Is hardware hacking becoming more accessible in the development context?
A positive psychologist friend once explained the concept of (watch as I butcher the terms and descriptions) "flow" to me. I understood it as working on things which are interesting, difficult, but not so overwhelmingly difficult that you can't make clear progress on. Importantly, also not so easy that you just breeze mindlessly through. Good logic puzzles, programming, and such things are often found on this razor's edge between too difficult and too easy.
Hardware hacking has long been a task which only a small, geeky set of people can really enjoy a flow state while exploring the dark magics of hardware.
Last night I shared some pints with DC-area OLPC fans , Mike Lee showed off an Acer he'd hacked a Pixel Qi screen into. Now, this is not a hack for the faint of heart (yet), but it's pretty amazing in the world of the mostly-sealed, non-user-hackable laptop setups to be able to swap in a new screen, especially not one provided in a kit from the original manufacturer.
Mobile is hardly "new" anymore, but we're seeing increasing tools for peer-to-peer communications and decentralized development. Instead of SMS reporting for mHealth metrics or election observation (both amazingly powerful), we have Ushahidi and a team of volunteers from colleges and Haitian diaspora communities across the world saving lives in Haiti after the earthquake by synthesizing and translating reports from on the ground into actionable, trustable pieces of information.
Instead of training-and-visit agricultural extension work, we have tools like Patatat which are building group email lists through SMS messaging, enabling farmers (or anyone) to collaborate on their work, market prices, crop diseases, and so on - with increasingly little need for anything at the center. And of course there's twitter, which, while still "centralized" as a website, enables un-mediated communication amongst basically anyone in the world with a cell phone and a good text-messaging plan.
Where the last SMS4D Technology Salon reminded us of the unique gift of mobile technologies to be based where there impact will be, The Cloudy SMS4D Salon really drove home mobile as a multifunctional tool whose true impact is tied more to the usage than the technology itself. While we gathered to discuss SMS4D, we really talked about heath reporting and outreach, education, and community-building through knowledge management and sharing. It just so happened that these health projects were using SMS codes to report longitudinal child health statistics.
Data gathering in health, and even knowing when to gather data, is a huge burden, often relying on community health workers doing the healthcare version of the T&V system of the agricultural extension world. Waiting around for a planned infrastructure is hopeless, but working with the more incremental nature of mobile can improve reporting rates and reduce errors -- "utter chaos works everywhere" being the best quote of this tech salon. Childcount builds on existing SMS reporting to enable community health workers to rapidly register children, note any symptoms or diseases they might have, improve patient tracking (and thereby reducing duplication), and schedule immunizations and outreach. The SMS "encoding" builds off of a simple and familiar paper form, which is handy for training (but less useful than a mango tree, as we'll see). The runner-up quote from this Salon dealt with discussion around the potential risk of intentionally fabricated data -- "humans are awful at falsifying data" -- digitizing and quick, auditable reporting exposes both errors and lies.
Winning the award for innovative ideas in mHealth was the HappyPill project -- instead of boing old SMS, HappyPills uses "flashing" - where you call a number and hang up immediately to "ping" someone. Usually, flashing is just a free way to ask someone to call you back, or you can sometimes work out extensive codes -- one missed call is just saying hi, two is call me back, three means an emergency, etc.. HappyPills takes this basic, essentially binary interaction and applies it to help improve adherence rates for prescription regimens. A medical center can send out flashes to their patients, and the patients are reminded to take their pills and would then flash back to signal that they took their medicine. It's naturally not foolproof, but hugely more cost effective (almost cost-free) in comparison with sending a community health worker out to the patient on a motorcycle to witness their pill-taking.
It turns out that people are not just willing, but economically motivated and excited to use (and pay for) basic SMS-based services to improve their numeracy and literacy skills, improving their ability to communicate cheaply over their phones as well as better navigate market prices. In these low-technology communities, Tostan's Jokko Initiative is creating a curriculum to enable this via SMS, and they have also come up with an amazingly simple methodology to introduce people to menu systems using a mango tree metaphor which gracefully transitions from the concrete (planning a climbing route on a real tree to get to a specific mango) to the semi-concrete (the same, on a diagram of a tree), to the abstract (the tree diagram becomes the menu diagram, the mango a specific function). Anyone who thinks that is basic has never shown their grandparents a new shiny piece of technology, or had their entire worldview of user interface challenged by someone physically pointing a mouse at a screen).
Patatat is an early-stage solution which puts SMS into the role of a community town hall/newsletter/email list. It removes not only the normal geographic barriers that a listserv gets around, but also infrastructure barriers, so (for example) farmers across a region or the world can share knowledge around their crops without relying on the grid and hardwired phones/Internet to do so. This also centralizes costs to one "host" and minimizes it to the community, so a farmer could send one SMS (free to receive, costs to send), and the host would re-broadcast it to the entire "community." With Twitter already showing that it can (technically) report earthquakes faster than the earthquake itself spreads, this rebroadcasting tool also has clear applications in emergency announcements, citizen journalism and a myriad of other fields.
So, was this technology salon about technology, or was it about development projects? Sure, all of the projects discussed at the salon happened to use server and cloud-based SMS technologies. They also probably use paper, transportation, and people. That the technology is now moving from the focus of a project to being a (cool, exciting, powerful, still new-and-shiny) tool in the toolbox is truly heartwarming. It means it is maturing into a cross-sector role and not into another silo (sorry, a "cylinder of excellence" in the parlance of our times).
I made a much lower-tech personal version many years ago, as an IT Peace Corps volunteer. Mine of course was (a) very low cost and (b) designed to travel stuck in side-pocket of a backpack on a crowded country-bound bus. OK, it was really just a few screwdrivers, a 3-2 prong electrical adapter, and a flashlight.
I also always carried around:
1 ~3' crossover cable or crossover adapter (no faster way to test networking!)
1 multi-head cable tool (the kind with a core USB retractable cable and a pouch of other cable-heads to turn it into a phone, network, mini/micro/device USB, firewire, etc. -- easy way to carry around "the right cable for the job" when you're not sure what today's job might be)
My favorite toolkit items were more around the software end of the spectrum, though:
1 bootable USB stick with DamnSmallLinux and a PortableApps Suite
1 bootable floppy with WinXP/NT admin password reset tool
1 BartPE bootable XP CD with anti-virus and diagnostic tools
1 Knoppix or other Linux LiveCD that will work on a wide range of hardware and let you extract files from the HDD
1 CD and USB stick of common free/shareware/OSS software tools - anti-virus, various anti-mal/spy-ware, registry cleaners, zip/archive software, OpenOffice, PDF creation tools, and so on.
Ushahidi's Patrick Meier has a fantastic graph of deployment time for Ushahidi's amazing crisis-mapping solution (which has been deployed for such diverse projects as Haiti post-earthquake, the Gulf Coast post-BP, and DC's 2009/10 "Snowmageddon"):
The simplicity of Ushahidi setup sometimes leads to some crestfallen administrators.
Just because you bought a domain name and ran the Ushahidi installer doesn’t mean that anyone is going to use they system — and even if you somehow get a lot of reports, you might not be relevant to the existing systems [...] Ushahidi is only 10% of solution.”
I'd posit that this 10%/90% division applies to any and all "tech" solutions to real-world problems.
The technology is increasingly (perhaps it always has been) the easy part. It's a shiny, tangible product with clear "milestones" of in development, in testing, deployed, working. Lots of happy checkboxes for any M&E report, and photo-ops to generate great press and build excitement and community around a technology.
The Technology Salon on SMS4D covered a lot of ground in a few hours, but the reverberating sentiment was the power of mobile technology at the local/regional level. Part of this is a bit of sour-grapes with the hard challenges of scaling mobile solutions globally, which is as much a problem of cross-provider functionality as it is capacity. The value however is in reminding us that development solutions - while they may be globally replicable - are rooted locally.
The Technology Salon went through an inspiring round of implementations and use cases of on-the-ground efforts using texts in cross-sector development situations. Microfinance solutions, tying the payments to the notifications via mpayment were the purview of CreditSMS, lowering the costs of each loan by dramatically reducing transactional costs, allowing MFI account managers to deal with the exceptions (late/missedpayments) instead of burning time tracking payments to records and managing each interaction. mHealth, a favorite topic of Tech Salons had use cases in using SMS to replace timely and costly travel to report medicine stock levels and local disease trends, but also mobile-centric medical records management and remote, low-cost diagnostics tools, all using SMS:Medic.
Just a quick note: Ubuntu 10 totally rocks. Better digital video and audio support (via HDMI and toslink) than Windows 7, slicker than Mac OSX with a great dock and productivity-enhancer with gnome-do/docky, tons of crazy user interface enhancements, a smooth 3D desktop... the list goes on. It's amazing, and it's open source.
My guy reaction was anti-intellectual property, as I strongly believe that our current IP schemes tend to do more damage than good. That being said, I think Nutriset is seemingly doing the right thing here - forcing support for local production. Let us presume nothing but sparkly, unicorn-bedazzled thoughts about Nutriset for a moment:
Goal 1: Provide a therapeutic food product
Goal 2: Ensure quality standards (duh)
Goal 3: Make it widely available and politically tenable to "recipient" governments
Goal 4: Don't make things worse locally by undercutting the economy
You could open the patent, post the ingredients and production methods and encourage everyone to go after it. This would support goals 1,3 and 4, with a risk of opportunists really wrecking #2, anyone could claim that they were using the authentic plumpynut recipe even while their product is unhealthy at best or outright deadly at worst.
I finally broke down and bought a laptop, as my existing bevy of half-working laptops is now seriously impacting my ability to actually get things done, as opposed to yak shaving in order to fix the random problem of the day.
Here's a quick tour of my harem of laptops:
A "desktop replacement" system that was cutting edge ... seven years ago - which is surprisingly still my "prime" system.
The "get me through grad school" system that was grabbed off of DellAuction ... four years back, which now has a hard drive which smells of impending FAIL and a hinge which is held together with metal glue
My indefatigable Dell Latitude which I got at the liquidation auction of Agillion in 1999, which traveled with me from Austin to Venezuela to Jamaica to DC, and has had Win2k, 98SE and various flavors of Linux running on it.
Last but not least, my OLPC, which I have a soft spot for, but it's not exactly super-fast itself)
The laptop (a Lenovo Ideapad) has arrived, pre-installed with Windows7, but I am doing my best to not use it much. I'm waiting for Ubuntu 10 to come out tomorrow and see what craziness I can get into there.
My get-me-through-grad-school system is currently running Ubuntu, but isn't quite up to the task of my expectations (I love running all the eye-candy available with "Compiz", which you can see an old demo of at youtube.
OLPC News recently ran a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek article on How to buy an XO Laptop, which mainly pointed people to eBay. Which is sad, but eBay has long been the best place to get your hands on an OLPC if you're not a large government, international development agency, or cutting edge developer.