Forum: under development

XIII.3 May + June 2006
Page: 16
Digital Citation

Voices across the digital divide

Matt Jones

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How do you dissolve the global digital divide? How do you overcome the disparities between those of us who have lives driven and enhanced by a cornucopia of digital gadgets and resources, and those communities where the cattle moves faster than the data and children share a computer with a hundred others?

In late December 2005 and the first week of this year, one of the United Kingdom's main research funders—the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the EPSRC—brought together 25-plus researchers and practitioners to tackle the problem. Participants had diverse backgrounds—there were geographers, economists, hydro-engineers, as well as HCI specialists and IT developers. Many had firsthand experience of developing-country contexts and all were passionate about an opportunity to look at the issues in creative, multidisciplinary ways. The organizers, led by Alan Blackwell of Cambridge University, called the event a "Sandpit"—a place for adventurous, playful solution construction—and allocated just over $2.5 million to fund projects that emerged from the five-day intensive, exhausting process of brainstorming to detailed planning and budgeting.

Some of the most compelling moments of the Sandpit came when we were given glimpses into real people's lives in developing-country contexts. Simple photos, audio clips and stories about people's experiences helped us look more soberly at the solutions that were perhaps idealistically utopian. They also challenged us to avoid falling into the trap of seeing those on the "wrong side" of the digital divide as patients in need of our aid and treatment. We were reminded that people are ecological—with lots of things in their lives—rather than technological.

So, picture this: an elderly Indian lady sitting on the steps of her house. She's throwing scraps to a group of scavenging, chattering of chickens. And, listen carefully, very carefully: There's the bustle of village life, the shouts of children, an occasional motor and, ever so gently, occasionally, a soft word. She's talking to the birds. Is she in urgent need of computing resources? How might technology enhance her life? How would your design approaches and solutions fit this context?

The power of such vignettes to engage, stimulate, and challenge was the driver for one of the projects to be shaped at the Sandpit. It is called the StoryBank and it was proposed by nine of the participants (including myself). The aim is to produce a repository of content—mainly audio-visual—that captures the essence of local community life, gives insights into their needs and relates their prior experiences of technology. While the idea of an archive, a digital museum of digitally impoverished communities might be appealing to historians, the StoryBank is not focused on the past, but will be an engine of change to shape the future, facilitating constructive conversations.

But who will use it? One obvious group is people like us. Perhaps you are planning to carry out some human-centered technology research for developing countries; or, are part of a commercial team looking at service provision in those contexts; or, an educator wanting to provide your students with rather more challenging case studies. The StoryBank will be a resource for you to find materials to fuel your activities. Of course, if you are a researcher, developer, educator, or student based in a developing community, even better.

For us, in prototyping the systems, we will face interesting interaction-design questions to meet your needs. Just a few examples are: What metadata do we need to add to the materials (and how can we generate it)? What do "search" and "browse" mean when the resources are being used as part of a design process? And how can we help users make sense of the diverse viewpoints to see the bigger picture?

But what about the local people? Sure, it looks like they will benefit in the longer term by having developers who are more sensitive to their needs. But isn't the power balance of the project rather unfavourably weighted against the very people with whom we are trying to work? We get a rich set of insights into their lifestyles to help us do our job better (and if "us" is a commercial company, to potentially make more money). These sorts of niggling worries led us to think again about the role local people might have in the scheme and to decide that an important element of the project would be to allow these people to directly contribute and make use of the content.

So, here's a possibility. In some parts of India, bands of musicians travel in vans from village to village to provide the entertainment at weddings and other celebrations. As well as instruments they carry playback equipment and loudspeakers. Between performances, imagine then a piggy-back use of this technology: Audio from the repository recorded in one village (perhaps advertising goods or services for sale or barter) could be broadcast to others in the band's circuit.

Another approach, the one we will initially focus on in the pilot communities we are working with, is to partner with a local broadcaster. People will use mobile phones equipped with audio-visual recording facilities to author content (providing materials and learning about technology at the same time). The broadcaster will access the repository to produce locally interesting and useful short programs for broadcast on community radio and television.

We are right at the start of the work, finalizing the plans for official announcement by the Sandpit organizers. So, we would welcome your interest, ideas, and encouragement. What do you think of the approach? How can we improve what we are doing? Let us know by dropping a line to project coordinator David Frohlich ( or myself ( The project is about giving everyone a voice, and we want to hear yours.

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Matt Jones
University of Wales Swanseaa

About the Author:

Matt Jones has recently returned from New Zealand to help set up the Future Interaction Technology Lab at Swansea University, UK. More at:

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