Better education improves the nation

RDVP Seminar: Paul Rankin (10/27/2004)

Paul Ranking, RDVP fellow ’03, currently at Philips came to talk about his “Voices in your Hand” project, intertwining his general advice on how to succeed with a social venture (specifically, our RDVP projects). He started with a quick personal background, mentioning his Churchill Scholarship to study the impact of the internet on tribal cultures. As part of that project, he visited a UNESCO telecenter in Timbuktu, where he saw people waiting in line to use the machines, but found that many of them were illiterate, so needed someone to help them with the machine. Hence his goal: Empower the common person to use the internet without a scribe or other intermediary. He was looking for ways that more people per hour could be given access. His target market was both rural and urban poor, but since critical mass of users helped reduce expenses, he focused on the urban poor, looking at Favelas (slums in Brazil. See for both stats and personal histories). These choices created constraints on his technology choices; it needed to be:

  • Cheap
  • Mobile
  • Voice-based

Slums currently house (if that’s the right word) about 1B people, and are expected to double to 2B by 2030. Paul described the occasional warfare (with guns) with neighboring favelas, and the street childern employed as “watchers” to let people know that an unknown gringo had entered the district. But by winning people’s trust, Paul was able to find supporters and even leaders in the local people. They heard his offer to help, and asked him whether it was real. In commiting that it was, Paul started a project that has stretched out for more than 2 years, with a pilot to start in January 2005. He has involved more than 28 people including Stanford students and Philips employees, and spent updwards of $1M designing and building. At that point, he says, it’s up to the community to take over and make something of it.

What is it? From an end-user’s point of view, it’s a handheld device, an MP3 player with a full numeric keypad that runs for 25 hours on a AA battery. Content is stored in Flash memory cards, and consists of entertainment (music and radio programs), health information, educational materials, voice e-mails. The keypad is used to navigate the options and interact with content (like a “choose-your-own-adventure” book). The device can be docked to get updated content and send/receive email. People can share the devices but keep personal data on a flash card (which need not be shared). Conversely, public information, like AIDS/HIV prevention material, could be distributed on sponsored (free) Flash cards, with encouragement to share.

In addition to the hardware and networking challenges, it’s really about the content and services. Paul has designed a markup language that lets him tag and route responses, for example. The toolset for producing this content is all new; and as he tried to determine how to make a viable business (new hardware devices are copied within 2 weeks of hitting the Chinese market, he says) he is considering maintaining proprietary control over tools or formats.

Advice on projects: Certainly user-centered design was a key aspect of the Voices in Your Hand success. He made multiple trips to meet with users, and conducted interviews with different types of users. He created storyboard panels on a pack of cards, enabling him to demonstrate different mix-n-match scenarios or ask the subject to group things that were related. He said that you need to resonate with the culture that you’re working with: understand and appreciate and enjoy it. Keep the technical aspects simple: there are plenty of other risks without adding technical feasibility. The social eChallenge of BASES was a good way to gain access to students and advisors.

Interacting with others: as the scope and demands of this project increased, Paul managed to stay one step ahead, lining up resources and support to meet the new demands. Key groups were: Gatekeepers from the user community who saw what he was trying to do, and without fully understanding it, agreed to help. Philips, his employer, who dedicated dollars and people’s time. A sign of Paul’s success is that Philips has re-positioned itself as a responsible global citizen interested in sustainable development: Voices in Your Hand is a (the) pathfinder project for the New Sustainable Business Initiative. Being able to tie a project to the brand ensured greater followthrough, Paul said. While governments in developing countries might not be terribly responsive, multinational corporations that sense a PR disaster impacting their brand will swing into action.

All the while that the project was expanding, Paul tried to play contradictory roles: moderating expectations from the participants (about the only thing that was promised was a telecenter with a couple PC’s), but all the time gaining the commitment of more “face” (public statements from higher level officials at Philips and the Brazil government) making it harder for either of these essential sponsors to back down or cancel the project. He talked about the challenge of working with different groups with different mindsets and evaluation criteria: especially hard when crossing the cultures of for-profit and not-for-profit.

Leave a Reply