As part of my participation in the TechChange Course “Mobiles for International Development”, I conducted an interview with professor Laura Murphy at Tulane University’s School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine and Payson Center for International Development.

Mini Biography

Laura Murphy is clinical associate professor in the Department of Global Health Systems and Development at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine (SPHTM). Her teaching spans development, population, environment, and interdisciplinary social science research, and in 2008 she earned the President’s Award for Excellence in Professional and Graduate Teaching. She is also an adjunct associate professor at Tulane’s Payson Center for International Development and an affiliated faculty member at Tulane’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies. She holds a BS from Stanford in Mechanical Engineering, Values, Technology & Society, and a doctorate from UNC-Chapel Hill in City & Regional Planning.

Interview Notes

I spoke with Dr. Murphy today (Monday, November 21, 2011) about the technologies we’ve encountered in the TC105 course, her views on some of them, and where she sees the future of the field going. Dr. Murphy’s work focuses on social change in rural Africa and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in that region, as well as mobile phone use in the region. Here are some of Dr. Murphy’s (paraphrased) comments on the field, the merits and pitfalls of some of these technologies, and her vision for the future.

Getting Involved in ICT4D & Research on Mobile Phones

Well my background is in City and Regional Planning and Engineering – I’m interested in environment, development and poverty, and have been teaching about development in the SPHTM, but I’m not a “public health person”. My field is development studies – I look at case studies in population and development and environment. I’ve worked in NGOs in Indonesia and as a donor in Kenya, so I have those different perspectives of being a practitioner, a donor and also the research experience, working in an academic setting with theory, particularly the theory of change, theory of technology.

I encountered mobiles in 2003-2005 when I was looking at AIDS impacts on food security and how communities were responding to AIDS in Kenya, and I began to notice that mobiles had grown more prevalent. Letters were what used to be used for communication, it would take weeks. You write a letter, you send it, you wait, you get a letter back, you respond – or you’d meet people at the gas station on the highway, meet people at locations to exchange things, that was the level of coordination for communication, it was a different level of communication. Then I noticed these phones in rural areas, at the field site. I was working with community groups looking at kitchen gardens and indigenous crops and started looking at this as well – rural users adopting the cell phone with the indigenous focus. Then Katrina happened. I took my Katrina sabbatical in NC, and sat at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, reflecting on the field data, and wrote a proposal for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the mobiles and how they are integrated in rural communities. I wanted to talk about how cell phones were being adopted and used. The underlying theory is socio-technical change, not coming from a prescriptive place, but looking at how phones contribute to human development.

The Changing Presence of Mobile Phones

So I talked to everyone, and talked specifically to phone owners by sampling them (only 15% of the population had cell phones in January 2007). Then January was when M-PESA was launched – in Nairobi at first. It was hard to get signal in the village, with either of the carriers in the country: Celtel and Safaricom. Signals were bad. Since then of course ownership has risen, according to reports ownership is close to 100%, and cell phone towers are closer, M-PESA is really known by people. End user ownership has changed dramatically – people are actively choosing to spend their money on this.

Early on, no one seemed to be doing much research on rural phone users, I had seen some journalism but not much more. Since then academic and field research has grown and departments are trying to do things with it and use it for telemedicine. I remain critical, and sometimes cynical – the idea often seems to be “Hey, the cell phone is cool let’s throw it in!” but communication tool-wise it makes sense in integrating it. It doesn’t need fancy applications or to be a smartphone – ordinary people are happy talking to each other. During my 2007 fieldwork, I asked people how they use their phones, you know, what functions they used. Voice was so much more popular than texting because of language considerations and reading text messages was difficult and not well understood. Also just needing to get feedback right away meant that they were calling more than texting – that was new and no one knew how to use it. Now it’s quite popular, its 2-way and people know how to use it. But basically people are using cell phones to talk to each other.

End Users and Adaptive Uses

I’m interested in the end users and adaptive uses, how people share their phones and use them. They may say “Sure, I’ll share it with my co-wife or someone else I have an obligation to, but not just anybody.” The cell phone is part of their social capital, the money they put into it is important, so unless its an emergency not just anyone will be able to share their phones. There’s a big difference between the conventional wisdom that these mobiles are great because farmers will be able to get their market prices, and what the phones are essentially being used for, which is communication. If they want market prices they will get market prices, but they are talking to each other, the same way we use phones to talk with each other.

So it’s about the end users. Technology is great, right? Its part of the human condition to create and innovate and we will take on tools if they work for us. So what are people spending their money on? We should pay attention to that. Not that fancier phones aren’t useful but they’re a luxury, we need to pay attention to ordinary people and use and look at men vs. women, and stop pinning people into broad categories. People have different mobility, they aren’t just farmers, they are rich farmers or poor farmers, male and female farmers. I use techniques like Human Centered Design and design thinking with end users to observe and watch what they do. Some of the private companies are paying attention to this as well, like with Nokia and the newer ultra-cheap phones – they’re watching what users are doing and accommodating. We need to look more at the base of the pyramid and design devices that work better for them and their diverse needs.

Challenges of Mobile Phone Use in Rural Kenya

What’s needed? Really good batteries. I looked into phone charging and cost. I found I didn’t want to just keep studying, I also wanted to help them, whatever they’re doing with their phones is good, let’s help them function better. There are lots of issues or barriers to efficient and helpful phone use: the cost of airtime, phone charging issues, having a used phone or secondhand batteries, the bad replacement batteries available, the off-brand fakes with fake packaging, knockoffs. They don’t work. So the people, they don’t trust anybody because the cheap products have failed them. They need better stuff, better batteries. There are issues with charging stations, some have irregular voltage which can damage the batteries, there is theft, batteries are drained.

I can try to help them charge their phones. I looked at hand-crank chargers and solar chargers, using a Human-Centered Design approach. I’m working with users, letting them try out these tools, observing how they work, and giving them models to try and experiment with. The hand crank is good but they don’t last, they break from repeated use. They were designed to be light, for emergencies to keep in your car, not long-term use, and the gears wear out. The hand cranks were also designed for radios, different energy needs, but they’re not enough to charge a cell phone because of the energy use, of calls and lighting the screen, draws more power. It takes 20-30 minutes of steady cranking to fully charge a battery. With the cheap old Nokias it can work well, but it has to be more sturdy. Smartphones, using hand cranks to charge them is like pumping water uphill, you can never get it full! The design specs are for smaller batteries, so bigger phones drain more. So why not make the actual phones bigger, with bigger batteries- why do they have to be so small? Bigger batteries could charge less frequently. Why not design one that can take more batteries at once?

There are muscular issues also, you’d get the greatest dynamo efficiency using your legs, not your hands and arms. Using adapted bicycles or other mechanisms where leg power could be used would be more efficient. Not stationary ones, but actually attaching the mechanism to bikes people use to ride around anyway, that would be a great innovation and could be useful, used to charge other devices as well. It’s a mystery to me why that’s not more prevalent – you know bike taxis emerged in Africa, they’re widely used.

Solar phones are not the answer. You have to leave them in the sun for long periods of time, which is bad for the phone. It’s also gimmicky and not very practical – you have to remember to leave it in the sun or wear it around somehow so it can keep charging. It takes a long time, too. So design choices don’t always make sense, but it’s about economics.

Rose & Gender Considerations

So there’s this woman I started working with early on, Rose. She’s in the community working with women in the HIV+ support group, and her husband is far away. She was one of the first women in the village to have a cell phone, and I got to know her through my other work. I did an interview with her and she was so good at articulating her feelings about how the mobile phone changed her life – talking about death and dying and funerals and disease, its so important to get together and organize and she can use the phone to organize these important life events that are going on. She has 6 of her own children and 6 from a co-wife who had dies and her husband works far away; she gets her airtime from him. I once gave her a cheap charger to use, and she liked the idea of not having to go to the village to charge, but it turned out to be too fragile. She also wanted it to work for her friend but it didn’t fit her friend’s phone. She had upgraded by the next time I went, she’s now skipped over the need for solar power, she has a generator, has diesel fuel. She’s doing ok because her husband lives far away and sends money, but she doesn’t have money of her own. He keeps a tight rein on the money, she can’t spend it freely. She’s a strong woman, active in her community, but she’s a woman so she has limited rights.

M-PESA and Mobile Money

The mobile money world is profound because you can send money to each other for school fees and agricultural inputs like seeds and fertilizer, for medical costs. I think the most exciting thing on the front of mobile phones is mobile money for the unbanked. I found it difficult to get a bank account in Kenya! These are for people without bank accounts, the banking industry is very conservative,  so mobile money is accessible and exciting. It’s different from mobile banking, that’s accessing your actual bank account through a mobile device; this is money transferring for those without bank accounts, and its very valuable. And this is an innovation that wasn’t a development project, it was Safaricom adding futures to sell air time to customers. M-PESA was designed by Safaricom.

You can send money across the city instead of physically meeting someone, you can send wages to workers. M-PESA is great. There’s a similar thing In South Africa something called WIZZIT, same kind of thing. It deals with tiny amounts of money and moving it around, not traditional banking, but a money transfer system, and it prevents people from having to travel. It all sounds so wonderful, but they’re all still connected to a real physical grid, even if you’re living in a rural town, M-PESA is helpful but you still have to go to an agent to get the physical money if you need it. Actual money needs to be deposited with a Safaricom agent, and there are technical aspects of that.  Bus transfers, taxis, you can pay for these things that way. Organizations pay their staff by M-PESA, its also great because traveling without cash is safer. People trust that now. I can pay people, like my research assistant, she’s on a farm she can see that she received it, she can do things with it, send it to her brother or to a store to get airtime. It’s a virtual account on your phone that you can buy airtime with or send to someone else. It could be leading us toward a cashless economy!

All this still has a physical infrastructure then, and it wasn’t always working that well – sometimes the agent couldn’t take the money because they didn’t have a “float” – what they’re assigned or given so they have money in the system. There were times I wanted to deposit money to transfer to people and I couldn’t because the system was down – so you have to try again later. It doesn’t always work. Its great, it’s spreading, but it’s not perfect.

The Importance of Design Thinking

Users are not all the same. They’re not just “poor farmers”, they are artists, ministers, they are youth leaders. They are also farmers, but they are all of these things and we need to listen and focus on the end user in design. I feel that all designers should pay more attention to the diverse needs of the rural poor and try lots of things out, create prototypes, see what gets taken up, you can’t overanalyze them.

It helps to have a social demographic lens as well, looking at people’s position, their class, use personal experience and contacts to enrich their understanding of what people use. What we need is people from different walks of live and different classes to try and work on issues. Designing cool applications that are easier to use and can be applied on “dumb” phones, with the USSD platform. If you had in your hand the small basic cell phone and the tiny little screen and the software it comes with, you wouldn’t want to use it either. Making it easier to read and know that messages are there, so you can simply and easily interface, that should be a focus.

Groups Doing Good Work

Lighting Africa is catalyzing markets, focusing on things like products that charge phones and provide lighting for households – that type of multipurpose technology – there are many ways to charge a phone they need to look at the details. Some of these are products NGOs could use for their field staff. Also Barefoot Power is a great company – they’re making things as well – they’re one of several companies that Lighting Africa has helped in bringing prodcuts to African markets.

It’s about social innovation and social entrepreneurship – helping people to build ideas into a job for themselves, not working for someone else, but taking an idea and trying it out, finding capital and business plans to take it to the next step. I attended the Pivot25 conference in Nairobi in June, engaging with East African rural users as programmers. They’re doing good things.

There’s also *iHub_ in Nairobi, founded by Eric Herzmann, who was also one of the founders of Ushahidi along with Juliana Rotich. *iHub_ is a group of Africa-based programmers and application designers, they have an open workspace in Nairobi for tech people, focused on idea generation and new technologies and services.

Supplemental Links

For more information about Dr. Laura Murphy, her work, or the information presented here:

Laura L. Murphy, PhD:

Tulane University Faculty Profile: Laura Murphy, SPHTM

Social Entrepreneurship, Dr. Murphy, & Mobile Phones in Africa (YouTube)