Making the Most of Digital Opportunities

FROM: Jane Carter, Antonia Does, Severin Huber – 19. October 2020

Pin-pointing locations with GPS, exchanging problems and solutions through social media, meeting virtually, learning via e-platforms….and much, much more. Digitalization brings so many opportunities to increase the scope and efficiency of our work – although it is not without inherent costs and risks. This is the first of three blogs exploring some of the ways that digitalization is transforming the way we work in Asia.

A decline in the digital divide?

A commonly repeated concern is that digitalization only increases existing inequalities between women and men, and between the rural poor and urban elites. It is true that internet access remains skewed to the more affluent in most Asian countries, although this is changing. Yet the digital divide may be over-stated when it comes to mobile phones and the proliferation of 4G networks. For example, in Nepal, a 2020 country-wide media survey found that some 96% of Nepalese households, rural and urban, have a mobile phone. Similarly, in Bangladesh, there are now over 166 million mobile phone subscribers, which is equivalent to more than one phone per person. Poor literacy is not necessarily a barrier; we have observed how quickly individuals who never had the chance of schooling grasp the major functions of phones using differently colored icons and photos. Similar trends can be found in our other Asian partner countries such as Laos and Myanmar.

Fast and easy knowledge exchange and learning 

In Laos, the SDC (Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development) project LURAS is using social media groups - in this case, WhatsApp - to build communities of practice around particular agricultural challenges. This entails farmers and technical staff sharing knowledge on issues such as pests and diseases, the marketing of particular crops, and many other issues. They exchange photos, video clips and voice recordings quickly and simply, without any explicit moderation. The idea is to have a truly free learning space; as observed by the project manager Andrew Bartlett (an ardent proponent of such tools), “Social media communities of practice are likely to be welcomed by managers who see creative chaos as a means to achieve their goals - and avoided by those who seek omniscient control.”

Meanwhile, in Myanmar another Helvetas-managed SDC project is using a variety of digital tools. The wetlands conservation project in the Gulf of Mottama undertook baseline data collection – recording all the farmers and fisher-people in the area - using the KOBO toolbox (open software used by many of our projects for similar purposes). The project then employed a local software development company, the Greenovator, to create a mobile app called Greenway. This provides up-to-date information on farming methods, inputs and markets as well as real time question and answer sessions focusing on the main crops of rice and green gram. The app also gives also information on the yield and income of the farmers, which are important parameters for reporting to SDC. Fishermen (it is usually men) can also use the app to record their fish catch, duration and methods of fishing. By analyzing these data, the project can calculate the catch per unit effort (CPUE), which effectively indicates standing fish stocks in the Gulf of Mottama and is thus an indicator of the productivity of the area. The app is also used to inform the fishermen on actual fish prices in local markets and beyond. The project also just signed a contract with the AKVO Foundation to collect water quality data using the AKVO Caddisfly software.

Ensuring delivery

A side benefit of using mobile phones for data collection is that GPS coordinates do not lie. Enumerators who might be tempted to skip visiting that most distant household cannot fake the data. Tracking staff movement can also be used positive motivation; in the earthquake reconstruction effort in Nepal, data fed into the software Commcare was used to show which technical staff had visited the most households in a given period; they were congratulated in meetings. Many staff observed that their personal visits made a real difference to the motivation of poor and vulnerable individuals who might otherwise have lost hope.

Saving time – and the planet

Of course, we all use mobile phones and computers in our daily work, but virtual meetings were rare until we were forced into them by the Covid-19 crisis. The examples given here were shared in a regional workshop on digitalization held online. We had originally planned to hold this workshop in Nepal for some 20 participants. In the face of the Covid pandemic, the workshop morphed into an online exchange for some 40 people in eleven different countries (Vietnam, Tajikistan, Switzerland, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos, Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan, and Bangladesh) - with various additional staff joining for specific inputs. We could hold a workshop in which twice the number of people originally planned could participate; the cost was about 10% of the original budget; and our carbon footprint was almost negligible compared to an estimated 21t carbon emissions. We also spent far less time – the workshop was only three, half-day, sessions. It wasn’t the same as meeting face to face, but nevertheless we learned a lot in an enjoyable way (good planning was essential – but that is true of any workshop).

The pitfalls

Digitalization cannot be expected to fully replace face to face interactions, which most of us need for sound mental health. There are dangers; these include misleading information and misuse of personal data. Fake news is easily spread, especially if passed from a trusted source; the same is true of unintentionally incorrect information. We always seek permission when photographing someone – but can people always know how their image may be used or how widely it might be spread? These days, for example, a jealous husband working in the Gulf might easily see - and assume the worst – from an innocent picture of his wife back home talking to a male agricultural worker. Then there is the matter of official surveillance; not all governments are benign in their collection of data on citizens. These and other matters are explored in two further blogs.

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Responding to COVID-19

We see our purpose during and after the pandemic in supporting the most vulnerable and needy in our partner countries.