What are the best social web tools for the developing world, and what should software developers keep in mind when creating software for international organizations? Teresa Crawford shares her tips from her work as a strategic technology consultant out of Washington, D.C. in this transcript of my interview with her from the NetSquared Podcast that I posted about last week.
Teresa Crawford: I have a number of clients either headquartered in the U.S., working internationally, or that are local organizations outside of the United States. Most specifically, I focus on human rights and advocacy, and sort of grassroots collective organizations that are working on community issues, whether it is environment, disability rights, women's rights, I work with those types of organizations.
Most recently I have been sort of exploring how we use social web/Web 2.0 tools with those sorts of organizations, whether it is getting groups up and running with a blog, or getting them to create a tag that they use to tag information amongst a bunch of different organizations so they can share knowledge, or just sort of getting them thinking about not just the office productivity side of technology tools - which a lot of them are getting a much better handle on, whether it is setting up spreadsheets, or having a database, or making sure they are using word processing software properly and staff know how to do it, or even things like getting a network up and running and backups and all that. Really starting to take it to the next level, to use technology to either reach out to people, or to better inform people about the work that they're doing, or to draw in people that they have never worked with before.
I think the challenge to that is that a lot of the places that I work in are very bandwidth-challenged, and so some of the tools are - you know, the reason I love Skype, and the reason why Skype is being used by so many people that I work with is that there are a lot of different levels that you can use it at. You can use it just to instant-message, you can use it to do Voiceover IP, you can use it to Video Skype, you can use it to run conference calls.
I think that those are the types of tools that I am really advocating and really encouraging people to use, because they have all those different levels you can engage with them on, and that it really - the adaptability for the environments that these folks are working in; and even starting to look at how do they use their cell phones--how do they use text messaging to send out an alert or organize a demonstration that really makes the best use of smart mobs, and sort of says, "Look, we're going to have a demonstration. We don't want the police to catch on to where it is going to be. Send this message to everybody in your address book." Then that goes to the next person, and they send it to everybody in their address book.
So trying to really go to where people are at with the technologies, and sort of think creatively about how to use them without forcing people to come to where the technologies are, which, when they are developed in North America or Western Europe, they rely on a lot of big pipes, a lot of bandwidth that just isn't available out there.
Britt Bravo: What are some challenges users in developing countries face when using social web tools?
TC: I think some of the tools that are more challenging for these groups to use are a lot of these collaborative tools that sort of rely on a good, strong connection to the Internet. Whether it is, "Let's all use Basecamp to project manage something," or, "Let's all use..." some of the collaborative tools that are out there that are really challenging for the groups that I work with because they relies on . . .or even, "Let's post our video on YouTube and get the word out that way," well, that's great if your audience and the advocacy targets for you are people who have good connections. So if you have, you know, some people who are against home demolitions in the Palestinian territories, they are relying on sort of an advocacy target that is outside of the territories for their message, so that works for them, but when you are trying to change a policy at a local level, and the targets for your advocacy are at a very local level, then you don't want to use those kinds of tools, because folks who are local aren't using them.
So I think that those collaborative things and those sort of messaging tools that just rely on so much bandwidth is what's a big challenge.
But I think that the tools that do work and that people are having some success with are the ones that either, there are a lot of different levels you can use them at, or you can sort of creatively - you know, I'm really trying to push our feed readers and RSS, because the worst thing that an organization can have happen is that they spend the money to go to an Internet cafe, they walk the two miles to get to it, and then they go to check a web site and there is no new content there.
But if they have got their feed reader, they have got their email, and they can tell when something has been updated and the new content that is there, then they can go to the Internet cafe and spend the money to surf the Web and find the new content. So I am really trying to look at those things that are pushing content that way.
BB: What are some social web tools that you think need to be developed to meet the needs of the people that you work with?
TC: I don't know that there are a lot of new tools that need to be developed. I think that some of the existing tools need to be localized and need to be adapted to work better in low-resource environments. I also think that this idea of feedback loops that include users that you don't necessarily think of as your normal user base need to get built better.
So that, say a community group who is using a tool that is in sub-Saharan Africa and the tool doesn't work for them perfectly, or there is some problem with it, they don't have anybody they can turn to, to help them to use the tool better or to change some little piece or to customize it or whatever.
So part of the reason I am here [Aspiration Non-Profit Software Development Summit] is to sort of make connections with more developers and more intermediaries and more consultants to try to expand the set of resources that are available to these types of groups.
BB: What is one of the coolest tools that you have seen that works effectively?
TC: Well, I think one of the coolest new ways that folks are using technology for service delivery is they are using mobile phones to access databases of information and input information on HIV/AIDS. So a community health care worker is visiting a person who is living with HIV, and wants to be able to access their medical record and update it, and wants to be able to give some advice, but that community health care worker has limited access to information.
So they are using their cell phones with unique identifier ID numbers to then be able to access a patient record, find out some information that they can then pass on to the person, and then also be able to give them some advice, like, "OK, given your symptoms you need to increase your water intake, and you need to change your medication from X pills to Y pills."
So some new consortiums are starting to try to expand that to make that a much more accessible way to access patient data.
BB: How can people get involved with the kind of work that you do and get more information about it?
TC: Well there are a couple of different ways. HumaniNet, which is the organization that I am here at the conference with, really has a niche focusing on humanitarian assistance and disaster management organizations, and they have got a couple of different ways to interact and a great use of volunteers to either review tools, or to do evaluations of tools, or to test out tools and to write reviews of them and see how they'll work for the organizations that we serve.
So I think HumaniNet is a great place that I would love to steer people towards. That is especially if you are interested in the humanitarian assistance side.
If you are more interested in the human rights angle, and the types of advocacy organizations that I am working with, we run a discussion list called International eRider, which is for folks, technology intermediaries and people working in the field of non-profit technology assistance. It is an international list that people post questions on, and it is a good way to find out about new projects and what is going on. We've also got eRiders.net, which is a great web site for people to check out and see some of the different projects going on around the world.