NYT: Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?
i am in the middle of the mess for moving to london end of the month, but felt obliged to log this article here with a little bit of recollection of the past year’s work.
last year, we hosted a journalist, sara corbett in our fieldwork in accra, ghana. her experience with us introduced the backbone of her article featured in new york times magazine, told through our darling media embassador & my long-time colleague/ team mate/ tokyo office neighbor/ personal financial advisor, jan.
perhaps overly self-conscious at the fact that i work for a mobile phone manufacturer, i rarely use the word ‘cell phone’: especially when i have to refer to something that will be available in the future that will change using our natural ability in new yet relevant ways. be it a cell phone or not, it’s not really relevant – its about what kind of personal and social technology and services will be feasible and possible and easy to adopt.
are you fancying about becoming design researcher yourself? while i eagerly wait for a more formal opportunity to talk about our research in the future, here’s a quick & random recollection of my personal experience in our last year’s project, future urban, in four cities of chongqing (china), mumbai (india), rio (brazil) and accra (ghana).
chongqing was our pilot city for the project, so we spent more time in ad-hoc interviews, which means going out with a local translator to a part of the city and informally interacting with locals. chongqing is a very fast changing, industrial city. it is very common to see the site of demolition right next to the brand new buildings and commercial centers.
sometimes my local guide was reluctant to go to certain areas that i boldly, or blindly wanted to go as he was concerned about my safety. some houses we were eventually invited to were expected to be demolished in a few months – we could actually feel the vulnerable state of the house.
this is a kitchen in a temporary apartment for the demolition manager of a building. he and his wife lived in one apartment in a building that he was in charge of demolishing. being a nomad myself, i often think about minimizing my physical possessions by digitizing what could be in plastic or on paper. having their home in the country side, and moving from one building to another based on the job, they optimized their furniture by employing a much lighter alternative: plastic bags. it took curiosity and patience for us to encounter this couple, as the whole building site looked totally deserted and the demolition was half way through.
the same couple’s kitchen/dining table – the compact set of home electronics would probably fit into a suitcase. how minimal and mobile can our life be?
thanks to the project schedule, we arrived in mumbai in the middle of the monsoon season. it had taken all of us several visits to the medical clinic in tokyo for the due vaccination shots and emergency medicines.
can you imagine saying that dettol is your best friend? for those two weeks, i did feel very grateful at the invention of the antiseptic medicine. the regular flooding of the sewage water on the streets of dharavi however became one of the most memorable experiences in my entire trip. but it was heart-breaking to see the house getting flooded that belonged to one of potential research participants.
we stayed in a guesthouse right at the border of the dharavi community. while it was a small guesthouse, the prolific human service in india still made room service as an option. being able to enjoy the local breakfast is a blessing in the fieldwork. i don’t really have any staple food – not even coffee – so i thoroughly enjoy sampling all kinds of new food in the city or the community i visit.
but of course liking the local food may have its high price. luckily i only spent one night of talking to the big whilte telephone during my stay, with company of earth worms and cockroaches casually making their ways around the bathroom floor.
one of my interviews was scheduled at 3:30am in the family’s home as that was when the interviewee started his day. finding the family’s house in the dark through the maze of small streets would not have been possible without our mobile phones. one of my two local translators fell asleep on the interviewee’s bed at the abnormal working hour while the interview was ongoing, and i panicked at the lack of her professionalism. but quickly realized that for the host family, she was a guest to be taken care of.
i had my best indian food at our research participants’ homes. a pleasurable dilemma when you know that you won’t be able to go to toilet for at least half a day while you are on the job.
in favela jacarezinho in rio, we had a chance to discuss about our way of working most seriously & thoroughly.
while the camera accessibility was an issue, we were lucky enough to have MC Serginho as our community guide, thanks to our local team. Mr. Serginho was truly proud of and in love with his community.
this is a picture of what’s called ‘gato’ in portugese. basically it is illegally drawn electricity cables. one of the challenges we often faced in our interviews was talking about illegal behaviors that are acknowledged and done widely or just by a few. it takes a great deal of trust for someone to be able to talk about it. sometimes i do wonder if how our questions would have worked in super-digital generations where the weight and the flow of information and hence the implications of the information disclosure is very different. i had my utmost interviewing skill tested in an interview with a professional sex worker lady in a public place in copacabana. a good reminder of the fact that the effect of who you are cannot be ignored in the fieldwork, as with many other things in our lives: i had the benefit of being a woman myself in the interview. likewise i didnt have a chance to interview any male participant myself in india.
after gone through electricity cuts, polluted air, flooding, security precautions, buduburam and accra in ghana were a comfortable breeze for the fieldwork. english being one of the spoken languages helped a lot as well, even though the common usage of multiple tribal languages complicated the research team planning.
i had a night of home-stay in buduburam camp. i stayed in an elegantly decorated lady’s room with the luxury of a toilet in the room. with water supply completely manual, i had gone through the experience of planning my water consumption so that i wouldn’t exhaust all the water supply just to flush the toilet.
many effective sales units defy the industrial packages in the community. grains are probably a natural one. more rare selling units included soaps and detergents, and empty bottles of different sizes for lamp oils.
a good sign of beginning to learn about the new culture is to grasp, or to wonder about the relative value of goods and services. and naturally this often constitutes a good part of our interview questions.
back to packing & pondering upon simplifying life & mobility prior to moving to another continent now. more later, hopefully.
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