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Six Digital Inclusion Insights – Your Weekend Long Reads

By Steve Vosloo on December 8, 2017

Digital Inclusion

UNESCO, in partnership with Pearson, has released ten case studies of digital solutions that are inclusive for people with low skills and low literacy, helping them to participate in the knowledge society in innovative ways. Of interest to UNESCO and Pearson is how through technology use, users’ skills are developed and, ultimately, their livelihoods are improved.

The case studies, authored by Dr Nathan Castillo and myself, span sectors such as health, agriculture, the environment and civic participation. Each case study reveals how the inclusive digital solutions were designed with users, the skills needed to effectively use the solutions, the reach and result of usage and, most importantly, key lessons learned and recommendations. The case studies are rich in detail and make for stimulating reading.

After releasing all fourteen case studies – the last four coming at UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2018 – UNESCO and Pearson will then develop a set of guidelines for more inclusive digital development. In the meantime, below are five takeaways that will hopefully inform your ICT4D journey to greater inclusion.

Skills Benchmarking is Important

A key argument of the UNESCO-Pearson work is that, while good examples of user-centred design exist, not enough attention is given to users’ digital skills and literacy, present and future.

In addition to designing around users’ needs, benchmarking their capabilities means we can see users as learners and create solutions that suit them today, but also help them develop skills that can use a richer feature set tomorrow.

More features equals more complex interactions, increased possibility for learning and deeper usage, and potential revenue for solution providers. Understanding user capabilities also means that the right training can be delivered. Benchmarking can happen through specific assessments and also by using international frameworks, such as DigComp2.1: The Digital Competence Framework for Citizens.

Medic Mobile is an integrated mobile system for improving maternal and neonatal health. While it operates in twenty-three countries, the case study focuses on the rural Nepal implementation. The community health workers (CHWs) – trusted members in the local human social network – that use the system on the ground have needed initial and ongoing training.

Medic Mobile routinely runs pre- and post-training skills tests. Post-test results from a training conducted with 500 CHWs revealed the strongest overall gains in the more complex mobile phone operations that CHWs initially struggled with most. There were 40–45 per cent gains in the ability to use SMS functions including retrieving specific SMSs and accessing the phones inbox.

By benchmarking the users pre- and post-training, Medic Mobile is able to track development. It also informs their practise of pairing low-literate with higher-literate CHWs, to provide peer support to each other.

Basic Usage, Rich Data

Even though end users are low skilled and low literate, and interfacing with appropriately simple solutions, doesn’t exclude the opportunity for data collection and complex analysis by solution providers.

By tracking farmer usage of each of the Crop Specific Mobile Apps in rural India, the company behind it can identify in which districts farmers need to diversify their crops, where they are diversifying but need guidance, and where new disease outbreaks are likely happening.

Such usage data can be sent to the cloud via SMS, if needed, to ensure collection in low-connectivity districts. The farmers thus become rich data sources for interventions triggered at a district- or state-level by government – and in the process create a potential revenue stream for the solution provider holding the analysed data.

Users unwittingly informing digital interventions is not new: through Liking or posting on Facebook, they inform the algorithms for targeted advertising. However, in this case the users are particularly low literate, and such real-time data gathering has not been possible before. Previously, extension workers would be relied upon to gather local information, but the process would be slow.

Another example is Khushi Baby, a digital service in India that supports effective tracking of maternal and child healthcare data by CHWs – often low-literate and with low digital skills. Mothers are also users as they ensure their baby’s wear their medical records in the form of a digital necklace.

As data is collected, it is aggregated and analysed for district-level decision-making related to health administration. Low-literate users are active participants in data generation for programmatic and policy interventions – in real time.

Each of the three user groups: mothers, CHWs and district officials, interface with appropriately designed technology: wearable necklaces, mobile data collection apps and web-based dashboards, respectively.

Tech Can Help With Quality Control

In some of the case studies low-skilled and low-literate users are active participants in mHealth support interventions. How do we know that they are not mistakenly doing harm? The tech helps.

hearScreen allows anyone with very limited training and the app and headphone set to conduct hearing tests (in developing countries there is a dearth of trained professionals to ensure that all children receive such tests).

By sending false positives to the person administering the test (the screener), and tracking whether he or she records these as legitimate responses from the patient, an individual screener quality index is created. The index acts as a measure for quality control and system reports inform supervisors about screeners that need further training.

The Chipatala cha pa Foni (CCPF) health information service, delivered in Malawi via a call centre and text messages, allows supervisors to monitor the quality of hotline operators. At least ten calls per operator are reviewed and scored and, if needed, an individualised improvement plan is developed.

digital inclusion

Content (Testing) is King

In 1996 Bill Gates famously said: Content is king. (How about queen?!) At the time he wouldn’t have been thinking of low-skilled and low-literate users. And yet, for these groups, content is even more important than for others. It needs to be perfect: understandable, accessible, context-specific and, often, actionable. Tone, voice, perspective, message length and medium are all important.

In fact, he should have said, content testing is king. In almost every case study  there is a solid focus on ensuring that the delivered content is appropriate. The 3-2-1 Service by HNI and Viamo, which offers a range of audio and text content in fourteen countries, is based on rigorous and ongoing content testing. For HNI, an “a-ha” moment came when they realised their target audience in Zambia couldn’t read the health SMSs being sent. Illiteracy gave rise to the addition of the audio service.

Low-literate Users Can Also Be Content Creators

For people from the developed world the general picture of digital content creation is the teen producing Youtube videos, the amateur expert updating Wikipedia pages, or the teacher creating openly licensed interactive lessons for her class. But in rural Ghana or media-dark (read: internet- or radio-free) parts of India, the case studies reveal digital content creation in very different forms and by people with very low or no literacy.

In Ghana, the Talking Book audio device allows rural farmers to not only browse and listen to livelihoods content, but to record and share their own content. In India, Mobile Vaani is an audio-based community-media platform for offline populations, accessed and added to with even basic mobile phones for community mobilisation and social campaigns.

I have noted this before, eight years ago, when seeing low-literate teens in South Africa comment on mobile novels from their phones. What is interesting is how the case study users, like the teens, do not fit the traditional content creator persona.

Leverage Infomediaries and Build Local Capacity

Low-skilled and low-literate users, more than others, encounter and use technology with the help of intermediaries, or as ICTWorks calls them, infomediaries. MIRA Channel, which seeks to improve maternal and child mortality rates in rural India, Afghanistan and Uganda, struggled with the limited experience of mothers with using mobile phones. Their target audience just didn’t have the necessary, even if simple, tech skills.

The adolescent children of the mothers, who generally had more experience in using mobile phones, were enlisted to assist in training and support when using MIRA Channel. In fact, as a result a health programme directed at adolescent girls was developed.

Nano Ganesh allows even low-literate farmers to remotely control their irrigation water pumps via mobile phone, saving water and electricity, and reducing soil erosion. The pump devices need to be installed and maintained – rural farmers and local technicians are trained for this purpose.

The technicians provide on-the-ground support and earn wages in the process. They, in turn, are supported remotely via Skype and live video from the Nano Ganesh service centre, and via offline training videos. Digital support skills are embedded within the community.

Mobile Vaani has also grown through a model that is firmly community-based. Because the content is hyper-local, a network of local clubs with community reporters ensures that awareness raising, training, support and curation of user-generated content happens by and with the community.

Working through a human network seems to be the only way to genuinely win the trust of the local users, provide ongoing support and ensure communal ownership. Digital solutions serving low-literate and low-skilled populations cannot operate outside of the community. Indeed, you could argue that the success of m-PESA is not the tech, but rather it’s human agent network that registers and manages user activity.

Collectively the case studies hold many more insights, so dive in and start reading the 171 page pack.

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Written by
Steve Vosloo is passionate about using technology in education. He's worked at UNESCO, Pearson South Africa, Stanford University, and the Shuttleworth Foundation on the use of mobile phones for literacy development, how technology can better serve low-skilled users, and the role of digital media for youth. All opinions expressed in this post are his own.
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