Forum: under development

XIV.1 January + February 2007
Page: 16
Digital Citation

Open source bicycles

Gary Marsden

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Who knew that Unix was also the name of a bicycle company? Not me, at least until I went on a recent field trip to Zambia and Malawi, where I found owners busily hacking their Unix bicycles. The purpose of the trip was to examine how cellular technology was affecting life in rural Africa and also how people treat other forms of technology.

By "hacking," I mean that owners were converting their bicycles for purposes that the original designers had not intended. One particular owner constructed a carrier made from a steel-reinforcing rod that he has tested up to 75 kilograms! The owner runs a chicken and egg delivery business and uses the bicycle to transport his goods around. He has also upgraded the suspension on the seat so that it too can be used to carry heavy loads.

This design of the bicycle may be dated, but more and more are being manufactured this way. When you or I buy a bicycle, we might be tempted to try out a new design and, if we don't like it, eventually buy another one. Most Africans will buy only one bicycle in their lifetime, so they have to be sure that they make the right decision. Old designs like these push the right buttons, as they appear solid and robust.

Regarding cellular handsets, the people I interviewed said that they wanted a "strong" handset. This use of the word "strong" implies more than just physical strength; a strong handset would have long battery life. Handsets, however, must not be too big, as then they are apt to be old and unreliable. So while an entry-level Nokia would be perfect, a Motorola RAZR would be suspiciously thin—the equivalent of a carbon-framed bicycle.

Having purchased a handset, how do the new owners adapt them to their environment? Obviously, there is the usual unlocking of the handset so that it works across networks. This is important as many of the phones come from neighboring countries that sell subsidized handsets but make their money on increased airtime tariffs. Enterprising individuals travel to these countries, buy the handsets, and then "import" them to countries with high handset charges but lower airtime tariffs.

Many people cannot afford new handsets, so they buy castoffs from the developed world. Most of these have nonfunctioning batteries, so shops do not sell handsets but, rather, batteries for them. Again, the need for "strong" batteries is evident; packaging includes fake holograms indicating "original" batteries. Also interesting is the 14-month guarantee—these batteries must be better than those that have only a 12-month guarantee. Finally, particular batteries come with a further enticement of a free plastic cigarette, which I saw used for key fobs and even as a necklace pendant.

So where does the personal adaptability come in? Can users in the developing world modify their handsets or the software that runs on them just as they would make modifications to their bicycle?

It is sobering to remember that someone might be sacrificing a meal in order to use a mobile phone.

First, users in the developing world do not have access to computers or the Internet. So software upgrades or media downloads are just not possible. (I came across one guy with a secondhand phone that could play MP3 files—the phone had come preloaded with six files that the new owner will have to listen to forever without hope of changing them.) Rather than thinking of a handset as part of an information ecology, designers should think of them as the only computer many people in the world will ever use. This extends to camera phones as well. People in the Western world most likely have a "real" camera besides the camera in their handset, but for users in the developing world, their camera phone is the only camera they own. Often, when I was chatting with people, they would bring out their camera phone and show me photographs from their lives that they had carefully taken and stored for just this purpose.

A second consideration is just how price-sensitive users are and how much that affects their handset usage. For example, in Zambia there are three cellular service providers: One has good coverage but is very expensive; another provides cheap calls to land lines but is expensive for out-of-network calls; the third has poor coverage but the cheapest tariffs. This results in users carrying three SIM cards with them at all times and shuffling them in and out of the handset depending on the particular call they are about to make.

Sub-Saharan Africa, where I conducted this field study, is a desperately poor part of the world. What is interesting to me is that people are still buying cellular handsets even if that means going without food. In one town we visited that had had cellular coverage for only four months, all the businesses were going broke—everyone's money was being spent on handsets and airtime rather than things like food. That is a humbling realization for the designer of any technology.

The observations I have related above are only a small step towards seeing how to create better designs for the developing world. If you are a designer of mobile devices or services, I urge you to conduct some field work of your own. If you are trying to make a decision about the relative worth of a particular feature, it is sobering to remember that someone might be sacrificing a meal in order to use it.

For more observations from this trip, take a look at

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Gary Marsden
University of Cape Town

About the Author:

Gary is currently employed as an associate professor in the department of computer science at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He was born in Ireland, studied in Scotland, and had his first job in London. Although his background is in computer science, moving to South Africa has forced him to reconsider his views about technology in general and HCI in particular.

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