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ICTworks Interview with Stefan Bock on HCI initiatives at BOSCO Uganda

By Kelechi Edozie-Anyadiegwu on June 24, 2011

1) Can you give a little background to the BOSCO Uganda Project and your role in the project? How did you become interested in working in the HCI field.

BOSCO Uganda (Battery Operated Systems for Community Outreach) is a rural communications project based in Gulu, Northern Uganda. It was launched in 2007 as a solar-powered, long-range wireless network covering locations in former Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps across several districts in Northern Uganda. Using adequate, low-power computer equipment BOSCO brought access to the Internet for schools, youth groups and health centers in rural areas.

The first implementing phase in 2007 was carried out by Inveneo and BOSCO, Inc. from the United States, with major support from private donors and other activists in the US, under the umbrella of Gulu Archdiocese as the local implementing partner in Uganda.

My own involvement as a Technical Advisor (based in Gulu) began early 2008 and ended just recently. It was initiated through HORIZONT3000 (Austrian Organisation for Development Co-Operation) and its personnel program, whose main objective is to support capacity building for local organizations in the developing world. For BOSCO, I was mainly focusing on organizational development and technical capacity building for Ugandan staff.

Thus, in 2008, we started to establish BOSCO as a local organization in order to maintain and expand the rural ICT infrastructure, to provide further trainings for its users, and to become a reliable implementing partner in ICT4D in the whole region of Northern Uganda.

Meanwhile BOSCO has been internationally awarded with the “Breaking Borders Award” (by Google and Global Voices) in 2010 and also attracted other international donors, like Unicef, supporting further expansion and more advanced trainings.

2) What kind of design challenges did you face with the project and how did you overcome these design challenges?

Sustainability is always a major challenge, especially when we talk about long-term self-sufficiency of an organization in the development context. Northern Uganda has seen many local, national and international organizations; mainly also due to the ongoing shift from humanitarian and emergency aid to short-term recovery and long-term development. Many of the organizations I have seen are completely dependent on donor funding and injections from outside.

At BOSCOUganda we discussed sustainability on two different levels. We founded BOSCO as an organization in order to support the performance and impact made through the rural ICT centers. Therefore sustainability meant whether 1. these centers run in a sustainable and self-sufficient way, and 2. BOSCO as an organization can in the long-run become more independent from outside support and remain an active player in its local context? For both questions we’ve found principle possibilities and solutions which are still in the process of implementation and thus need to be proofed.

  1. The ICT centers have started to use the provided equipment for Income Generation (for example through phone charging services using solar power, office/typing services, etc.). Due to the technology used (solar power, etc.) the running costs of each of the rural ICT centers are extremely low which makes it easier for these centers to become independent.
  2. We’ve also implemented an organizational structure in the rural centers, which is defining their internal bodies and roles that are independent from BOSCOUganda – but still with a strong link to BOSCO that can give them guidance and support in case of any challenges.
  3. For BOSCOUganda, as a Non-profit-organisation we’ve started to establish an ICT-Training Center in Gulu Town itself. The idea here is to generate income through that training center, offer practical courses for IT students and other relevant programs, and thus – through cross-financing – give BOSCO the necessary means to continue its ICT for rural development efforts.

3) What kind of lessons do you take from your experience at BOSCO and how do you plan to apply them in the contexts of other cultures?

In Northern Uganda I’ve seen that the cultural context is a very important factor for the implementation of any kind of ICT4D project, although I’d say it’s not only about culture but also about other relevant circumstances, backgrounds and identities – and each situation needs its specific adaptations.

If I look at BOSCOUganda, the whole project is embedded into a rural setting and still facing the challenges of a post-conflict society that has just started to rebuild their homes and leave the IDP camps. Participatory approaches are probably one important method in order to consider the relevance of a cultural context and to involve the user into the design process. But at the same time we have also been aware that BOSCOUganda has brought a completely new technology to still marginalized communities.

Therefore it would have been difficult to only expect these communities to express themselves in terms of technology and content. How can somebody know and express his or her expectations (for example in terms of content), if that person doesn’t even know what possibilities exist? A participatory approach focusing on more general development needs combined with its “translation” into a solution that sees ICT as a means for supporting these needs can help to take care of different contexts – as we tried to do it in our work.

Furthermore a regular feedback loop was then also essential in order to provide content which is useful in the specific context instead of just copying as much as possible of the content that would be relevant in western countries.

4) In terms of contextual innovation and user experience design, what steps do you take in the design process?

As already mentioned in my answer above we’ve tried to combine a “semi-participatory approach” together with different injections from outside, including a regular feedback loop and adaptations during the design.

In some cases for BOSCO that also meant a kind of “trial-and-error” approach. The advantage of our infrastructure was that all rural ICT centers are connected through a long-range wireless network to a central server in the main office in Gulu and then to the internet – although these centers are up to 50km outside Gulu. Through that Internal Network we had the opportunity to also experiment with “Offline” content and internal forums and chat rooms, which gave us the flexibility to use applications that would have been unavailable via the Internet due to speed limitations.

In general our approach was focusing on Web2.0 applications. For example Uganda’s school curriculum in ICT (for secondary schools) is still mainly focusing on theory in computers, its components and then some office applications. Students are supposed to first study the whole history of computers, its hardware, etc. I’ve seen exam questions, where they are then supposed to know what the abbreviations “html” and “DOS” mean, or similar question – yet most of them still don’t even know how and why they could really use a computer.

At BOSCO we’ve used a completely different concept. Emails, Discussion Forums, Google Applications, Facebook, Wikispaces, Games or YouTube have been our main entry points in order to support computer literacy in rural communities. This approach has the main advantage that it focuses on “learning-by-doing” and thus gives users a much clearer picture and also the opportunity to express themselves while communicating through ICT.

Especially in the context of Northern Uganda our Web2.0 trainings also contributed to post-war recovery, as people were still suffering from more than 20 years of insurgency, abductions and many other traumatic experiences. Offering new forms of information and communication opportunities might have also helped to overcome that isolation and provided a platform for rural communities to express themselves.

5) Many contest that HCI is one of the first aspects considered in many ICT4D project, do you see ICT4D primarily as a Design Challenge?

Looking at this question I would like to start with the differentiation between ICT (Information and Communication) and “knowledge”. I’d say, “knowledge” means a much more comprehensive and relevant development aspect, than just the provision of Information and Communication facilities.

And in any ICT4D design, the focus question should be, how it contributes to “knowledge”, not only if or what information has been provided. Or the other way around, does the provided information really mean the production of any new knowledge? This question also brings me back to the cultural (and many other) circumstances that influence the processes and project implementation.

I’ve seen ICT4D projects were the criteria for success was rather determined by the quantity of information (offline versions of Wikipedia, huge databases of agricultural materials, etc.) provided to the beneficiaries than by the real impact of all that information and its contribution to increased “knowledge”.

Also at BOSCO we have gone through that learning process. What sense does it make to provide tons of information, if it is just not adequate or relevant – in our case also due to the quite low educational level especially in rural areas, cultural influences, etc. Therefore, yes, ICT4D is a Design Challenge, and we have realized that the provision of information and communication facilities itself cannot be the main factor of success.

The second important design challenge I would see is, how much emphasize is put on the foundation and support of a proper (local) organizational structure that can make projects sustainable. The current success of BOSCOUganda can be determined by the fact that we have created such a structure, including the training of local technicians in maintenance, and regular user trainings for the rural ICT centers. This process can’t happen within months or a year, as it takes time for a structure to establish itself and to grow with the right speed. Sometimes international ICT4D projects probably fail because they try to create “Ownership” as fast as possible (often just because of the fact that donor funding is tending to push quick results and thus shorten the available time for implementation).

6) An issue that seems to weigh heavy in the use context of ICT’s in developing regions is linguistic variation. How do you foresee ICT4D practitioners, researchers and implementers overcoming the challenges of illiteracy, multilingualism and dialectal variation?

Of course linguistic variation can be a challenge, although my experience in Uganda might not be representative and comparable to other countries. In Uganda, English is widely spoken in all regions of the country and students are (except for lower primary school classes) taught using English as the main teaching language. In terms of multilingualism, communications facilities (such as Emails, Skype or Facebook) probably can easier help to overcome these challenges, and our users just used their own, local language then anyway.

Our major challenge at BOSCO was rather the generally weak educational system, which does not mean illiteracy, but rather poor writing and reading skills which therefore also influences the effect of any provided ICT infrastructure and content. The usage of more creative Web2.0 applications – as a means – has in that way also helped us to face these challenges and make ICTs more attractive.

I’d say the more ICT4D projects become interactive instead of just being designed “one-way” and drop-down, the more they can overcome linguistic variations right from the beginning.

7) What advice do you have for those designing information systems for the developing world?

ICT4D is an important and still probably underestimated field although many initiatives have started to go into the right direction. But I think it’s also important not just to design information systems for the developing world, but to really design them with the developing world.

I am still grateful for all the things that I could learn from my colleagues in Uganda. And we, especially those of us coming from the so called developed world, need to think about development and needs first, not about ICT. Thus I’d say it first needs an understanding how to define development and what it really means in a specific context. Just by that, information systems can then – as a means – really support these efforts.


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I am currently an undergraduate student at Michigan State University, majoring in Media and Communication Technology with specializations in African Studies and Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). My interests include ICT4D and Human-Computer Interaction for Development (HCI4D). I am very passionate about the ways in which ICTs can be used as a told for social and economic upliftment in the third world.My dream is to have a role in socio-economic development of African countries, to discern how greater technology adoption in Africa could aid in achieving social and economic development. I would also like to see an Africa where youth have the same life chances as their counterparts abroad. making this dream a reality calls for the mobilization of African youth, to help them build the tool that they need to enter and become successful in a globalizing economy.
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3 Comments to “ICTworks Interview with Stefan Bock on HCI initiatives at BOSCO Uganda”

  1. Mark Oppenneer says:

    Keep up the great work – I enjoy your focus on HCI and ICT4D! Cheers, Mark

  2. kelechiea says:

    thanks so much Mark, I appreciate it! 🙂

  3. Innocent says:

    Hi Kelechi, we are presently at inception stages of developing communicty ICT centers in Nigeia. Please send me an e mail if you are interested for ofurther details