XIX.4 July + August 2012
Page: 66
Digital Citation

Sensible smartphones for Southern Africa

Kasper Jensen

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This forum grew out of my personal experiences in moving from hightech, always-online mobile contexts in Denmark and Australia to what I assumed would be rather low-tech Southern African contexts—something I saw as a unique opportunity to apply my tools, skills, and knowledge as a technologist and interaction designer to meaningful problems in a new and challenging environment. Specifically, I was drawn by the ideas of how the ubiquity of mobile-computing devices across Africa can be used to empower individuals and communities for development.

Before I moved to Namibia, my research was focused on HCI issues situated at the intersection of mobile, pervasive, and ubiquitous computing. In my Ph.D. research I was trying to conjure up new useful applications and figure out new techniques and methods for conducting in situ studies of technology use in more unobtrusive and scalable ways [1]. As such, all of my previous experiences were from services and applications that required sophisticated mobile technology or depended on advanced back-end processing and continuous communication over wireless data networks. However, as neither always-on networks nor abundant computing power is prevalent in the broader context of contemporary Africa, I was expecting a radical change of research focus when I came to Namibia. But having been here for almost a year, I now see how advanced mobile interaction paradigms, if properly redesigned, can be used to tackle many of the HCI challenges in bringing ICT solutions to developing-world problems (ICT4D).

back to top  Mobile Technology in the Current and Near-Future Developing World

Globally, we are witnessing the rapid technological development of mobile-computing devices and services that exploit the new possibilities afforded by them. This manifests itself not only in the expected increase in computational power, memory, and storage space (as per Moore's Law), but also in the increasing number of built-in sensors, high-quality displays, and new input modalities. This progression is prominent in the growing techno-consumerist cultures of the developed world, where an increasing number of people find they can barely live without features and services they could not have imagined 10 years ago.

However, the effect of mobile, ubiquitous computing is also increasingly felt in the developing world, due to the technology becoming cheaper to produce and thus more affordable to end users. In the developing world markets, this manifests in low-cost, high-capability mobile devices, such as the Aakash tablets and the Huawei IDEOS smartphones. The former is a tablet computer resulting from a government-led e-learning project to bring Internet-enabled computing devices to students in India; the latter is a fully equipped commercial smartphone with a broad range of sensors that has gained massive adoption in Kenya, not least due to its affordability. At the time of writing, these devices reportedly retailed at around $50, and both are built on the Android open operating system. This makes them attractive for research projects, as the development and deployment of software for these platforms is relatively easy and efficient.

While mobile-network connectivity and data connections have improved, developing regions are still far from the always-on culture of the Western world, where neither speed, bandwidth, nor cost is a major concern [2]. But even without data connectivity, the new wave of affordable smartphones and tablets are potent stand-alone computing platforms with plenty of power to handle much more than the traditional interfaces based on text, menus, and folders.

back to top  Toward Technically More Advanced but Humanly More Intuitive Mobile Interaction

In many ICT4D projects, a key goal is reaching as many people as possible. For this reason the lowest common denominator is often chosen in terms of platforms and thus also interaction design. In projects targeting mobile technology, this often means feature phones with SMS- or USSD-based solutions that can be instantly accessible to all handset owners. The logic of choosing the broadest possible platform is sound, but having seen the mobile phone and usage trends in Namibia, I strongly believe it is also necessary to have a parallel research and development effort that investigates the potential of near-future technologies—essentially, moving some of the HCI4D research focus from the current lowest common denominator toward the near-future common denominator, so that when that future arrives, we have a better grasp of how we as interaction designers can utilize this new wave of mobile devices for maximum positive impact.

Backed by advances in technology and decades of HCI research efforts, mobile interaction designers can now pick and choose from a growing cornucopia of sophisticated interaction modalities, interface metaphors, and paradigms. Despite this progress, however, relatively little work has been done to investigate how these more advanced interactions can be utilized in designing interfaces for HCI4D challenges, including multilingual regions and textual and technical literacy or semi-literacy [3]. But what if we imagine a near future with a much wider uptake of these low-cost, high-capability mobile devices? In fact, all trends point toward a wider uptake of these devices, but we still need to overcome the usability barriers in order to reach this highly different user group. In doing so, we will pave the way for a whole new range of applications and services to empower local people and communities. We already have an impressive arsenal of promising new interaction forms and interfaces. Who is to say they cannot be applicable if properly redesigned for developing contexts?

Over the past decade, we have witnessed the emergence and adaptation of new interaction paradigms fueled by the combination of increasingly powerful devices and wireless networks. These new paradigms include different shapes and forms of: location-based services and utilization of geo-tagged information with GPS; augmented reality using the cameras of mobile devices to overlay information onto the real world; proximity-based interaction using NFC, RFID, or similar technology; multitouch screens supporting gesture-based interaction such as pinch and swipe gestures; accelerometers allowing movement gestures, such as waving and shaking; and multimodal approaches using speech recognition and synthesis are now finding their way into mainstream applications. Much of this is often incorporated in the term NUIs (natural user interfaces), whose proponents promise to break away from the established GUI/WIMP interfaces to find more intuitive and effortless ways of interacting with computers. As such they become relevant when designing for users with highly limited or no exposure to computer technology. Moreover, the usage scenarios for NUIs in many developing countries will arguably be the true test of what is humanly natural when interacting with technical artifacts (as opposed to what is merely culturally natural).

What are the near-future mobile prospects for the developing world? Whether or not one buys into the prediction of high uptake of a new wave of more sophisticated mobile devices, the ubiquity of mobile devices in even the poorest regions of developing countries cannot be ignored when discussing ICT4D solutions. A prime example is novel mobile-payment concepts such as M-Pesa, which have radically and rapidly changed the conditions in several African countries. However, if we want to bridge that digital divide and connect the next billion users, a major concern has to be whether the next billion people can use these devices and if they can sensibly be incorporated into their ways of living. It becomes hard to imagine that feature phones can overcome the HCI challenges involved.

back to top  Adding Advanced Mobile Interaction to the HCI4D Agenda

If we were to more prominently add this new wave of mobile devices to the HCI4D research agenda, we should think about how to redesign and reconceptualize existing HCI work, and we should apply new methods and techniques from community-based, participatory, and cross-cultural design methods to ensure that the new interaction designs are in balance with local values and meanings. We must be careful not to destroy the indigenous cultures and communities we set out to empower, and it seems that ICT4D has seen enough examples of well-intentioned but one-sided "technology push" [4,5]. In this regard, we must also not forget that time is often against the development process and that the social, cultural, and digital divides broaden if no action is taken. As a time-critical example, the indigenous knowledge that we seek to preserve and share in one of our research projects is bound to the expected lifespan of the village elders. Due to urbanization, the oral traditions of knowledge transfer in the rural communities are highly endangered, and if we do not come up with appropriate solutions, large parts of this knowledge and cultural heritage might be lost with the passing of the current generation.

The consequence of the need to empower people with technology is that we must build local capacity in fields such as HCI4D. Because as long as we are the gatekeepers of design and technology, the process will largely be owned by us. In the best of worlds, African mobile services and applications should be designed and created by Africans [6]. Yet the lack of indigenous technologists and interaction designers prevents this from happening, and we must therefore accept our responsibility to help meet this challenge. From teaching and training workshops, I have seen the receptivity of local IT students to learning the design and implementation of mobile applications, many of which transcend the classic interaction paradigms. And although my students might not be representative of the marginalized user groups we often seek to empower, they are rooted in these communities and have an intrinsic understanding of the social and cultural values and practices that would allow them to facilitate the creation of truly useful and usable applications and services.

As an interaction designer with a Western mentality who is accustomed to classic user-centered design, I have found it eye-opening to see how meaning must be continuously negotiated between us as external designers and the local co-designers in the villages—even over basic concepts such as perception and representation. Often we are exposed in our own mental projections and "Western thinking" about what makes sense when we find that local participants see the world in a profoundly different way [7]. It is also important to continuously remind ourselves that by introducing technology into rural indigenous communities, we are often interfering with relatively closed ecosystems. For example, during field studies we have observed that when young people, who more easily grasp new technical concepts, suddenly become knowledge holders, it changes the interaction with village elders, who are traditionally the nuclei for knowledge and decisions. This creates situations where we want to help yet know that any solutions we introduce might have ramifications that we cannot foresee.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves what the alternative would be if we did not actively engage the communities of the developing world and bring forth the possibilities for development that technology offers, while maintaining an open, respectful dialogue to co-create the interfaces and artifacts that can realize these possibilities, as well as the larger goals motivating them.

I think the international design and HCI communities have significant roles to play in creating new ways of delivering services, applications, and information that matter, are accessible, and are appropriated with the users. I encourage researchers and practitioners to think about how recent advances in mobile interaction can be redesigned for developing contexts, especially if we dare to imagine a near future with a much wider availability of low-cost, high-capability devices.

It is a fascinating thought that the technologies that now enable the flinging of Angry Birds, checking in on Foursquare, and gazing up at the Google Sky Map might someday soon empower rural farmers in developing countries to better utilize their land or indigenous communities to capture knowledge of traditional medicines.

back to top  Acknowledgements

This is my personal and arguably techno-centric perspective after 11 months of exposure through research, teaching, living, and traveling in Southern Africa. However, my views are hugely influenced by the works and thinking of local scholars whom I have had the privilege of interacting with in this period. I feel strongly obliged to acknowledge and thank Heike Winschiers-Theophilus, Gary Marsden, and Nic Bidwell for opening this new world to me.

back to top  References

1. Jensen, K.L. Remote and autonomous studies of mobile and ubiquitous applications in real contexts. International Journal of Mobile Human Computer Interaction 3, 2 (2011), 1–19.

2. Wyche, S.P. Designing for everyday interactions in HCI4D. interactions 18, 2 (2011), 52–56.

3. Ho, M.R., Smyth, T.N., Kam, M., and Dearden, A. Human-computer interaction for development: The past, present and future. Information Technologies and International Development 5, 4 (2009), 1–18.

4. Heeks, R. ICT4D 2.0: The next phase of applying ICT for international development. IEEE Computer 41, 6 (2008), 26–33.

5. Marsden, G., Maunder A., and Parker, M. People are people, but technology is not technology. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 366 (2008), 3795–3804.

6. Bidwell, N.J. and Winschiers-Theophilus, H. Beyond the Benjamins: Toward an African interaction design. interactions 17, 1 (2010), 32–35.

7. Jensen, K.L., Winschiers-Theophilus, H., Rodil, K., Winschiers-Goagoses, N., Kapuire, G.K., and Kamukuenjandje, R. Putting it in perspective: Designing a 3D visualization to contextualize indigenous knowledge in rural Namibia. Proc. of DIS 2012.

back to top  Author

Kasper Løvborg Jensen is an associate professor in the Department of Software Engineering at the Polytechnic of Namibia where he is heading the Mobile Future Lab. Before moving to Africa he worked as an assistant professor at Aalborg University, Denmark, where he also got his M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees, and as a freelance mobile developer in Melbourne, Australia.

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Herero village elders interacting with a tablet. Right: Herero family exploring tablet uses.

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