DIODE General

Chat as an Interface for Underserved Communities

The platform economy largely relies on smartphones to distribute work to workers (who are typically conceived of as independent ‘entrepreneurs’). In the India, many platform economy workers come from low income communities from the auto rickshaw drivers on Ola and Uber to the delivery riders of Swiggy and Zomato. In parallel to the growing platform economy, smartphone penetration has rapidly increased in low income communities in India (at least in the cities) – due to extremely cheap data and the increasing availability of economy handsets. WhatsApp is a major driver of smartphone adoption (O’Neill et al, 2016). In ICTD how to provide services – for work, health, education – to underserved communities in an appropriate way is an ongoing question. The increasing use of smartphones as a tool for work and community raises new possibilities when thinking about ICTD services. In our research, we meet plenty of auto rickshaw drivers with low or no literacy but who competently use Ola/Uber to get work and WhatsApp to maintain connectivity with their network: sharing greetings and other memes, or using voice messaging.

The almost ubiquity of chat amongst smartphone users raises exciting possibilities for thinking about chat as an interface to a whole variety of services and information designed for, with and by underserved communities.

To illustrate I will share some reflections from our recent experiences designing a FinTech service for auto-rickshaw drivers. In particular why we moved from a smartphone application to using chat as an interface. The FinTech service, Prayana, has been designed to give auto-rickshaw drivers information on how they are progressing through loans they have taken out to buy their auto-rickshaws. This service is part of an ecosystem consisting most importantly of people – field agents, drivers, back office staff and community organisers – supported by technology which helps provide timely information, accessible to those with low literacy by making use of iconography, colour coding, visualisations and numbers. The Fintech service provides information, motivators and nudges on loan progress  direct to the drivers as well as to the field agents who help manage their loans. In the field agents version it also provides workflow support for the agents.

For the drivers app we originally designed a stand-alone Android application, but our experiences with the stand-alone field agents app we had deployed in 2017 raised serious questions about the sustainability of a standalone application. The field agents app required intense development effort just to keep it running: in the 12 months after deployment of the ‘stable’ version  we released 39 versions and recorded over 900 crashes! Pretty much whenever Android updated something would break. How would our partners, Three Wheels United (TWU), a small social enterprise start-up with limited technical resources, manage to sustain it once the research was done? Let alone develop the new features necessary to keep the application in line with their rapidly growing business? Worse still, whilst we could control what phones the field agents use for their work, we have no such control over the drivers phones which consisted of a wide range of handsets and versions of android. Even building a standalone app that can work consistently across such a variety of phones is a difficult task.  Finally, a standalone app would be yet another interface for drivers to learn and in our iterative tests, even as we simplified and improved the design, this remained a barrier for many drivers.

User test of Prayana with Auto-Rickshaw Drivers in Chitradurga, India

We had been doing research in another project on how Kaizala, Microsoft’s chat app for work in emerging markets, was being adapted used by resource-constrained and innovative young enterprises to support their workflows (McGregor et al., 2019). Could this provide the solution we were looking for? The advantages of Kaizala is it works on a wide variety of Android phones, including most low end ones. Further the Kaizala team takes care of ensuring it works with new Android versions. Equally important is Kaizala’s easily programmable APIs meaning virtually anything can be built on top of it and even low resource organisations should be able to build new screens and update existing ones. And finally, the chat metaphor is easy to understand and use since the vast majority of smartphone users in India use WhatsApp. We therefore built Prayana on top of Kaizala. We used Kaizala’s backend APIs for message delivery to tailor the information delivered to each driver based on their loan performance. Visual messages are triggered to appear in the chat stream at different points in the loan, e.g. when a payment is due, has been made, or a driver is falling behind or has paid off a certain amount of their loan. Clicking on these messages opens a screen, known as a card, which gives more details about the loan in a colour-coded, visual and numeric way.

Drivers found the chat interface easy to use

The custom cards gave us a blank canvas and complete control over the way we represented information. In user tests we found that chat worked much better than we hoped and drivers had an almost instant grasp of the interface. Even though we used the same screens as we had in the standalone app, drivers understood more in this chat-based interface and were much more confident about using it. Even drivers who could not read and write understood some of the information in each card! This was very positive and an improvement on previous versions. On the downside the setup was complicated, as drivers often had never used Play Store, or did not know their passwords, and we had to set up gmail accounts for many drivers – even though they will likely never use nor need email. Some drivers did not have enough space on their phone for the app – which is likely to remain a barrier to adoption. Despite the downsides this seemed like a major improvement on a standalone app and the chat-based drivers app was deployed in January 2019.

We believe our experiences have a much wider applicability and we are currently excited about the idea of chat as an interface to underserved communities. Building on top of chat greatly reduces the barriers to building new services and apps, can be done by anyone with HTML skills and reduces the barriers for end-users adoption. We can imagine all sorts of services from healthcare to career development, from community action to workers platforms. The opportunities are immense, in India at least, where smartphone penetration is rapidly increasing even amongst low income communities. We believe chat may be a great interface to workers in the digital economy.

References

O’Neill, Jacki, Kentaro Toyama, Jay Chen, Berthel Tate, and Aysha Siddique (2016) The increasing sophistication of mobile media sharing in lower-middle-class Bangalore. In Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development. ACM, 2016.

McGregor, Moira, Bidwell, Nicola J., Sarangapani, Vidya, Appavoo, Jonathan and O’Neill, Jacki (2019) Talking about Chat at Work in the Global South: an Ethnographic Study of Chat Use in India and Kenya. In Proceedings of CHI, ACM, 2019

Jacki O’Neill, 21/03/2019

Digital Economy, Digital Enterprise, DIODE General

Open data platforms and development in Latin America

There is increasing excitement about the developmental effects that data released in open format could bring to the global south. The so called open data—data released in digital format, publicly available for anyone to use—promise to contribute to key development goals, such as economic growth, job creation, inclusion and access to public services. To illustrate the economic potential, McKinsey estimated in 2013 that the economic value of open data could reach between $1 and $3 trillion per year. Although these figures remain highly speculative, the rationale is that by using or re-using open data, new products and business can be created, innovation can be spurred, and productive processes can be optimised to achieve gains in productivity. That includes governments and public organisations. Open data can help improving the delivery and quality of public services and can contribute to the efficiency of internal operations. Equally important, open data is seen as central means to increase transparency, fight corruption, as well as promote inclusion and civic participation. The latter has been particularly acknowledged in the commitments that governments endorse when joining the global Open Government Partnership.

Open data in Latin America

As a region, Latin America has moved comparatively quickly in embracing open data initiatives. Mexico, Uruguay and Brazil lead the table among the developing world and are amongst the top 18 best performing countries in the 2016 Open Data Barometer, a global ranking led by the World Wide Web Foundation that ranks countries according to the publication and readiness of key government datasets and evidence of its impact. In addition, the region has now five countries within the top 20 of the 2017 Open Data Index—a survey coordinated by the Open Knowledge Foundation that measures the state of open government data around the world.

The commercial, for profit approach of open data has yet to take off in Latin America. More often, what is found in the region is a growing open data ecosystem that is moving forward an agenda of accountability, innovation and participation. The region holds its own Open Data Conference (AbreLatam/ConDatos) annually since 2013. The annual meet up has strengthened regional communities that use open data to offer tangible solutions in areas of public health, government transparency, transportation and urban planning. A self-reported survey gathered in Abrelatam reveals 196 projects from 135 organisations in these areas.

The ecosystem in Latin America means that different actors have contributed to unlock the value of open data in the region. Governments are important ones—they build open data platforms that form the supply side of the data value chain. But the realisation of the value of these platforms lie on the applications and services that are built on top of the data. The city of Buenos Aires, for example, used hackathons and apps competitions to engage developers and start-ups to co-create new services. In Montevideo, the municipality partnered with the civil society organisation DATA to run a platform called Por Mi Barrio, developed based on the UK’s FixMyStreet initiative. Por Mi Barrio helps people to report street problems like broken street lights or potholes and link it to the municipality to fix them. NGOs and local activist are, thus, another crucial actor in the ecosystem. Ciudadano Inteligente in Chile and SocialTIC in Mexico, both promote transparency, inclusion and citizen participation through open data and the use of new informational technologies. Journalists also contribute to open up government data for accountability purposes. Argentine newspaper La Nación and its data division LNData won the Data Journalism Award for their work on opening up unstructured, closed and opaque data from Argentina’s Senate expenses in times of no freedom of information laws and controversies surrounding media access to government information. In Peru, the organization Convoca opened up public data to help users understand the behaviour of extractive industries in Peru and its impact on people’s lives. The project, called Excesos sin Castigo (“Excesses Unpunished”) won the Data Journalism Award in 2016.

Research into open data platforms and their ecosystem

Despite the anecdotal evidence, the mechanisms through which open data can scale and harness developmental goals have not yet been clearly established. My current programme of research examines how open government data fosters innovation and enables economic and social development in Latin America. One of my ongoing projects, jointly with my colleague Ben Eaton, studies empirically how engagement with open government data platforms unfolds in Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Montevideo. In specific terms, we ask how the installed base (the actors in the ecosystem) is mobilised in open data platforms. Drawing from literature on digital platforms, we aim to understand the context, formation, grow and functioning of the installed base, and to offer insights on the ways actors interact to use and generate value from these platforms. The results of this work will be ready in 2018, so watch this space for research insights and policy implications.

Digital Enterprise

How Context Impacts Developing Country Digital Start-Ups

As the digital economy grows in developing countries, is it part of a “weightless economy” that floats free from the local context?  Or is it still heavily embedded within that context?

Recent research from Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics investigates this. The paper, “Digital Start-Ups in the Global South: Embeddedness, Digitality and Peripherality in Latin America” looks at the experience of digital start-ups in the four largest economies of Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.  It does so through the lens of the Triple Embeddedness Framework (see below).

Geels TEF

The Triple Embeddedness Framework

Far from being free-floating, these young enterprises are strongly-rooted in local supply chains, social institutions, and policy environments.  But they also experience “hybrid embeddedness”, meaning they lie at the intersection of different domains:

  1. Product/Digital Hybridity. Digital start-ups are shaped by their product sector: the sector of the goods or services they sell – the financial services sector for an online investment start-up; the recruitment sector for a web-based employment exchange. But – unlike traditional enterprises – they are also embedded in an emergent digital sector.  Where their level of embeddedness in each sector is “just right” – what we called “Goldilocks embeddedness” – they can cross-fertilise ideas between the sectors, draw finance and staff from both sectors, and are not so heavily-embedded that their investment in the status quo constrains innovation.
  2. Local/Global Hybridity. Digital start-ups are also hybridly-embedded in both a local and a global industry regime. Local laws and social networks and capabilities are an essential part of these digital enterprises’ operations.  But they also take business models, start-up methodologies, social norms and policy priorities from the global North; primarily from Silicon Valley in the US.  Their position on the relative periphery of the global economy also seems helpful: it allows these ideas and other resources to flow in from the US but offers some relative protection from external competition.

Governments and firms in the global South need to recognise this pattern of embeddedness:

  • Governments must do more to build up local digital sector institutions which act as key intermediaries both within the local digital economy and between local and global digital economies.
  • Digital start-ups must self-analyse the constraints and freedoms imposed by their embeddedness. And they must customise models and methods from the global North; for example, rescoping the Lean Start-Up methodology to take a broader bi-sectoral and socio-political remit.

In research terms, we need to understand more about how the digitality and peripherality of these start-ups affects their development trajectories.  This and other items will form part of the DIODE Network discussions on future research agendas around development implications of digital economies.