How can we enable digitally illiterate people in India to access digital platforms by regionally appropriating them to the context and requirement of individuals/communities, hence making them more democratic?
The most important thing about Internet also is that it is one single platform which can be accessed by anyone and everyone throughout the globe, transcending all forms of barriers including social and political. But at the very same time this one single platform being available in one single format (or the formats which are profitable to larger corporations) deprives a very large population on the globe from the one value which Internet is believed to be representative of- Democracy! On this premise, I started the research for my masters thesis at the Glasgow School of Art and Adam Smith Business School, Glasgow University.
According to Forbes, India entered 2016 with 1 billion mobile subscribers. “A big chunk of these billion mobile subscribers will become smartphone users in the next couple of years, that is the thrilling next wave,” said Amresh Nandan, a research director at Gartner, India. However, a very large number of these billion mobile subscribers are digitally illiterate and even more so illiterate. Another global study by McKinsey and Facebook states that thirty seven percent of adult Indians are illiterate (which translates to 287 million people—the highest in the world), notes that such a high illiteracy rate acts as a major roadblock in expanding the reach of the Internet. Awareness about the Internet and ability to operate a computer is low among Indians, adding to the worries. “Illiterate farmers are unable to benefit from myriad existing services that provide weather forecasts and market prices through text messages or other digital means,” the study notes. My research through the project revealed that it would be difficult for the digital revolution to imitate mobile revolution in countries like India, where a very large section of population is still illiterate. This is because most illiterate people have the the ability to read numbers but the use of internet goes way beyond just numbers. Then the question is what should be our approach in the current situation. Should we just focus on the technology and leave it on people to adapt to it? In the context of developing countries, that would mean we wait for all the population to get literate or digitally literate and adapt to the uniform logic and language of these platforms. Or should we rethink about our approach towards designing these platforms and design them in a way that they can adapt according to the diverse backgrounds of the current and prospective user base.
Before coming to Glasgow, I gifted my mother a tablet so that we can ‘skype’ when I am away. Eight months since and she still couldn’t make a skype call herself. She is many of those Indians who own affordable smart devices, have access to Internet, but still can’t access the few platforms which can contribute significantly in making their life better! Hence, in my masters thesis I decided to research on the barriers people were encountering in accessing the content on digital platforms. At the same time I realized the “do around” ways in which people in Indian subcontinent have been appropriating technology for themselves, whenever the technology and their own context allows. How people still save numbers by writing them down on paper and use those papers to dial the numbers. Or talking about language, how a woman who did not understand English language could teach her child the entire series of English alphabet, by asking someone to write the pronunciation of alphabets in Hindi (a phonetic language). It was in this process that I thought it is worth exploring the viability of ‘appropriation’ approach to make digital platforms more accessible to people. As Hippel and Krogh (2015) propose “one way to engage in problem-solving is to not formulate a problem prior to research. Instead, one may simply scan one’s mind and/or the environment for need-solution pairs that might fit one’s own context.” In this case problem formulation comes only after the discovery of a potentially viable need-solution pair. The need was to enable digitally illiterate people to access digital platforms and the solution was the way these people already appropriate technology to their context.
After discovering a need-solution pair and having formulated a loose problem statement the next step was to check the viability of the appropriation approach and expand the need and solution landscapes to discover more such pairs. The research was done in two phases. First the secondary research was done about the human-device interaction and the larger social context influencing the usage of digital platforms by illiterate people. This research was mainly informed by the work of Kentaro Toyama from School of Information, Berkeley, USA and that of Indrani Medhi at the Microsoft Research for Emerging Markets in Bangalore. Besides, a number of case studies were done including the One Laptop Per Child project by Nicholas Negroponte and the Digital Green organization in India. Informed by the secondary research, I developed two models about the role of Internet in development projects. The first one is the Maslow’s pyramid in the context of Internet, which states that users might start using Internet at the level of ‘Esteem’ and once in the process they get comfortable, Internet might lead them to fulfillment of the ‘Safety’ and ‘Physiological’ needs. The second model is inspired from the work of Kentaro Toyama and it states that digital technology is analogous to the string support given to the climbers to grow. Just the way the string can only help the plant to grow but can not substitute for the life force and nutrition provided by soil, similarly digital technology can only magnify the intent and capacity of development projects but cannot substitute for them.
The secondary research was then used to design engagement exercises primary research. The primary research focused on finding how digitally illiterate people use technology, digital or otherwise, in their day to day life. For example how do they change channels on television. Whether they were aware of Internet. What are the things that they would like to do using Internet if they were aware of it. This research was also focused on how people understand the ‘text’ in digital platforms and if they did not, what were the ‘do around’ ways they were using to accomplish their tasks. The word ‘text’ here implies the language, icons and also the logic used in digital platforms. In the final part of this research people were asked to create their own icons for functions to gain insights into their sense of cognition and how they would like the ‘text’ on digital platforms to be. A workshop manual was designed to conduct workshops in Jaipur, Mumbai and Ankaleshwar in India. The detailed manual and workshop outcomes can be found at the bottom of this page. The findings of the workshops were used to generate insights not only about how people appropriate technology in their daily lives but also about the entire ecosystem of mobile and internet usage. The main insights are as follows:
The insights were used to populate the need solution landscape with need solution pairs and rearranged to form a sustainable system of appropriation. In the current scenario the digitally illiterate population is unable to benefit even from already existing information regarding weather forecast or market prices. They are unable to access the existing services that are provided through the digital platforms of governments, corporations and NGOs, due to barriers of illiteracy and social and cultural context. The 4D app proposes a system of making these platforms accessible to all by regional appropriation. The appropriation is done by a network of ‘proximates’, who can be shopkeepers doing mobile top ups, telecom stores, Internet cafes or even family members. In the current scenario proximates help the digitally illiterate people, specially women and old people to perform complicated tasks like saving a number. Indrani Medhi’s research suggests that the presence of ‘proximates’ deters learning motivation for individuals. However, the 4D platform uses them as an asset in the process of gradual on-boarding of digitally illiterate people on to the digital platforms. The project proposes to use the existing infrastructure of the government as regional nodes of appropriation. For example, Indian post has an extensive network, reaching to the remotest of towns and villages, but they have little significance in today’s time because people rarely use Indian Post for mailing or for banking. Such extensive formal and informal networks which are already present in urban and rural areas can assume the role of appropriators, under the new Digital India program.
Appropriation is done mainly in two parts. First by customizing the text of digital platforms which includes the language, icons, graphics and sound commands in collaboration with the user/community, into their context. Second by appropriating the functions and Menu to the requirements of the users or the community so that they don’t get overwhelmed by the complexity. If an artisan group sells one particular craft, they shouldn’t have to deal with the complex menu of Flipkart/Amazon. They should be able to directly reach the point where they can upload their products and take orders. The technology used in appropriation derives from the already existing technology which is used in website building platforms like wordpress and app prototyping platforms like invision, as shown below.
There are two kind of business models which can be used for the 4D platform. The first one in which the user pays for what he/she desires and gets what they need in free. This model will be appropriate for government and non profit initiates like crop insurances, banking, identity and health care. For example the potential users pay a minimal amount to watch Bollywood songs or films on Internet in the village panchayats (community centers). Within these sessions users will be made aware of the various schemes by government regarding identity, banking etc. And in turn they can get the desired digital platforms appropriated for free. This helps the government in accessing population they would otherwise not reach through their schemes and also helps the potential users who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to access these schemes through digital platforms.
The second model of free appropriation and revenue generation by advertisement can be used by the Internet corporations like Google or Facebook. They can support the existing appropriating networks so that they can appropriate their platforms for potential users for free. The corporations in turn will get access to an emerging market base which they wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise.