While in the field, I began testing out a system for asychronous communications between youth centers. This will form the basis for my thesis project in the summer.
I am focusing on designing for asynchronous, delay-tolerant networks that leverage existing infrastructure. I look at how a tailored system installed in youth ICT centers can enhance network effects between centers and creativity and social learning amongst youth. It will be piloted with Aber Youth Center in Oyam, a rural district of northern Uganda, before being installed in centers around the region.
Most of northern Uganda is emerging swiftly after two decades of war, and civic infrastructure, such as roads, water, electricity and mobile internet has been installed in urban areas such as Gulu and Lira but has only sporadically reached rural areas. Within this context, however, data transfer and the internet occur regularly via two major routes.
The first follows a path familiar to internet users in industrialized nations: mobile 3G access is accessible with varying degrees of accessibility via large phone towers that dot the landscape. The second relies on more direct, device-to-device transfers, as media are passed via cables and Bluetooth onto memory cards and flash disks, and those devices are in turn carried by foot, bicycle or automobile around the district.
Early designs for youth ICT centers in rural areas have assumed either zero connectivity, thus loading up centers with static, preloaded content; or constant connectivity, with dynamic accessibility dependent on a regular internet connection. However, the reality in Oyam lies somewhere in between.
My system assumes sporadic access and can tolerate regular delays in the network. At the same time, this system can and should follow the existing device-to-device file transfer network common amongst youth in the area.
In addition to the technical specifics of asynchronicity, I'm expecting the system to offer:
The ability to share the music and media youth are consuming. This can be a simple way to build social bridges between centers based on this common media interest.
The ability to take a photo with the built-in camera that can be shared online. The photo would automatically be resized to travel over the limited network connectivity.
A simple gifting system based on local gifting practices. I intend to experiment with the ability to "gift" livestock to other youth centers, as a way of showing thanks. This is a highly experimental feature that I'm eager to try in the field.
The project has evolved rapidly from what I first expected would be a phone-to-computer communication system, allowing youth in the back of the room to communicate with the computer using text messaging. Although this system worked technically, I found that youth were not interested in using their phones because of two reasons. Firstly, the expense of sending a text message was prohibitive relative to their personal budget. They preferred to spend that money for the usual uses, like communicating with friends and family or conducting business. Secondly, they were simply not interested in engaging with the phone to use the computer; they just wanted to use the computer.