Web without Websites

A few days ago Samir, our software architect, sent an article around according to which not even 4% of Africans have a broadband Internet access. We ourselves know from the people responsible for projects, for example in East Africa how time-consuming the internet can be, with slow connections and frequent power cuts. But apart from those difficulties people also encounter a number of non-technical barriers to access.

A short while ago I read a study done by a few anthropologists for the british Department of International Development (unfortunatly the document is not available online at the moment), which looked at the use of ICT in resource-poor countries, i.e. Ghana, Jamaica, rural India and South Africa. The results are fascinating, especially as the demonstrate that what „we“ in the West take to be the Internet, is often used and experienced very differently in other parts of the world.

Thus the reserachers of the Ghana-study, who lived for one year in the poor households they were studying, discovered that none of the many young people using the internet cafés in a slum in Accra ever visited any websites. Instead they chatted for hours with complete strangeres all over the world, exchanging the typical lines – Where are you from? How old are you? What do you do? – over and over again. Asma, a 14 year old, bright student moved around a dozen chatwindows at a time and seemed to feel that there was something inherently enriching about being in contact with many different people from around the world. Yet she didn’t even know what a website was.

But as the Ghanaian government is using websites as their main information portal and as millions of Dollars of development aid get pumped into acquisition of computers and hardware, there is a huge gap between state policy and the real behaviour of people, which can only be bridged by much larger investments in „soft“ computer skills, which take actual human behaviour into account.

Studies like these are invaluable for betterplace as they demonstrate that we can’t act on the assumption that there is anything like „a user“, but have to take the culture and context of the very different users, we built the platform for, into account. Thus we need to incorporate qualitative studies such as the above as well as take the feedback we receive from the various people using the platform around the world very seriously. This has been our approach from the start and the resulting exchange is, for me personally, one of the most exciting aspects of working at betterplace.


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