10 Tips For Leveraging Technology To Improve Women's Lives In The Developing World (Day 2, Grace Hopper Celebration)

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Considerations for designing technology for developing countries. By Angie Chang (Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Women 2.0)

Speaking at Grace Hopper Celebration, Ann Mei Chang talked about developing mobile apps for women in developing countries. She is a Senior Advisor for Women and Technology in the Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues at the US Department of State.

Ann Mei's presentation brought up 10 points for consideration when addressing mobile apps for developing countries.

#1 - Is there network coverage?

There simply is not enough network coverage in developing countries. Africa is suffering the most with just 50% of the rural population being covered by cell service, according to the ITU.

#2 - Is data service affordable?

In the United States, data costs 1.5% of your average monthly income to get an internet connection to your home. Data is incredibly expensive elsewhere. Ann Mei reminded us that in Africa, getting an Internet connection to your home probably costs a couple hundred dollars.

Consider the cost of data relative to average income. In Africa, "it's unaffordable - almost 3x your average monthly income, to get Internet to your home," she said.

Consider the use of trusted intermediaries - ie. trusted community health workers, teachers - that they can train and equip with the needed phones that can access the healthcare or education information. "This is a much more feasible way - it's a bridge until coverage becomes more widespread, until mobile phones become more affordable," said Ann Mei.

#3 - Are there cultural barriers?

Women may be blocked from access due to cultural barriers in the developing country. Do women have the ability to travel? Are there associations with promiscuity? Will there be interaction with men at distribution points? Are we going up against traditional beliefs about female asset ownership?

The mWomen program has been doing work around this. Qtel has research trying to understand how women and men use and buy phones. Programs tailor the calling plan to women, for example the women's calling plan that after a certain number of minutes, you get a discount (ie. because women talk for longer on the phone).

Vodaphone has a program in Qatar where they saw the issue with women buying a phone from a man in a store, so they equipped women with a red suitcase full of phones so it's like a Tupperware party in people's homes - making it much accessible for women to get mobile phones. While we hope cultural norms change so women can get phones easily, it's important to work around existing barriers, Ann Mei reminded us.

#4 - Is there adequate literacy?

Female literacy rates are 25%+ lower in Africa and South Asia, according to UNESCO.

#5 - How about digital literacy?

Be realistic about the level of sophistication people have and the innate human fear in trying to access services with mobile phones. Put yourself into the shoes of your elderly parents, or take into account life in a developing country.

#6 - Do women perceive a need?

What is front of mind for women in the developing world? It's not health information or literacy or information. The drivers may be entertainment and communication.

Historically speaking, "Porn was a huge driver - this is the human reality of why people are using the internet. Why should it be any different in developing countries as they come online?" asked Ann Mei.

People were getting online because they wanted to use Facebook, for example. We need to figure out how to get people online that are driving them and then go from there - maybe Facebook is a great way to disseminate maternal health tips!

#7 - Is it usable on the device?

Take the small screen, 12-key entry, clumsy navigation and poor usability. Google reported seeing 50x more searches on next generation smart phones than WAP feature phones. On smart phones, it's easier to search and the results are richer in a full web browser, for example. So note the difference between what is possible and what works well.

#8 - Are there existing solutions?

"I see a lot of reinventing the wheel. Someone told me that in Rwanda, USAID funded projects for mHealth. None of these mHealth projects worked with each other, and none of them worked with the government standard," said Ann Mei. She is a fan of leveraging existing technology (ie. Facebook, Google) or open source platforms like Ushahidi.

#9 - Will the app be maintained?

Sustainability is 80% of the problem. Technology changes (ie. tablets, OS updates), having multiple platforms, addressing issues in the field, changes in human processes and behaviors should be involved.

#10 - How to scale awareness?

One thing Ann Mei and others found is that trying to scale applications across developing countries is incredible expensive because there is no easy way to build awareness. Some of the most successful ways is when you work with a carrier, or a handset manufacturer, to build you into their phone. Sometimes you have a little blue "F" on a smartphone where you can just push the button on the phone to access Facebook.

In summary, the recommendations:

  • Design for women's actual needs and priorities
  • Consider using human intermediaries - to avoid access and literacy barriers
  • - Be open to a non-technical solution
  • Leverage existing platforms where possible
  • Build in awareness and maintenance from the start

Appeal For Women's Participating in ICT & STEM

Ann Mei argues that women pick jobs that don't pay well. ICT and STEM jobs pay well. We as women should consider having more lucrative, well-paying careers by pursuing STEM jobs like Grace Hopper did. She states we have a chance to fix this imbalance in developing worlds "where ICT or STEM professors are still in its infancy, there is an opportunity for us to start fresh in developing countries! If we get women in from the very start, we don't have to create that huge imbalance that causes impedence in and of itself."

"With the advent of mobile and technology in developing countries, we can think of the advantages of technology and women's lives. Women often need to be flexible about their location, because they have responsibilities are home and with children. But with children and wireless and mobile, it be possible to do work from home and with flexible hours. So I think it opens up some interesting possibilities - with telecommuting - that fits into women's lives and bring them into the working economy," said Ann Mei.

She pointed to Digital Divide Data, CrowdFlower and Samasource as ways to involve women in digital work in developing countries.

Thanks to Ann Mei Chang for speaking on Thursday morning at the Grace Hopper Celebration about leveraging mobile and internet technology to improve women's lives in the developing world.

Women 2.0 members: Are you building for the mWomen design challenge or otherwise working to improve technology for women in the developing countries? Let us know in the comments below!

About the writer: Angie Chang is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Women 2.0, a media company offering content, community and conferences for aspiring and current women innovators in technology. Our mission is to increase the number of female founders of technology startups. Previously, Angie held roles in product management and web UI design. Angie holds a B.A. in English and Social Welfare from UC Berkeley. Follow her on Twitter at @thisgirlangie.