Monday, February 23, 2009

Don’t Bury Failures. Share Them

Computer science students from the U.S. and Senegal designed a mobile phone application especially for fisherwomen in Senegal and yet, the Senegalese women could not use it because of a single flawed assumption.

I promised myself I would share at least one story from the MobileTech for Social Change Barcamp I attended at Hunter College in New York City on Saturday (Feb. 21, 2008). Barcamp, for those who may not know, is an approach to organizing and running conferences that tries to capture the hidden value of most meetings—the conversations that happen between sessions in the hallways—and bring it front and center. Barcamps are also supposed to be free, or nearly so, for participants to attend.

A computer science group from the State University of New York at Stonybrook presented three applications or “apps,” that is to say mini-computer programs, that they had designed for use on no-frills mobile phones owned by women working in the informal Senegalese economy. The pilot tests for two of the apps—a dictionary and a book-keeping calculator—were deemed successes. The third app—for measuring profit and loss—was judged a failure.

Since most people—myself included—don’t like to publish their failures, I was impressed by the Stonybrook group’s willingness to do so. Indeed, they were almost as enthusiastic about the failure as the two successes. “You often learn more from failure than success,” says Jennifer Wong, one of the two Stonybrook professors who, along with two students, came to present their findings. Sure, we all say it. But who really embraces the idea? Brava!

The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance is giving the Stonybrook group and its co-investigators at Pace University and Thies Univeristy nearly $50,000 over two years to design mobile phone apps for use in the informal Senegalese economy.

What the mobile app group did right: they built local capacity. They recruited 20 Senegalese computer science students and taught a one-week crash course in Senegal on how to write and load mobile phone applications. These students in turn interviewed the local fisherwomen in Wolof (one of Senegal’s most common local languages) to customize the profit-and-loss application for their phones.

The fisherwomen are actually fish sellers. They buy fresh fish and then dry it to sell on the market. The women often sell the dried fish at a loss, which is why a simple profit-and-loss calculator on their mobile phones might help them decide when and at what price to buy the fresh fish so they could come out ahead.

The pilot was a failure because the fish sellers found the mobile phone profit-and-loss calculator useless. The computer science group did not learn why the app was useless, however, until a second round of testing in which one of the Senegalese computer science students happened to have a grandmother who was a fish seller. After talking with the fish sellers, he discovered that all the prices for both fresh fish and dried fish are fixed. Since everyone charges the same price for fish (one for dried, the other for fresh) on any given day, there is no way for the women to wait until the price is right.

One wonders why anyone would sell dried fish at all under these conditions? There is bound to be more to this story. Please enlighten us if you can, using the comments section.

Lesson learned: you have to be very specific when seeking local expertise.

Another way of looking at it: just because something looks to you like irrational economic behavior doesn't necessarily mean that it is, or that you know why it is irrational.

To find out more about applications for mobile phones in the informal economy, contact Anita Wasilewska or Jennifer Wong at SUNY Stonybrook or Christelle Scharff at Pace University in New York City or Prof. Ibrahima Ndiaye, Director of the Economic and Social Sciences Education and Research Unit, Thiès University, Senegal. See also their wiki about mobile apps in Senegal.

To learn more about what else went on at MobileTech For Social Change (New York):

• Search for #m4change on Twitter from 2/21/09 to about 2/23/09
• Read the Morningside Post stories once they come online
• Read Patrick Meier’s summary post on iRevolution
• Check out some #m4change photos on Flickr (cool search for events after 20090201)
• Read Persephone Miel at Media Re:public on why mobiles are not the future; they are right now.

(updated on 2/24/2009 to add Christelle Scharf and Ibrahima Ndiaye and Pace and Thies Universities.)

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