks if anyone plans to try the technique. About a third of the adult hands go up. The session adjourns, and the villagers disperse, likely not to meet again in a group like this until the following week. Perhaps a handful will actually implement the technique in their fields.

In an environment where there is no TV, no electricity, and no traffic (beyond the occasional NGO worker), such is pace of rural transformation. It might seem slow to city slickers, but apart from festivals, it’s the peak of community activity in this remote village of Kumadawahali.

The video sessions are the heart of Digital Green, a system for agriculture extension for smallholder farmers. DG uses a combination of locally produced digital video and mediated group instruction to teach farmers more productive, sustainable agricultural techniques.

The videos are a compelling instructional aid, even for a mostly illiterate audience, and they permit a greater range of influence for expert extension agents, who otherwise do their work only through verbal dialogue and posters. For many villagers, the sessions are as much entertainment as they are education — this is their only exposure to moving images every week. Pilot studies have shown that DG can increase adoption of newly introduced farming practices by 7 times the rate at which classical agriculture extension works, and at 10 times the cost-effectiveness.

If this were the typical sort of ICT4D journalism or grant proposal, the story would end here, and readers and program officers would likely be left with the strong impression that video is an effective means of agriculture extension. They might think, “If video projectors were provided to every village, and if a worldwide database of agricultural techniques could be built, we could improve farmer productivity and food security around the world!” Nincompoops who haven’t had the fortune of meeting the Jester would go further: “Gosh, let’s do this over mobile phones! Mobiles are all over the planet, and they’ll all have video and Internet capability soon!! We could crowdsource agricultural video content on the Internet!!! Farmers would become agriculture PhDs in no time!!!! Video-over-mobile-phone will solve hunger forever!!!!! Yes, yes, YESSSSS!!!!!!”

Ahem. With the sarcasm out of his system for the day, the Jester will now hold his critical tongue for a bit to provide the positive side of this story for those doing ICT4D work. Having just returned from two days of visits to DG field sites, he’s inspired to say a few things about ICT4D done well. (Full disclosure: The Jester has been involved with Digital Green from its inception as research advisor, organizational midwife, and board member. He receives no financial compensation from DG, but he does enjoy basking in the brilliant glow of this young, promising project.)

The field visits were to rural sites in northern Orissa’s Mayurbanj district, where DG works together with two NGO partners, PRADAN and VARRAT. The villages where these organizations work are populated by India’s tribal and low-caste communities. They are remote, but still reachable by car. Electricity from the power grid is rare. So are TVs and mobile phones. Incomes are in the dollar-a-day range, and much of the farming is subsistence agriculture. The dominant staple crop is rice, and thanks to the work of the NGOs, there is more and more growing of vegetables, both for income and nutrition. The visits took place during the wet pre-monsoon season, but the area is dry the rest of the year, and scarcity of water is an issue.

Let’s now deconstruct the single instructional session above. First, the 50-odd villagers all gathered within a 15-minute window of time, for a once-a-week session. Getting this to happen at all is no small feat, as anyone who has started a village self-help group (SHG) will tell you. Often, it takes months of constant engagement, to get an SHG together, to meet regularly, and to resolve any historical tensions that members might have with one another. Giri, a young PRADAN staff member was responsible for working with Kumadawahali, and he had spent much of the past two years there building rapport with the villagers. As part of PRADAN’s new-employee orientation, Giri spent weeks living with a family in the village; PRADAN encourages him to see his work as a partnership with the community. He and the villagers greeted each other warmly when they met.

Next, the session leader. This person needed to be identified, recruited, paid, and trained. Session leaders must be moderately educated, and willing to travel to local villages on a regular basis. They need to see their work as a job that requires a regular commitment. They need to be remunerated for their efforts. Additionally, the session leader needs to be trained in video instruction and simple record-keeping — skills akin to those of a school teacher in a place where teachers are few. They’re recruited from nearby villages and trained by PRADAN and DG staff. Nihar Ranjan Maharana, another young PRADAN staff member who is the point person for DG within PRADAN’s Mayurbanj office, works closely with session leaders in multiple village clusters.

During the session, there was lively discussion (which was partly translated for the Jester by his NGO hosts). This might not seem like anything special to someone raised in a modern, progressive educational system, but in a place with few formal organizations, and where classrooms believe in discipline over engagement, it’s another considerable achievement. The Jester has been to many village meetings elsewhere where little dialogue takes place at all, or where one or two village leaders monopolize the discussion. In Kumadawahali, many people, both men and women, actively participated in discussion.

As for the video, it was produced by PRADAN in a nearby village (tens of kilometers away) just weeks prior to the screening. Because agriculture is sensitive to season and soil conditions, content is only relevant for a short while and in a limited region, though it can be reused annually. This particular video was shot in Oriya, the language of Orissa, and versions of similar video were also available in Ho, another language common in the region. Using DG’s standard processes, the video was based on a storyboard constructed and verified by PRADAN staff. Chandra Shekhar, an enthusiastic member of DG’s staff, stayed with PRADAN’s Mayurbanj office and helped PRADAN produce a range of such videos.

The use of the pico projector was suggested by Matt York, an informal advisor to DG, who runs a non-profit in the United States that makes it its business to be aware of electronic gadgets that could be useful to NGOs like Digital Green. The projectors are highly portable, but require frequent maintenance, in no small part due to power surges that fry batteries. PRADAN and DG staff are constantly moving projectors back and forth to villages for this reason. Where projectors are scarce, they resort to TVs, DVD players, batteries, and inverters. DG is currently facing a shortage of pico projectors due to some manufacturer delays, and both DG staff and Matt are working on getting cheaper, brighter, pico projectors more quickly into India.

Finally, to track its impact, session leaders and PRADAN staff keep track of DG session attendance, technique adoption, and questions that arise during sessions. Over time, they hope to measure gains in agricultural yield and household income, as well. Collecting this information is again, no easy task, and it requires process and discipline.

All of this has been done under the capable leadership of Manas Satpathy, PRADAN’s regional head in Orissa, Surjit Behra, PRADAN’s team leader in Karanjia, Rikin Gandhi, CEO of Digital Green, and Avinash Upadhyay, DG’s regional leader in Orissa. Rikin himself helped initiate PRADAN into DG techniques over a year ago, and Surjit and Avinash have successfully overseen its spread in 17 villages across Mayurbanj; DG sessions are otherwise happening in hundreds of villages in four states across India.

This is a brief, incomplete description, but even so, it’s evident just how much human effort is required to make things work, and it’s effort that can’t be replaced by technology. Whatever impact DG has depends first on well-intentioned, competent people. In the case of the story above, the people are members of PRADAN and DG’s staff. The Jester has visited quite a few villages of comparable socio-economic status, and he has rarely seen the kind of promptness and organization that he saw with the DG session in Kumadawahali. That is due almost entirely to PRADAN’s expertise, methodology, and dedication — all traits for which they are well-known and respected. (Incidentally, although the Jester didn’t see as much of VARRAT, they seemed equally capable and integrated with their communities.)

Contrast this with what might be the ridiculously misguided, but unfortunately more common, forms of ICT4D: Donate a bunch of pico projectors for a lot of villages, or perhaps attempt to design a $50 pico projector, so that more villages could afford one. Or, set up a website so that agriculture experts all over the world could upload videos, presumably in languages and seasons completely irrelevant to anyone but themselves. Or, dream up clever variations of NetFlix for farmers, for financial “sustainability.” Etc. But, none of it would actually work, except to win social-enterprise business-plan competitions judged by Silicon Valley tycoons.

Again, it’s not that technology is pointless. DG itself uses technology extensively: low-cost video cameras, microphones, PCs and a mishmash of software for video production; TVs, DVD players, and pico projectors for instructional sessions; and a sophisticated online tool for tracking of its own activities even over poor Internet connectivity. But, none of these tools are worth anything in the absence of a PRADAN. Conversely, PRADAN accomplishes a lot without these tools. The tools are, again, magnifiers of human intent and capacity.

DG is well aware of this and strives to identify good partners with which to work, effectively seeing its role as assisting other organizations’ ability and amplifying their impact. That certainly has value in development.

DG is thus a textbook instance of the right kind of ICT4D. It studiously avoids any illusion that it or its technology can accomplish anything on its own. Instead, technology is consciously applied to magnify the impact of dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations… ultimately, the only things that really make a difference.


(The Jester thanks the staff of PRADAN, VARRAT, and Digital Green for hosting a great visit to rural Orissa, and for answering lots of pesky questions!)