Revi Sterling, director of USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge, says women are the key to successful digital development. We asked her to share some best practices for designing inclusive, tech-based programs for women and vulnerable populations. Here’s what she said.

The best practices for any development sector—digital development or otherwise—is based on an understanding of the end user in the most holistic sense possible. Technologies need to be appropriate for all the constraints that women face, be it literacy, cost, safety, security, or relevance. More than that, the technology needs to fit a woman’s lifestyle. For example, setting up a mobile money program but having strangers as mobile money agents isn’t going to work. 

It’s important to know what a woman’s family and society will let her do or spend, or where they will allow her to go. It’s important to know what her aspirations and information needs are. Only then can we start to address the gaps and create viable tech-based solutions. 

There are some effective practices that everyone should be aware of:

1. Interactive methods

With illiterate populations and speakers of unwritten languages (languages without UNICODE support), it is critical to have voice- and symbol-based input systems. The human-computer interaction model is key, as is having the users help design the symbols. Pre-testing is essential. Remember, time is expressed differently in different cultures, as are directions and location. There is a good literature on alternative interfaces from Medhi et al and Dodson et al. Check out Vikalpdesign and Digital Empowerment Foundation for inspiration. Also, don’t discount interactive voice and video platforms for reach and efficacy.  

With low-literate populations, it's critical to have voice- and symbol-based interfaces.

During the design phase, users in Ghana provided feedback on the Talking Book’s symbol-based interface.

2. Offline/online options

Communities may be covered by 3G or better, but that’s no good if you can’t afford it. Smart offline/online hybrid applications can bridge the connectivity gap. Also, not everything needs to be delivered in real-time—especially if the data is spam or incorrect. All it takes is one bad set of information to negatively affect women’s lives and livelihoods. People on the margins do not have a margin for bad or costly information. Good pre-processing of information saves time, money, and legitimizes content.

3. Creative ownership and security options

There are different ways to get technology into people’s hands without incurring too much cost or risk of theft. Algorithms tie a user’s voice to mobile usage, and biometric markers (voice, fingerprint) can keep technology with its rightful owner. Cost remains a huge factor for women. So be creative with rent-to-own or group ownership models for phones. Explore newer, cheaper operating systems like KaiOS. Data costs remain out of reach for many, which opens up the need for Community Network providers who can undercut the big telecoms. Look at ICTs that are not phone-based. For example, Talking Books are typically shared by communities or groups, like Village Savings and Loan Associations. With a built-in speaker, one device can serve up to 100 listeners, or more. 

4. Safety and expectations

Create training material! I think of Viamo’s 3-2-1 service that teaches people about the internet, email, search queries, social networks, as well as how to stay safe and avoid scams or harassment. Many women lack confidence to try a new app. Or they fear something bad will happen. These apprehensions are real. In the curriculum I’ve written on ICT fundamentals, I stress that having the internet doesn’t mean you’ll get rich. More likely, you’ll fall victim to a get-rich-quick scheme, which I see with so many novice and aspirational users. We need to be very clear about what “digital” promises—and encourage safe and sound use.

5. Feature phones

Feature phones like flip phones are not going to be replaced by smartphones any time soon, no matter what the forecasts say. Stop waiting for smartphones to migrate into the hands of the poorest—it’s simply unethical at this point. Thank goodness there are amazing services that are starting to look at these less sophisticated phones, such as KaiOS options.

6. Power brokers and use cases

Millions of women cannot use technology due to cultural barriers and social norms that keep them offline. So you need to work closely with those in power and create compelling usage scenarios for women. Use cases need to include a direct benefit at the household and community level. We have been extremely successful in working with husbands, fathers, religious leaders, parents, and in-laws, and employers, to find agreed-upon use scenarios.

7. Appropriate content

If there is no content of interest to women, find it or create it! Otherwise, there is no use case. Also, think about format. To reach low-literate audiences who speak local languages, Talking Book content is produced as songs, dramas, and interviews. Audio dramas are always extremely popular. They provide entertainment as well as information. Additionally, Amplio’s affiliates have found that health and agriculture audio messages recorded by women experts perform better with women listeners.

8. Women in leadership roles

Why shouldn’t every community network be run by women? WomenConnect has projects in four African countries where women have learned the essentials of networking and have brought the internet to their communities. The women manage the network, fix the network, and serve as role models for everyone else. In each of these communities, the men are so happy to have internet access and enjoy the subsequent benefits that they accept women running the show.

Revi Sterling is director of USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge. A technology and gender specialist, Revi previously worked for Microsoft Research and served as Chief of Party for NetHope, a consortium of leading global nonprofits and technology companies. Revi has a Ph.D. in Media, Technology, and Society from University of Colorado Boulder, where she also was founding director of the nation’s first Information and Communication Technology for Development master’s program. She consults widely on using tech to empower women and girls.

 

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