There are still 4.5 billion people without access to the Internet. Bain & Company, the global management consulting firm, suggests that this represents by far the largest opportunity of the next decade. There is now widespread agreement—along with emerging evidence—that ICTs can help improve quality of life and accelerate development efforts at all levels.

Human factors, software, services, social influences, and many other considerations have been studied repeatedly, but the impact of hardware has been largely ignored. The lack of attention paid to the actual technology and the role it plays (or can play) in fostering inclusive growth and innovation has been detrimental to development-related outcomes.

The top five hardware challenges in information technology for development 

Based on in-depth interviews and a macro-level survey of experts, practitioners, academics, and end-users of ICT4D, Inveneo has identified the top five technology hardware challenges faced by the developing world:

1. Electricity/power/energy. The presence of low power hardware with long battery life is crucial in an erratic power supply environment rife with electrical spikes, swings, dips, blackouts, and brownouts.

2. Cost. Striking a balance between lowest cost and solid, reliable, functional technology is essential.

3. Environment. Products need to be designed with durability in mind, including resistance to water, humidity, dust, dirt, and extreme heat. Some screens are difficult to read in direct sunlight, so particular kinds of screens are needed (e-ink screens are ideal).

4. Connectivity. The more connected the network is, the more valuable it is. The main method advocated for connection is Wi-Fi.

5. Maintenance and Support. Technology that cannot be locally maintained, supported, and repaired is not sustainable. Transportation for repair, maintenance, and support is expensive.

This theme has been taken up by the major international donors. The program Grand Challenges — a family of initiatives with partners that include USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the UK Department for International Development, among others—started as an attempt to spur innovation and private-sector engagement; an additional $50 million was committed to this program in October 2014 by the various partners.

Their most notable Grand Challenge to date is the initiative Saving Lives at Birth. This initiative seeks to promote innovative technological and operational approaches across three childbirth-related areas: new scientific and technological approaches to prevent, detect, or treat maternal and newborn problems at the time of birth; service delivery models to provide high-quality care at the time of birth; and ideas for empowering and engaging pregnant women and their families to practice healthy behaviors and be aware of and access health care.

In 2014 a student team applied for funding from Saving Lives at Birth for their new nonprofit health technology organization, SimPrints. They took on the challenge of the ‘identity gap’ in the slums of Bangladesh that poses daunting challenges for community health workers. Many patients have similar names or names with multiple spellings, they might not know their exact date of birth, and most have no formal address. They lack any official form of identification. The proposed solution was a pocket-sized fingerprint scanner that instantly links an individual’s fingerprint to his or her health records.

Co-founders Toby Norman and Dan Storisteanu write:

Initially, we planned to build the system using readily available fingerprint scanners, but no single scanner was sufficiently durable, portable, accurate, and low-cost. But although the solution was evident—to build it ourselves—we did not want SimPrints to become yet another “outsider” solution. So we decided to get close to the challenges, listen to users and experts, and immerse ourselves in the context in which our system would be used.

Working in Bangladesh, it soon became clear that we needed to overhaul our design. Our prototype was a “swipe scanner” that requires people to swipe their finger across a sensor rather than hold it down on a “touch sensor.” Yet we noticed that many fingers had stiffened with age, after years of manual labor, and found the swiping motion too difficult. Also, the groove on our scanner that guided a person’s finger was not sufficient, and some people would swipe the wrong part of the scanner. It became obvious that a swipe scanner was not intuitive enough, requiring too much instruction from health workers to each of their beneficiaries. Though more expensive, a touch scanner was clearly essential. Had we focused on merely reducing cost, as is often the approach, we would never have developed a successful product.

In contrast to the approach taken by SimPrints, almost all devices and innovations are targeted toward established markets peopled by literate users who already understand how ICTs can improve work- and lifestyle-related efficiencies. These users take for granted advanced electrical and connectivity infrastructures and are able to afford expensive technologies and utilize them in safe environments. They have also had a lifetime of exposure to ICTs and their evolution. This is not the case for people in the developing world, however, where even an “ON” button will not have the same immediate recognition as it does for someone in the developing world. When technologies developed for advanced markets are employed in poor, resource-constrained locations—where environmental conditions are harsh, electricity and connectivity are not assured, and technological literacy and understanding are scant—they fail.

When Literacy Bridge explored the idea of designing a mobile device specifically for the learning needs of the world’s most vulnerable people, it began an iterative process of listening to user needs, understanding their environment, and proposing technology designs and revisions to those designs.Cliff Schmidt, the founder and CEO of Literacy Bridge, comments:

From our earliest research, we gained an initial understanding of the problem space: the world’s poorest people are not able to make the most of their resources due to lack of access to learning new skills and healthier behaviors.

Since the vast majority of the people we want to serve are illiterate, and live without access to electricity or mobile data networks, our answer was a technology called the Talking Book: a low-cost audio mobile device that didn’t require literacy skills to operate, grid power, or mobile network access. The next step was to propose the idea of this device to hundreds of potential users to generate feedback and discussion that would lead to a more specific design or possibly a completely different one.9

Literacy Bridge also spent time in the communities to observe how daily routines related to ways in which it might use the Talking Book device both directly and indirectly. This cycle of observing, proposing, and soliciting feedback repeated several times over the course the design and development stage continues today. It allows the developers at Literacy Bridge to learn which features were critical and which were detrimental to user needs. For instance:

  • A powerful loudspeaker would enhance the ability for group meetings to incorporate the playback of instructional messages for group discussion.
  • Adding a built-in microphone to the device created significant value to users while also providing a means for collecting ongoing feedback about the program.

In addition to understanding user needs, developers also learned critical information about the users’ environment. For instance:

  • Heavy rain and dust storms were common. The Talking Book would have to be especially durable and provide a seal over any electronic ports.
  • Only basic carbon-zinc dry cell batteries were readily available, not alkaline batteries or those that use newer chemistries, which resulted in much lower performance characteristics. Understanding this meant designing the electronics very differently so that they would work using the batteries that were actually available.

Literacy Bridge started with the assumption that the right solution would not be with the first version. By approaching product design in stages, it avoided overinvesting in a device that had not yet passed the test of large-scale user adoption.

In partnership with UNICEF and ARM, 50,000 users are now testing the latest Talking Book design and Literacy Bridge is ready to invest in larger manufacturing scales to make the device the most cost-effective way to reach the world’s most vulnerable communities with life-changing knowledge.

SimPrints, Literacy Bridge, Inveneo, and USAID have all, independently, realized that technology can be much better designed to function well in the difficult conditions present across much of the developing world. For business, as much as for development organizations, this is where challenge meets opportunity.

A longer version of this article can be found in the 2015 Global Information Technology Report.

Authors: Laura Hosman is Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University, Dominic Vergine is Head of Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility at ARM.

Image: A slum dweller cooks by a lake slum in Dhaka. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj