Tag: information

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.


“Here’s to the Crazy Ones” with Steve Jobs’ voiceover

My little homage to Steve Jobs.

The “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” commercial was a great success but the version that was aired in 1997 was with Richard Dreyfuss’s voiceover. There was a version, never made public then, in which Steve Jobs did the voiceover. That version was recovered and is the one included here. The “Think Different” campaign, devised by TBWA\Chiat\Day, was a huge success for Apple, reveling in the company’s outsider status and laying the groundwork for what is was going to become Apple in the future and how differentiated it has become from its competitors.

Here is a transcription of the ad:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.

You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things.

They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

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.

The interesting part of the Skype acquisition is not who bought it but who didn’t

Over the last few years we all have witnessed the convergence of three industries. Nowadays voice, data (mostly for internet service) and TV services are all provided by a limited number of companies.The days of ATT as phone provider, COX, ComCast or Charter as cable providers and AOL as internet service provider (ISP) are long gone. Traditional telephone companies now offer voice, Internet and TV. In the same way, traditional cable companies sell also phone and internet services. The traditional internet services providers as we knew them in the late 90s and early 00s have basically disappeared.

In the last years we are also noticing a migration from traditional services such as voice and cable TV to internet based services. It is not uncommon the people who do no longer have the traditional phone service and it is becoming more popular those who, together with a cell phone or not, use services such as Vonage or Skype. Regarding TV services, we are more and more migrating to services such as Hulu, Amazon, Netflix or iTunes which also use internet as the main distribution channel. The traditional pre-scheduled run of TV shows or movies is being replaced more and more by a model of TV a-la-carte or on-demand.

With that in mind it is not a surprise that the consolidation of services’ movement that we saw in the early 00s seems to have been reached its peak and new steps are being taken to move forward.

We watch TV and movies more frequently in the non traditional way, we watch what we want, when we want and where we want. We also talk and communciate with friends and colleagues with services that are also new, such as Twitter and Facebook. In that regard we can mention that Europe has seen in the last 18 months a drop in the number of SMS messages sent and received, which had become a great source of revenue for the phone industry in the last few years. People communicate more than before but thru new tools and some of what had had become cash cow services are on the decline.

How are these companies reacting to this new challenge? The wrong way, late and negatively:

a) The traditional unlimited data plans that we grew up used to are disappearing
b) The network neutrality principles we thought were embedded in the industry are vanishing

Those reactions represent obstacles to the new ways of, for example, watching TV and movies. Streaming movies using Netflix or Amazon services will get us into trouble with internet plans that have a limited amount of data transfer included. Also, providers could slow down access to sites or protocols that affect some way or another their interests and partnerships.

Despite all of that, and surprisingly enough, Skype hasn’t been bought by any major telephone conglomerate (AT&T, Telefonica, Deutch telecom, etc). All of them could have easily afforded that expense. Their strategy seems to go more to fight these threats rather than embrace them and transform them in opportunities: “There is nothing better than owning the pipes and what goes thru them”. Providing internet access and also VoIP provides them with economies of scale in regard to their current technology investments.

Microsoft can keep running Skype as now but that it will only provide marginal income. Integrating a service like Skype in Windows and Office applications can make those products attractive and prevent customers for trying alternatives (OS X, Linux based-systems,….). Windows and Office are cash cow products for Microsoft. Whatever it takes to keep those two products that way can make the investment worthwhile. Another thing to see in the near future if if they are able to take advantage of it.

IT Rapid Deployment Kit White Paper

A few months ago I wrote the attached white paper (480 Kb. PDF file) based on my experience in deployments around the world. Usually these deployments are in places where conditions might be difficult and usually are associated with events such as natural disasters, health related emergencies or even political transitions. Hard to reach, unreliable or non-existent utilities, and absence of reliable communication facilities are common in these places and situations.

International donors and non-governmental organizations make efforts to reach these places and assist people on multiple arenas, ranging from basic health assistance and food programs, elections monitoring. It is common to see deployments of experts on particular areas but often they lack the equipment, and in many cases, the basic skills that today are needed for day-to-day communications activities such as creating and establishing an internet connection, setting-up a wireless network, set-up and configuration of email accounts, printers, etc. These are real needs that must be covered in order to streamline the work of these staff as well as for safety reasons. There is no longer the option of calling the IT guy to come up and fix these issues. Many of these skills are today as basic as learning to drive. No matter what position you are in it is needed.

In this white paper, I attempted to provide an explanation and a hands-on checklist of the basic equipment needed for these situations. The emphasis is on the ability to “hit the ground running” meaning that the need to be fully functional from the information technology perspective and be able to communicate starts immediately, often as soon as the plane lands. Because of that, all the examples, images and illustrations explained here are related to equipment that people can carry with them in addition to whatever other luggage they might travel with. It is based on my own experience in activities all over the world

Download the 480 Kb. PDF file

Smart Grid: Google and GE teaming up

By now we all know that Google is no longer (if it ever was) a search-engine related company. Obviously it is much more than that and is trying to be part of all aspects of our lives. We have enjoyed, for a while now, services like web search engine, email, word processor, spreadsheet, library, news provider, etc. Back in November 2008 I wrote about how Google is using the information gathered to provide innovation services such as real-time information about the spread of Flu infections. As we know Google doesn’t stop and continues innovating on all kinds of fronts. Here is another example.

Back in the Fall of 2008, Google teamed up with General Electric (GE) to assist building what they called the Smart Grid. This will provide two-way communications, using the power grid, between customers and suppliers. This may not sound like anything new. In fact, though, the interesting thing about this is the new approach.

Google’s approach goes one step further by trying to take advantage of the flows of information that can occur. For example, utilities can better monitor electrical usage while users can obtain more accurate and faster (even real-time) information about their own electrical usage.

What lies behind all of this is even bigger and is an attempt, by both Google and GE, to push for policy efforts that facilitate and enable the availability of renewable energy generation in the United States. With a SmartGrid like the one proposed, we should be able to manage better our home energy use in order to reduce costs. Later on, and if the whole green technology movement catches up, we should be able to power our electrical cars when energy costs are lowest based on real-time consumption data (see RechargeIT Google initiative) or even sell to the grid the excess power we generate at home, for example through solar panels, wind, etc.

Some skeptics think that this will never happen or is many years away. Despite their arguments, I believe that when companies such as Google and GE make this kind of agreement (and back them up with resources in terms of minds and money) we should expect some results. Let’s see what happens!

Published at Infonomia the week of February 23, 2009.

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.