Tag: impact of technology on society

Service Delivery Models: There is much more than just new technologies

by Miguel Garcia-Gosalvez

Despite numerous articles, papers and discussions there is still a general conception that associates, or even equates, “innovation” to “new technologies.” In the international development arena this is worrisome because, although there is no doubt that some new technologies can enhance and improve the lives of many people, in many cases new technologies do not solve the problems they are supposed to and may even create new types of problems.

It is not uncommon to see projects or initiatives that try to introduce new technological innovations, many times even more advanced that what is available in so-called developed countries. However, those who have experience in international development know the high failure rate of initiatives that rely on the latest and newest technologies. Despite the benefits that many modern technological innovations may be able to provide, we understand and appreciate that some basic and traditional tasks, such as training, deployment strategies, durability, etc. are directly linked to the success and sustainability of these innovation efforts.

We would be wise to recognize that “innovation” can also be found in the design and implementation of new processes and procedures that might not require new technologies but instead use existing technologies in a different, more efficient, and/or more effective way. Spending time observing and asking the right questions in order to understand the circumstances of the communities is certain to be of great value. Understanding topics such as those related to culture, sociology, geography, etc. could be the key to the solution of many problems.

For example, many service delivery projects in Africa are using an “old” technology such as the Short Message Service (SMS) more successfully than the one provided by the latest smartphones equipped with full access to Internet. The key to the success of some of those projects was not the technology itself but rather a deep understanding of the problem, an involvement of the communities affected, and the use of tools that are affordable and easily available. From the technological point of view, and given that there are more than 2.4 billion active SMS users that represent 74% of all mobile subscribers[1], we can confirm that people are familiar with SMS. They also understand how it works and it is always on.

According to market research firms such as A.C. Nielsen, in Africa more people have access to cell phone service than to clean water. For the most part, however, the available cell phones do not include the latest models but instead are simple, durable, with long lasting battery life and easy to repair. Foreign and local innovations have improved service delivery in sectors ranging from health to agriculture to financial services. For example, CycleTel (for reproductive health issues) and BloodBank SMS improve the communication between local district hospitals and Kenya’s centralized blood bank. SMS is also used to share crop price information between buyers and farmers, thus increasing market transparency while raising prices paid to farmers and getting access to more quantity and better quality for buyers. Mobile banking is also entering some African countries via SMS.

Governments, international donors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), etc. have to plan their assistance and solutions taking into account which technologies people can afford, already know how to use and will not represent an additional investment. That is what is needed instead of solutions based on the latest technologies that may or may not work or that will become unsustainable once foreign assistance dollars are reduced or eliminated. In addition, in the international development arena service delivery models have to be based on tangible results in order to catch people’s attention and that is also one of the reasons to use technologies already deployed and proven rather than technologies that might require not only extended investment but long implementation periods.

Innovations of any type cannot be created in a vacuum. They need to be designed and developed while interacting continually with end users. What makes perfect sense to those of us sitting in an office, far from the places where they are supposed to be used, might end up being a totally impractical, irrelevant or absurd innovation. That is one of the main reasons why all organizations involved in international development need to work closely and collaborate with organizations on the ground and with local people. Service delivery models have to make sense to those who will enjoy the service rather to the government agencies or organizations that might deliver them.

Delivery models based solely on technology are not good enough to deliver optimal results. The end users, in most international development programs and projects, are either not involved in the process at all or, if they are, consultation is often conducted at a very late stage of the process. Moreover, having an excellent technology and involving the end users might fail because of poor processes or procedures (e.g., training). This is why we represent graphically the ideal delivery model with an equilateral triangle where the three sides are equal.

Figure 1. Ideal model scenario where all three factors are considered equally

When more emphasis is applied on one or two of the three factors we end up obtaining triangles which different side lengths. Isosceles triangles (those with two sides equal) or scalene triangles (those with no equal sides) are not as perfect as the equilateral who was even given mystical significance. The value of this analogy is just to illustrate that successful delivery models rely on a balance of components. Making one side of the triangle longer or bigger will require, no matter what, changes to the others. Please see Figure 2 to appreciate this visually.

Figure 2. Scenarios where emphasis is not balanced between components

Innovation is not just technology but a component of a set that when combined appropriately can produce successful and sustainable results. Paying excessive attention to one or two of the components will force us to compromise the other and that is exactly what lies at the root of many innovation failures in general, and in service delivery in particular. For example, when technology is great but end users are not involved or poor training (processes/procedures) is provided the end result is likely to fail and may even condemn a good technology to obscurity.

These ideas may seem obvious but reality shows us otherwise. It is for that reason that international development professionals need to clearly understand and experience first hand these concepts to avoid being overly impressed by cutting-edge technologies, training techniques that promise miracles or consulting companies with “magic bullets.” Being informed, being in the field, and being in touch with end users while applying common sense might be more relevant than anything else and that is what we need to confront the many challenges that surround us.


[1] According to Wikipedia.


What is and what is not a mobile strategy

There is no doubt that there is a boom of applications, the so called “apps”, available for mobile devices. Organizations of all types, private or public, for profit or not, big or small, have embarked themselves in a fever to develop mobile applications. Many of these organizations (because of its leaders) are showing a lack of vision, a misunderstanding of how technology and management of information might be able to transform them in a meaningful way. A way that could be measured and most important, that has a real impact. Impact can be more sales, lower costs, increased customer satisfaction,… or even a combination of all of them.

Managers in these organizations think, and behave consequently, that porting existing applications into mobile devices is great and the way to go. In some cases these actions are helpful but they are far from reaching their maximum potential. Being able to do a task or gather the same information that I can get from my laptop in my mobile device (smartphone, tablet, etc.) is a nice touch but that’s it. I live in a college town, Madison (Wisconsin), with a great university and a great community. Those in charge of the information technologies have developed “Mobile UW” a mobile application, graphically well designed and that provides useful information (directory, campus maps, news, buses routes and schedules, events calendar,…). This a nice first step that many organizations embrace but now it needs to be taken to the next level if we are really serious about transforming the organizations and consequently their impact.

The real value of mobile strategies surfaces when it transforms the way the organizations function as well as the way the organizations interact with their stakeholders (customers, suppliers, employees, etc.). Porting existing applications to mobile devices might be a nice way for developers to learn and master their programming skills. Transforming organizations does not start within the departments of information technology. It must come from within the rest of departments and units, that together with stakeholders, agree in a new way of doing business. It is after that when we develop the means to put it in practice. Continuing with the same example: the University of Wisconsin – Madison has wonderful spaces available to students, citizens, employees,… such as the Memorial Union, The Wisconsin Institute of Discovery, Union South, etc. that can be used for more and bigger things. I was reading on-line comments and feedback regarding the student orientation, advising and registration service which seems to be great but it seems clear that could be taken to a next level while providing a more personalized and even better service without the constrains of a limited office space. These ideas do not have to come from the department of information technology but from employees, students, etc. of those services (those who do the work every day know it better than anyone) and then it is the IT department the one who has to implement it.

We have to make sure that information technology departments are there to provide services to the organization and not to drive the way business should be done. A mobile strategy, as strategies in general, are designed to achieve a particular goal. Being able to use my mobile device instead of my laptop is not really a goal (it alleviates my back though). A real mobile strategy will redefine the way we work, the way we interact with ours stakeholders, the spaces we work in, the way we live our lives…..it will provide a real transformation.

Google y la Gripe. Usos innovadores de la información existente.

Sería interesante poder saber el número diario de nuevos enfermos de gripe, también sería muy interesante poder saber en qué ciudades y hacía dónde se va expandiendo cada día. Esta información, hasta ahora, le costaba al Centro de Control y Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC, siglas en inglés para el Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) de los Estados Unidos no sólamente mucho dinero sino además el hecho de que la información no era inmediata. Siempre se iba con unos días de retraso. La información es recogida en los miles de centros sanitarios, agregada periódicamente y entonces enviada a Atlanta, sede del CDC, donde aún hay que realizar trabajos de análisis y evaluación de datos. 

Google (si, otra vez ellos) está proporcionando toda esta información y una nueva forma de seguir la expansión de la gripe en los Estados Unidos. Además permite hacerlo de forma instantánea. Google Flu Trends analiza las búsquedas que las personas hacen de temas relacionados con la gripe y localiza la posición geográfica de estas búsquedas en un mapa.

Esta ya demostrado que en lugares donde el acceso a Internet está muy extendido existe una gran correlación entre los casos de gripe y las búsquedas en Google acerca de temas relacionados con la misma. Si bien el modelo no es perfecto podemos ver en el gráfico anexo que la información proporcionada es de muchísima calidad.

La doctora Lyn Finelli (Jefa de Seguimiento de la Gripe para el Centro de Control y Prevención de Enfermedades) afirma que “[…] la información que nos está llegando es prácticamente en tiempo real. Nos proporciona, día por día, toda la información relativa a la gripe para un área determinada”. Del mismo modo afirma “El año pasado, cuando validamos este modelo, nos permitió predecir los casos, ubicación y tendencias de la gripe con una semana de antelación. Esto puede ser utilizado como una herramienta de aviso y control, en este caso para la gripe”.

Esta información puede ayudar a que los hospitales y centros de salud se preparen con antelación y tomar medidas en caso de una posible pandemia. El acceso a esta herramienta es gratis y Google afirma que sólo se proporciona información agregada mientras que los datos individuales se mantienen de forma confidencial.

Una vez más hablamos de innovación, innovación en los usos de información que ya existe. Gracias al comportamiento de las personas la tecnología nos permite obtener información muy últil para la sociedad. Obviamente, el debate acerca de la privacidad, de Google como Gran Hermano, etc. continúa y no pretendo entrar en él ahora, pero el hecho de que esta información es tremendamente útil no es cuestionable.

Innovar, entre otras cosas, es encontrar usos nuevos a cosas que ya tenemos, proporcionando un valor añadido que pasaba desapercibido. El uso de la información para analizar comportamientos está muy estudiado y el llamado data mining se ha convertido en toda una industria, dedicada a saber más de nuestro hábitos de consumo y comportamiento pero con el fin de vendernos más cosas. Si conseguimos que, además, haga aportaciones positivas como la mencionada, vamos mejorando en tono positivo.

Publicado en Infonomia la semana del 24 de Noviembre de 2008.