A contingent of d.school students recently returned from Kenya, where they spent two weeks working with Nokia Research Africa, and the University of Nairobi, developing health-related mobile applications. The trip was the culmination of months of work in connection with a new class at the d.school, “Designing Liberation Technologies,” which will be offered again in the coming academic year.
“Designing Liberation Technologies” is (at least in its current iteration) an experiment in remote, user-centered design. Starting in April, Stanford d.school students from a diverse array of disciplines – including computer science, medicine, business, law, education – worked with computer science students at the University of Nairobi to identify the design needs of health care providers and low-income mobile phone users in Kenya. The students then developed prototypes of mobile applications to support delivery of health services in urban areas. In August, a group of students travelled to Nairobi to meet with NGO partners, test prototypes, and advance plans for the future.
It may seem surprising, but mobile phones are practically ubiquitous in Kenya, as in many other parts of the developing world. Although relatively few Kenyans have heavy-duty, feature-rich smartphones like the iPhone, Kenyans make very sophisticated use of the technology available to them. For instance, it is not uncommon for Kenyans to own multiple SIM cards and swap them in and out of their phones as necessary to take advantage of favorable in-network and off-peak pricing structures.
In development and technology circles, it is now widely recognized that the adoption of mobile phones represents a sea change in the communications and computing capacity available to developing world populations. Call it “ICT4D” – that’s “information and communication technologies for development“.
Amazingly, some emerging technologies that have been slow to take hold with consumers in the U.S. are already thriving in the developing world. Take mobile banking in Kenya: in 2007, Kenya’s dominant telecom Safaricom launched M-Pesa, an SMS-based payment system that enabled subscribers to deposit, send, and withdraw money from their pay-as-you-go mobile account. Less than two years later, by 2009, nearly 40 percent of the adult population in Kenya held an M-Pesa account, and the user base is still growing strong today.
M-Pesa was originally intended to be a tool for making safe and secure remittance payments from, say, an office worker in Nairobi to his family in the countryside, but M-Pesa has done more than revolutionize remittance payments. By replacing cash, M-Pesa has solved a nagging security problem that chilled all kinds of financial activity in Kenya – including savings.
Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Kenyans do not hold a brick-and-mortar bank account in their name, and M-Pesa is quickly taking the place of cash-stuffed mattresses. According to a recent study by several American economists, three quarters of M-Pesa users it to save money, and many M-Pesa users say it is the most important savings tool they have.
Building on the insight that Kenyans are using M-Pesa to save, one of the three teams set out to build a better, user-centered mobile savings tool. Jacaranda Health, an NGO that delivers vehicular-based prenatal care and delivery referrals to pregnant mothers in underserved areas of Nairobi, was a natural partner. As it turned out, Jacaranda lacked a sustainable source of funding to support delivery of its services, and the d.school team had already spent much of the spring designing a savings tool for expectant mothers.
“Drawing on our own experiences, we observed that mothers are uniquely prone to put aside money for their children, and with the on-the-ground support of the University of Nairobi students and Nokia we confirmed that Kenyan women tend to be more invested in savings schemes than men,” explained d.school student Eva Hoffmann, ’11, a joint product design and human biology major.
To test their designs and learn more about the financial lives of low-income Kenyans, the d.school team led two days of interviews, discussion groups, and prototyping sessions with mothers in Nairobi. The activities led to some unexpected insights – for instance, that women are saving with a surprising degree of financial sophistication and discipline. Saving for pregnancy is a top priority for many mothers – and even though they may not have advanced tools such as dedicated savings accounts (or savings accounts at all, for that matter), they have found workarounds such as keeping paper ledgers of their M-Pesa activity to ensure that money they intend to spend on pregnancy is set aside.
To supplement general research about financial behavior, the team had the rare opportunity to do co-designing workshops with the mothers, having them compose texts they’d like to receive from a savings service and discussing specific features of the plan that would be most useful for them. Employing d.school techniques, the end users were able to dream up their own technology, and the d.school team is working with Jacaranda Health to translate these ideas into an actual service.
Other d.school teams that travelled to Nairobi worked on mobile-based solutions to pharmaceutical counterfeiting and water shortages. Team Pill Check designed a project to connect malaria patients with up-to-date information about drug availability and pricing; they spent their time on the ground researching the drug supply chain and talking to distributors to assess the viability of their idea. Meanwhile, team m-maji (‘mobile water’) met with water suppliers to chart out the next steps for their project, an electronic information system that will allow residents of the Kibera settlement to identify clean water sources in their community. The idea was met with enthusiasm from both vendors and buyers, and the team members, with technical help from the University of Nairobi, are getting ready to start programming their system.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the class was the relationship that was developed with the University of Nairobi: the students and staff have been invaluable partners in everything from initial needsfinding through interview translation and programming support. In early September, the d.school will return the favor, and host several of the Kenyan students for a week-long crash course in design thinking, and tours of several Silicon Valley companies.
–Authors David Rizk, a law student, and Eva Hoffmann, a joint Human Biology and Product design major, are both students in the d.school’s Liberation Technology course.