Keepod: a positive critique

Last week I got a call from mobile technology expert, and BBC Technology journalist Dan Simmons asking me to comment on the new keepod, an initiative that recently raised $40,000 on the Indigogo crowd-funding platform for their programme in Mathere, Nairobi.

You can read Dan's article here but I thought I'd use this blog-post to reflect more fully than the space in Dan's article or the lead story on BBC Click allowed. Let me be clear, I support the efforts of the keepod team, but here I aim to offer some constructive criticism from technical, social and critical perspectives.

The Technical

ICT4D is rightly criticised for being technocentric when it focuses on the technology itself at the expense of social and critical perspectives. This is not to say that the technical is irrelevant or should be ignored.

The keepod is a $7 bootable USB drive running the free and open source Android operating system. Each user 'keeps' their own educational applications, desktop settings, data files and operating system on their own 'keepod' (see what they did with the name there!).

This means that each person doesn't need to own their own PC, and that the computers they access don't need hard drives. This allows the people at keepod to provide inexpensive refurbished PCs to schools and community centres to enable wide computing access at relatively low costs.

There are several questions in my mind about how each user can back-up their data, tailor their applications, upgrade and virus-protect their keepod, and in what ways the keepod represents a technical advance on Ubuntu LiveUSB, but I am sure that the keepod team will answer these technical questions – so they are not show-stoppers.

The main technical criticism seems to be that a keepod is of zero use to someone who has no access to a personal computer - and five million people have no such access.

Perhaps the opportunity here is to partner with the half a million existing telecentres and other community computer centres, and with existing computer for schools programmes like Computer for Schools Kenya and other Computer Aid International partners in order to amplify reach?

The Social

As with all ICT4D initiatives the technical stuff is only around 10% of the overall challenge. 90% of the work is the human, organisational, financial and other resource and development issues. Bearing this in mind the total cost of ownership of a keepod is going to be significantly higher that the $7 per person headline-grabbing figure. Way higher!

Keepod's own publicity talks about the potential benefits that they expect their device to bring in the arenas of education, agriculture and health. However to translate ownership of a keepod into sustainable educational and social development outcomes will require resources that are not budgeted for in the $7 per head figure.

For example, to translate ownership of a keepod into valuable educational outcomes will require amongst other things: PCs, electricity, internet connectivity, technical support and capacity-building, pre-service and in-service teacher training, translation into local languages, documentation, curriculum materials, etc. and if keepod is to provide meaningful support and development in this area it will need to add sector-experienced field and HQ staff to support this work effectively.

In the case of their Mathare engagement several keepod staff were deployed to Nairobi to build local capacity and to provide equipment. The opportunity here is to use insight gained from these engagements to map out the true needs and costs of a more holistic programme.

The Critical

The team from keepod have an admirable vision and aspiration to provide solutions for the 5 billion people who are without access to a computer and who are currently excluded from the benefits of information and communication technologies.

Yet in order to generate genuine development outcomes they will be compelled to go 'beyond access' because ownership of a keepod is of zero value in isolation from other essential resources and developmental processes.

In order to know if keepods are having any meaningful impact the team will need to measure their success by some criteria other than the number of gadgets shipped/downloaded.

If keepods are simply made available virtually, to those who happen to hear about it, and are able to afford the $7 plus the costs of accessing internet facilities, then the potential exists to create new divides. People in remote communities, those not understanding colonial languages, people with visual impairments and the very poorest will be disadvantaged.

Success in reducing divides will require targeting resources and sustained capacity-building for excluded communities to ensure their effective-use of ICTs to solve their own development challenges.

I suspect there is an opportunity to use local infomediaries in keepod programmes to help facilitate a re-focusing on outcomes rather than ownership as a criteria for success, as well as investing time iteratively to sit with communities to better understand the structural obstacles and limits to their development that they wish to overcome, in part with ICTs.

Increasingly I think that the key critical questions for ICT4D are “who benefits?” and “what interests are being served?”. Are our ICT4D initiatives reinforcing existing divides of wealth and poverty, urban/rural, male/female? At the end of the day, are the interests being served those of Western computer companies, ex-pat tech community and academics or those of the disadvantaged, disabled, illiterate, and rural poor?

I support the efforts of the team at keepod and of others seeking to provide ICTs for development and I hope this comment is accepted in the spirit of constructive criticism that it is intended.

We, all of us, need to continue to reflect critically on whether our efforts are technocentric and seek to locate the 'intended beneficiaries' at the centre of our conceptualisation and implementations, to ensure that their priorities and their agency determine both the means and the ends of development.

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