[AI] A good mobile is not simply a phone
pradeepsocialwork at gmail.com
Tue Apr 22 13:45:17 EDT 2008
A good mobile is not simply a phone. It holds in it the promise of improving efficiency-and, therefore, effecting economic development The idea is to have behaviour researchers like Chipchase report on what people are likely to need from a cellphone.......SARA CORBETT
IF you need to reach Jan Chipchase, the best, and sometimes only, way to get him is on his cellphone. The first time I spoke to him last fall, he was at home in his apartment in Tokyo. The next time, he was in Accra, the capital of Ghana, in West Africa. Several weeks after that, he was in Uzbekistan, by way of Tajikistan and China, and in short order he and his phone visited Helsinki, London and Los Angeles. If you decide not to call Jan Chipchase but rather to send e-mail, the odds are fairly good that you'll get an "out of office" reply redirecting you back to his cellphone.
Chipchase is 38, a rangy native of Britain whose broad forehead and high-slung brows combine to give him the air of someone who is quick to be amazed, which in his line of work is something of an asset. For the last seven years, he has worked for the Finnish cellphone company Nokia as a "human-behaviour researcher." He's also sometimes referred to as a "user anthropologist." To an outsider, the job can seem decidedly oblique. His mission, broadly defined, is to peer into the lives of other people, accumulating as much knowledge as possible about human behavior so that he can feed helpful bits of information back to the company-to the squads of designers and technologists and marketing people who may never have set foot in a Vietnamese barbershop but who would appreciate it greatly if that barber someday were to buy a Nokia.
What amazes Chipchase is not the standard stuff that amazes big multinational corporations looking to turn an ever-bigger profit. Pretty much wherever he goes, he lugs a big-bodied digital Nikon camera with a couple of soup-can-size lenses so that he can take pictures of things that might be even remotely instructive back in Finland or at any of Nokia's nine design studios around the world. Almost always, some explanation is necessary. A Mississippi bowling alley, he will say, is a social hub, a place rife with nuggets of information about how people communicate. A photograph of the contents of a woman's handbag is more than that; it's a window on her identity, what she considers essential, the weight she is willing to bear. The prostitute ads in the Brazilian phone booth? Those are just names, probably fake names, coupled with real cellphone numbers-lending to Chipchase's theory that in an increasingly transitory world, the cellphone is becoming the one fixed piece of our identity.
Last summer, Chipchase sat through a monsoon-season downpour inside the one-room home of a shoe salesman and his family, who live in the sprawling Dharavi slum of Mumbai. Using an interpreter who spoke Tamil, he quizzed them about the food they ate, the money they had, where they got their water and their power and whom they kept in touch with and why. He was particularly interested in the fact that the family owned a cellphone, purchased several months earlier so that the father, who made the equivalent of $88 a month, could run errands more efficiently for his boss at the shoe shop.
The father also occasionally called his wife, ringing her at a pay phone that sat 15 yards from their house.
Chipchase noted that not only did the father carry his phone inside a plastic bag to keep it safe in the pummeling seasonal rains but that they also had to hang their belongings on the wall in part because of a lack of floor space and to protect them from the monsoon water and raw sewage that sometimes got tracked inside. He took 800 photographs of the salesman and his family over about eight hours and later, back at his hotel, dumped them all onto a hard drive for use back inside the corporate mother ship. Maybe the family's next cellphone, he mused, should have some sort of hook as an accessory so it, like everything else in the home, could be suspended above the floor.
This sort of on-the-ground intelligence-gathering is central to what's known as human-centered design, a business-world niche that has become especially important to ultracompetitive hi-tech companies trying to figure out how to write software, design laptops or build cellphones that people find useful and unintimidating and will thus spend money on.
Several companies, including Intel, Motorola and Microsoft, employ trained anthropologists to study potential customers, while Nokia's researchers, including Chipchase, more often have degrees in design.
Rather than sending someone like Chipchase to Vietnam or India as an emissary for the company, the idea is to reverse it, to have Chipchase, a patently good listener, act as an emissary for people like the barber or the shoe-shop owner's wife, enlightening the company through written reports and PowerPoint presentations on how they live and what they're likely to need from a cellphone, allowing that to inform its design.
Today, there are more than 3.3 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, which means that there are at least three billion people who don't own cellphones, the bulk of them to be found in Africa and Asia. Even the smallest improvements in efficiency, amplified across those additional three billion people, could reshape the global economy in ways that we are just beginning to understand.
"You don't even need to own a cellphone to benefit from one," says Paul Polak, author of Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail and former president of International Development Enterprises, a nonprofit company specialising in training and technology for small-plot farmers in developing countries. Part of IDE's work included setting up farm cooperatives in Nepal, where farmers would bring their vegetables to a local person with a mobile phone, who then acted as a commissioned sales agent, using the phone to check market prices and arranging for the most profitable sale.
"People making a dollar a day can't afford a cellphone, but if they start making more profit in their farming, you can bet they'll buy a phone as a next step," Polak says.
Last year, the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based environmental research group, published a report with the International Finance Corporation entitled "The Next Four Billion," an economic study that looked at, among other things, how poor people living in developing countries spent their money. One of the most remarkable findings was that even very poor families invested a significant amount of money in the ICT category-information-communication technology, which, according to Al Hammond, the study's principal author, can include money spent on computers or land-line phones, but in this segment of the population that's almost never the case. What they're buying, he says, are cellphones and airtime, usually in the form of prepaid cards. Even more telling is the finding that as a family's income grows-from $1 per day to $4, for example-their spending on ICT increases faster than spending in any other category, including health, education and housing.
Jan Chipchase and his user-research colleagues at Nokia can rattle off example upon example of the cellphone's ability to increase people's productivity and well-being, mostly because of the simple fact that they can be reached. There's the live-in housekeeper in China who was more or less an indentured servant until she got a cellphone so that new customers could call and book her services. Or the porter who spent his days hanging around outside of department stores and construction sites hoping to be hired to carry other people's loads but now, with a cellphone, can go only where the jobs are.
It may sound like corporate jingoism, but this sort of economic promise has also caught the eye of development specialists and business scholars around the world. Robert Jensen, an economics professor at Harvard University, tracked fishermen off the coast of Kerala in southern India, finding that when they invested in cellphones and started using them to call around to prospective buyers before they'd even got their catch to shore, their profits went up by an average of 8 percent while consumer prices in the local marketplace went down by 4 percent. A 2005 London Business School study extrapolated the effect even further, concluding that for every additional 10 mobile phones per 100 people, a country's GDP rises 0.5 percent.
Text messaging, or SMS, turns out to be a particularly cost-effective way to connect with otherwise unreachable people privately and across great distances. Public health workers in South Africa now send text messages to tuberculosis patients with reminders to take their medication. In Kenya, people can use SMS to ask anonymous questions about culturally taboo subjects like AIDS, breast cancer and sexually transmitted diseases, receiving prompt answers from health experts for no charge.
Some of the mobile phone's biggest boosters are those who believe that pumping international aid money into poor countries is less effective than encouraging economic growth through commerce, also called "inclusive capitalism." A phone in the hands of an Indian fisherman who uses it to grow his business-which gives him resources to feed, clothe, educate and safeguard his family-represents a textbook case of bottom-up development, a way of empowering individuals by encouraging entrepreneurship as opposed to traditional top-down approaches in which aid money filters through a bureaucratic chain before reaching its beneficiaries, who by virtue of the process are passive recipients.
For this reason, the cellphone has become a darling of the microfinance movement. After Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel-winning founder of Grameen Bank, began making microloans to women in poor countries so that they could buy revenue-producing assets like cows and goats, he was approached by a Bangladeshi expat living in the US named Iqbal Quadir. Quadir posed a simple question to Yunus-If a woman can invest in a cow, why can't she invest in a phone?-that led to the 1996 creation of Grameen Phone Ltd. and has since started the careers of more than 250,000 "phone ladies" in Bangladesh, which is considered one of the world's poorest countries. Women use microcredit to buy specially designed cellphone kits costing about $150, each equipped with a long-lasting battery. They then set up shop as their village phone operator, charging a small commission for people to make and receive calls.
P EOPLE in the mobile-handset business talk about adding cus tomers not by the millions but by the billions, if only they could get the details right. How do you make a phone that can be repaired by a streetside repairman who may not have access to new parts? How do you build a phone that won't die a quick death in a monsoon or by falling off the back of a motorbike on a dusty road? Or a phone that picks up distant signals in a rural place, holds a charge off a car battery longer or that can double as a flashlight during power cuts?
Influenced by Chipchase's study on the practice of sharing cellphones inside of families or neighborhoods, Nokia has started producing phones with multiple address books for as many as seven users per phone. To enhance the phone's usefulness to illiterate customers, the company has designed software that cues users with icons in addition to words. The biggest question remains one of price: Nokia's entrylevel phones run about $45; Vodafone offers models that are closer to $25; and in a move that generated headlines around the world, the Indian manufacturer Spice Limited recently announced plans to sell a $20 "people's phone."
Even as sales continue to grow, it is yet to be seen whether the mobile phone will play a significant, sustained role in alleviating poverty in the developing world.
In Africa, it's still only a relatively small percentage of the population that owns cellphones. Network towers are not particularly cost-effective in remote areas, where power is supplied by diesel fuel. "I don't see cellphones as a magic bullet per se, though they're obviously very helpful," says Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net, a nonprofit entity that provides free text-messaging software and information-technology support to grass-roots enterprises, mostly in Africa.
"Many people in the developing world don't yet have a phone-not because they don't want one but because there are barriers. And the only way companies are going to sell phones is to understand what those barriers are."
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