Africa, Technology and its narratives

On September 1-2, 2017, I attended  the conference “Strategic Narratives of Technology and Africa” in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal. There was a great keynote by Nanjira Sambuli the opening morning of the event. I’ve learned a bunch of interesting and new things about technology and postcolonial theories, in Africa, that I would like to share. Some quick notes below about themes I learned during the conference presentations and discussions:

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Nanjira Sambuli

– there are about 200 tech hubs in Africa
– Telkom (South Africa) is Africa’s largest communications company and wi-fi provider
– Internet increasingly equals social media in the African context
– there is a growing colonisation of Internet by corporate social media
– Facebook has 170 million African users in 2017 (42% increase since 2015)
-Facebook opened an office in Johannesburg in 2015
“Platformization of Internet” (Helmond, 2015)
– The keynote speaker Nanjira provided a thought-provoking talk about narratives in the western newspapers about technology in Africa, in which dualisms or dangerous comparisons are constantly made: more mobile mobile phones than light bulbs, more mobile phones than toilets, more mobile phones than toothbrushes. She asks how these comparisons help in policymaking? Do the these questions make sense at all? Do they regard context? She also encouraged scholars and *journalists* to stop using these narratives.

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Nanjira Sambuli on the “siliconization of the narrative”

– The keynote speaker Nanjira also talked about how the narratives about technology in Africa are also shaped by Silicon Valley. In her terms: “siliconization of the narrative”. She also encouraged scholars to stop using these narratives.
– Postcolonial/decolonial approaches help to situate “platformisation” of the web in global context.
– There was a discussion about the term “participation”, and “participatory design” and the problematization of such terms. One of the speakers suggested another presenter to read the book “Participation: the New Tyranny” by Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari.
– Mobile phones are the primary devices in Africa, but there are so many tasks one cannot do on a phone. It does not contribute to the scenario of creators, it is terrible for the continent.
– 90% of the tech investment in Africa has 1 European or North-American as a founder.
– M-Pesa (M for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money) is a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service, launched in 2007 by Vodafone for Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania. It has since expanded to Afghanistan, South Africa, India and in 2014 to Romania and in 2015 to Albania.
– M-PeSA was created in Africa
– Customized products for the “Global South”: Facebook Lite, Facebook Zero, Free Basics (24 African countries)
Free Basics – a mobile app created by Facebook – has since its 2015 launch been hailed by the Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as the “first step towards digital equality” due to its audacious plan to “introduce” millions of people to the internet, many of whom live in developing countries such as Kenya and Ghana. However, Free Basics has been criticized for violating net neutrality.
– Materiality of mobile phones/specificity of the object/ mobile diaries – each person has a different phone – (memory, battery)
– “In precolonial Africa, movement creates space.” Achille Mbembe
– “Africa isn’t poor, just mismanaged.” Nanjira Sambuli

Location, location, location: doing research on the island of Madeira, Portugal

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After living the last four years in Austin, Texas, I moved two weeks ago to the sub-tropical island of Madeira, part of Portugal territory. A few scholars I have recently met here claim that this place is a “research paradise”, after all this is full of beaches, mountains (great for hiking or levadas, as locals say in Portuguese), and over four types of maracujá (passion fruit, in English), which is by the way my favourite fruit.

The “research” aspect of the paradise is justified by the existence of the innovative Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute (M-iti), where I am currently working with Dr. Valentina Nisi as a Postdoctoral Researcher. The institute is very international and it is focused on the field of HCI (Human-Computer Interaction). So, one can write academic papers, while looking into the sea and drinking all sort of maracujá-flavoured beverages (tea, fresh juice, cocktails); the passion fruit has naturally a tranquilizing effect. And the best about this place: unlike other beautiful cities around the world, the cost of living is very affordable!

The institute is a great fit for me, because Dr. Valentina works also with location-aware storytelling, the theme of my doctoral dissertation (see my older posts). In fact, along with an interdisciplinary group of scholars, grad students, and interns at M-iti, I am working on a project called Beanstalk that has a very strong location-based component. The idea is to disseminate the natural capital (e.g.: the number of endemic plants and its relevance) of Madeira through a package of location-aware tools, such as mapping and tracking. The project is also transmedia, which briefly means that Beanstalk will deliver content through different platforms. For example: 1) A location-based fictional story is being prepared to be accessed through a mobile app, which will enable tourists and locals to follow a footpath in the island and learn about certain places. 2) A webpage with video interviews with experts on Madeira’s flora as well as with residents who possess local knowledge about medicinal endemic plants is also part of Beanstalk.

If you want to learn more or follow the progress of Beanstalk, please visit this website: http://beanstalk.m-iti.org/about/

Are you curious enough to read this article about curiosity?

You might take for granted the term “curiosity” after all it is a banal word that we say all the time. However, have you ever stopped to think what exactly it means? Did you know that once upon a time curiosity shaped discourse, literature, news, and an entire society? Curiosity has also played a role in our well-being and happiness! What about sayings such as “the curiosity killed a cat”?

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, in Europe, curiosity was fashionable and people mentioned it endless much more than today. It was claimed to have unprecedented importance of being even the antecedent to all action or knowledge acquisition. That must be one of the reasons NASA named its car-sized robotic rover that explores Mars “Curiosity”  because the term fundamentally evokes the origin of science. Also, the Blanton Museum of Art of The University of Texas at Austin launched a #curiositywelcome guerilla marketing campaign for brand awareness, and was quite successful at gaining followers on social media. Others examples of how the discourse of curiosity resonates today, especially in Media, are sites such as: curiosity.com and curiosidades.com.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, curiosity was not used simply as a word but as a whole culture. Curiosity meant something like ‘inquisitiveness’ or ‘desire for knowledge’. However, being derived from the Latin etymon cura (care, diligence, anxiety, fastidiousness), the word sometimes had anything to do with desire for knowledge. Also, ‘curiosity’ could denote or connote a ‘desire to do or discover things that go beyond one’s allotted role in life. There is a negative tone attributed to curiosity that, according to several scholars, began in the Bible, symbolized by the forbidden apple, the “fruit of knowledge”.

Even today, there remains a discrepancy of moral evaluation between what many people might say about curiosity. Some might find it negative by confusing it with gossip. The negative historical tone of curiosity generated the saying “the curiosity killed a cat”. Such tone started being used in literature as way to shape narrative. Many authors used the bad male examples of curiosity in their narratives by creating famous characters: Doctor Faust, Oedipus, Orpheus (he lost Eurydice to Hades by glancing back at her). Albert Camus and many other writers only had to mention a certain name – “such as Icarus- for a particular narrative of curiosity to be evoked in the minds of many readers or listeners.”

On the other hand, recent research has already proved that one of the ingredients to achieve happiness in life is to be curious about the world around you. “Paul Silvia, a social psychologist, for example, doubts that curiosity kills too many cats.” In a psychology study published in 2007, Todd Kashdan and Michael Steger found that participants monitored their own daily activities, as well as they felt in a diary, those who frequently felt curious on a given day also experienced the most satisfaction with their life. Curiosity is here highly related with growth and expansion, with novelty and challenging situations. For instance, imagine now a restaurant you go often but not too often; if you are curious enough you might try a new dish in this restaurant instead of opting for familiarity by choosing the same dish as usual. Kashan explains that if you like the dish is great, if you don’t, you have a story you can use to connect with people. Researchers have found that curious people are rewarded by an “internal growth that takes places regardless the outcome.”

I have found in my own research in Austin, Texas, that people are barely curious about their surroundings, taking their locality for granted and not caring about places, history, architecture, stories, or even local news. I have found that technologies such as smartphones are not enough to trigger this curiosity, and this is becoming a sort of research challenging. Have you thought of yourself? Do you consider yourself curious?

One of my hypotheses for this lack of curiosity is that people are increasingly over stimulated in urban spaces due to aggressive advertising, overload of information caused by Internet, and mainly because of the busy lifestyle of modern society. However, even if you do not consider yourself curious, psychologists argue that curiosity can be cultivated. So next time, somebody invite you to dance something exotic like Kizomba or Kuduro, or even to try a hamburger made of snake do not think twice. Go for it, without fear, be curious, be happy!

 

If after reading this, you want to know how I applied curiosity into Locative Media and also to find the references click here

 

 

City of Austin website has GIS Map page

Earlier this year, I had a chance to volunteer at the “Open Austin Geospatial Jam”, an one-day workshop for the community to learn about location-rich data and tools. The event was organized by the “Code Across America 2014” and had as a goal to discuss tools and technology for manipulating civic datasets that contain location information. Most of the talks throughout the day were very technical and targeted to experts on GIS, but on this post, I’d like to share one of the most interesting things I learned at the event: the City of Austin website has a GIS (Geographic Information System) Map page. On this site,  any citizen may search data and choose to visualize it on a map of the city, even historical information. This is a great tool for newspapers. For example, the local newspaper Austin Statesman has already used this public tool to enrich its news stories.

If you would like to learn about the tools discussed in this workshop look for more information here

The Discourse of Innovation in Locative Media

The first QRcode in the world to be printed out on the ground Portuguese pavement
The first QRcode in the world to be printed out on the ground Portuguese pavement

For the past ten years, there have been many attempts to embed information in the physical architecture of cities. This new media trend is part of a whole phenomenon conceptualized by media scholars as “net locality”; the concept is illustrated by the idea of a small town, once physical isolated from the rest of the world, becomes potentially cosmopolitan because of the information embedded into its streets.

Net locality projects have different goals; nevertheless, many of them share the common objective of augmenting the knowledge of passersby about their surroundings or about a specific location through a set of technologies: GPS-enabled phones, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), Near Field Communication (NFC) and so on.

One technology that has been used to physically attach information to physical places is QRcodes. Some examples are in New York City, at the Central Park or at the buildings with city permits, an initiative approved by the City Council. The latter has been heavily criticized; while some people present the project as an innovative method to inform citizens and promote government transparency, others argue that the QRcodes will not be set in the best place and will be hard to costumers to scan them. As I wrote in a previous blog post, the issue of making the QRcodes visible and easy to scan is a concern also of Monmouthpedia.

What is interesting to highlight about these projects is the implied discourse of innovation that is practiced in the field of locative media, either by researchers, popular press or innovators. In other words, being a pioneer seems to be the most important thing of the deployment of a technology. Concerns with adoption seem to be taken for granted. For instance, when I look at the discourse of some people presenting the creative implementation of QRcodes, I see that a sort of flag of  “ the first one” being waived:  the world’s first location-based Wikipedia city; the first QRcode in the world to be printed out on the ground Portuguese pavement; the first government agency in the United States to deploy QRcodes in the US.

While this flag is waived, much criticism is left behind. Thus, net locality projects are launched with great expectations. They would foster serendipity, increasing people’s sense of their surroundings; provide access for digital heritage, participation and citizen engagement and increase tourism.

However, despite the significance of these projects we have noticed a lack of conceptualization and a critical theoretical guidance of what is location-based information applied to physical places in urban places. Are people interested in reading long articles while on the go? If these projects are designed for tourists, is there free Wi-Fi network available? The latter is critical to a project like that to be successful. After all, 3G/4G roaming service for tourists abroad is still very expensive to afford. In this sense, if these QRcodes implementation in cities aim at reaching tourists and the city does not provide free Wi-Fi access they are missing the point.

The final questions I raise about these projects are: what is the best physical place to attach information?  Which content should be tagged to places? What is the role of context and local knowledge when information is attached to places? What happens when passersby have access to information on a façade of a building?

What Is a Smartphone to a Kid?

imagesWhat is a smartphone to a kid? What is the first thought that comes to a kids mind when he thinks of a smartphone? What role does “location” play in his thinking process? How can it be used for education?  Last Friday, June 14th, during the celebration of the new grant River City Youth Foundation (RCYF) received from the City of Austin’s government, I was struck by a 10 years-old Latino kid who gave me a genuine and spontaneous answer to the question: “Tell me three things you can do with a smartphone?” In Spanish, I had posed the question to the entire audience who were residents of DoveSprings, a low-income neighborhood in the southeast of Austin.

Oné Musel-Gilley, the PR of RCYF and founder of the program Techcomunidad, was asking the kids educational questions and presenting them with awards.  Many children were standing in front of me and could not wait to hear my question. Thus, the boy was pretty excited to answer the question in order to get the award. Moreover, he needed to be competitive; after all there were others kids standing besides him, all of them eager to earn a gift as well. After thinking for a few seconds, the kid said the answer at full blast: 1) Look for places, 2) Talk to friends, and 3) Take pictures. His response could not be more complete. He was happy as he was rewarded!

There were three observations that I made about his response. First, his response conveys the potential of the smartphone as a tool to enhance people’s sense of physical places, the development of location-based applications, and the potential of place-based storytelling. Second, it shows the social aspects of the applications. It is interesting to note that he used the verb “to talk” instead of “to call”, extending the meaning of a smartphone to digital social networks. And third, the “take pictures” response also illustrates the smartphone as a practical tool.

Another interpretation of his answer is the fact that smartphones are highly associated with navigation. I was wondering to which degree of familiarity the kid had with smartphones. I then noticed that his mother had a smartphone. In the beginning of the celebration, when just a few people were there, she was using it. After a while she put the phone down on the table. It is very likely that this kid’s family use the smartphone for navigation purposes.

The kid’s response was overall representative of how kids in this day and age perceive digital mobile devices around them. For example, findings from a technology survey by CDW-G highlight the difference in how teachers and kids perceive technology. While 75% of teachers say they regularly use technology in their classrooms, only 40% of students report use of technology in classrooms. This survey also shows that a “whopping 94 percent of students report that they use technology to do their homework, while less than half of all teachers (46 percent) incorporate technology into homework.” This technology is quite restricted to the use of smartphones, since kids have a heavy usage of mobile phones (see the recent Pew Internet Research 2013 report).

I wonder if the 10 years-old boy had the opportunity to use any digital mobile device in his school. I also wonder how his parents would respond to the same question. Certainly, there is an entire new world that is open to researchers who are interested in learning how the next generations will use digital mobile devices in the long term. During my fieldwork, I will observe some of these generation dynamics and I will share some of these thoughts on my research “journey”, here on this blog.

Doing Research in Austin, Texas

Dovesprings is located in the southeast of Austin
Dovesprings is located in the southeast of Austin, Texas

My research combines three different fields: locative media, citizen journalism, and memory studies. Building on the principles of these areas of research, I am proposing a new concept called “locative citizen journalism”, which briefly means the creation of place-based stories by local residents about their locality with a very strong historical, life stories, and memory aspects.

I am currently conducting fieldwork in Austin, Texas. For the purpose of my dissertation, I am taking the approach of “Ethnographic Action Research” (EAR). It merges methods of ethnography with action research, which aims at engaging different stakeholders in the research development.

Following this premise, my professor Dr. Joseph Straubhaar and I have partnered so far with two organizations, in Austin, where I will run workshops with local residents about the creation of local content and upload this content to a website and mobile application called HistoryPin (see more information below). During the process, I will observe, take field notes, interview participants and participate with them in the creation of their stories. To ensure the integrity of participants, I have received approval by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of The University of Texas at Austin.

Our two partners are River City Youth Foundation (RCYF) and Latinitas. The first is a non-profit organization located at Dove Springs, a very low-income area in the southeast of the city. This neighborhood is Austin’s largest populated youth community, where one of every two households does not have technology access, and the residents are mainly Latinos and African-Americans. Since many of the residents are Spanish speakers only, the organization has a bilingual workforce. In order to bridge this digital gap, Oné Musel-Gilley – the public relations of RCYF – founded the program/event TechComunidad, which is focused on the technology training of parents/adults to capacitate them to guide theirs kid’s education. Sponsored by Dell, TechComunidad granted many families with a Dell tablet in 2012.  Those parents will be the participants of the workshops I will run about mobile/locative media.

Our second partner, Latinitas, is also a non-profit organization founded in 2002, with the aim of teaching young latinas girls media and technology. The organization publishes a magazine and also hosts media enrichment programs.Latinitas will hold summer camps in June and July. My workshop will be integrated in the session “Media is Power” (June 24-28).

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The overall goal of these workshops is to help local residents understand their local environment in a holistic way, increase their sense of place (mainly about their neighborhood) in order to raise awareness of their reality in the city as whole. However, it is important to highlight that the workshops will function as focus groups. Therefore, rather than only teaching, my goal is also to learn from the community what matters to be reported, to be remembered in order to change the present and make their present more meaningful. I also plan to observe how they react towards location-based technology in general.

HistoryPin

HistoryPin is a great tool for this study, because it is a social mapping website and also a mobile application – available for ISO and Android operating systems – that allows users to pin images, video, and audio clips to Google Maps. Users can include a story about each image and other meta data. It also enables the user to create a channel, where you can manage and customize your content and page. The versatility of HistoryPin facilitates the work and uploading of contents, either on the fly or working at desktop computer. With the mobile app, users can overlay images with Google street view, take walking tours, and see collections. Users are also able to see on the map stories that are near to them, through location disclosure.

Before choosing HistoryPin for this study, I looked at several other applications, such as crowdmap/Ushahidi, local wiki, and Broadcaster. I also talked to the journalism professors Amy Weiss Schmitz – at San Diego University- and Cindy Royal, – then at Texas State University – who have tried some of these apps with their students. After doing the research, I concluded that HistoryPin would be the easiest platform for participants. It has a user-friendly interface, a very little learning curve for pinning.

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Some researchers consider the low awareness of HistoryPin a drawback. However, for the purpose of this study, this is a matter of fact. Many past quantitative studies about location-based services have showed that users do not see a benefit in disclosing location and that those services are not reaching the tipping point. Building on that, I also aim to observe how early adopters understand the value of those apps.

HistoryPin is designed by non-profit “We are what we do” in partnership with Google. According to Kevin C. Miller (2013), the platform has about 232, 293 items pinned and about 400,000 visitors per month. It has also 45,000 contributors and 1, 100 institutions.

Liquid Research Proposal

gps_museumThe development of a consistent research proposal is key for the success of any PhD thesis. That is the process of choosing a topic, doing an exhaustive literature review, identifying gaps in the field, raising research questions, and finally selecting the right method to answer these questions. Anne Galloway – in the introduction of her dissertation entitled “A Brief History of Locative Media and Urban Computing” (2008) – says that a research proposal is a “warm-up stage”.

Based on my experience, I would say that it is through this process that a student becomes knowledgeable and confident about the chosen research topic. Thus, it is advisable to extend this warm-up stage for a good length of time. It is important to have feedback from different professors and colleagues from different universities, not only from supervisors, and to take courses in different fields in order to have a solid and extensive background.

Within eight months, I had to design three different research proposals, all in the scope of locative media. It happened because the first one was refuted by one of my advisors, the second was disrupted because one of the case studies – the hyperlocal service EveryBlock – was shut down, and finally the third was the one, which was presented to and accepted by the research committee. Rather than describing those proposals, I want to highlight what I learned from them and from the experience of the feeling of failure.

First of all, my experience illustrates the difficulties of doing research in the field of digital media, a world where everything is very liquid and transitory. On the one hand, this is positive because it facilitates one to be innovative. On the other hand, one needs to juggle with uncertainty. That is why there is a turn to the construction of prototypes and experiments in social sciences. It seems that there is a call to think in more suitable research methods to study digital media. By doing the literature review, I learned that the research in locative media, for example, is quite interdisciplinary, nevertheless, the empirical research is often undertaken by designers, architects, computer scientists or interdisciplinary groups.

Unlike those researchers, media scholars undertake qualitative studies such as cases studies, interviews, and ethnography. Therefore, the question is: Given that these digital services have a short lifespan, how can one come up with a good case study that keeps its relevance over time? In one of the conversations I had with a professor and expert in the scholarship of locative media, she posed me the following concern: “You have to think that your dissertation has to have an impact int the academic community when you finish it in two years. What if “Foursquare” (a potential case study for me) fades into inexistence in two years?” That was also the concern of my professor who refuted my first proposal. I had proposed to study two cases: the growing Monmouthpedia and the inexistent Manor. Both of them were cities, in which buildings had QRcodes with articles about their places where they were stuck, a phenomenon named “physical geotagging” (see my blog post “Geotagging of Physical Places“). The core of my proposal was to understand why many of locative media projects fails and why they are not reaching the tipping point.

By discussing this concern with a friend of mine, who is a professor in the engineering school, I learned with him that one possible response for this question is to invest in “fundamental research”, without any direct practical application or use in view. After all, there are blasts of new fields of research, that are absorbed by distinct other areas, which demands understanding from the start. For example, locative media ranges from new media arts to journalism.

Over time, I concluded that the three proposals were the bedrock of my dissertation, since they altogether were the source from where my current project germinated. Only now I recognize that, but I have to confess that for a long time I felt sorry for myself for having my first proposal refuted. It is obvious that was not an easy process, neither emotionally nor intellectually. However, I grew mature and stronger to come up with better ideas.

 Tips for people who are working on a research proposal:

1) In the beginning, you do not even know the terminologies of your field of research. Type all combinations of words and terms that come to your mind in the library databases search.

2) Once you have read many papers and books, and identified the experts in your field, try to reach them out. The best strategy is to attend conferences focused in your area of research, even if you do not have a paper to present. The experts will be there and you will be able to talk to them over lunch or coffee breaks. Don’t be shy!

3) Make a list of research questions and keep it in your purse or pocket. I know that sounds nerdy, but that is a good way to develop them into better ideas.