What Africa & a Nonprofit Dev Summit Taught Me: Start with the User
Aspiration's 2012 Nonprofit Dev Summit held in beautiful Preservation Park in downtown Oakland did not disappoint. I am truly a fan of Aspiration's facilitation style where real-time contributions of agenda topics from participants are converted into breakout sessions that give true meaning to the concepts of collaboration and meaningful dialogue. All this in the company of amazing and, yes, often geeky, champions of technology in the nonprofit world.
As an accidental techie, I was a bit wary as I thought the content would be too technical and above my "pay grade", but that was definitely not the case. In fact, I experienced just the opposite. Throughout the three-day Summit, much of what was discussed was the non-tech side of technology, something that many of us is this space sometimes lose sight of when trying to help organizations leverage technology to achieve their missions. It was also this concept that was the theme of a breakout session I facilitated titled, "Things I Learned Doing Mobile Work in Africa".
During my session, I shared my experiences from a year spent working to help roll out a mobile app in Kenya. The app was designed to help refugees find family members displaced by war. Users could establish a ‘Facebook-like’ profile and then search through other profiles to try to locate their lost loved ones.
It is a great idea in theory; however, I quickly learned that the app’s development phases hadn’t been all that inclusive of those actually meant to use it. As a result, cultural issues related to class, gender, nationality, tribe, language, religion and more made deployment more than challenging. And, there were other problems indicative of the development approach - the app was designed to be used on phones that most intended users didn’t have and networks they didn’t have access to. As you would imagine, these factors kept adoption rates painfully low.
Given my experience in Kenya, and now at the Nonprofit Dev Summit, I am convinced that when we consider tech-based solutions for our communities’ most pressing problems, we must always start with the user. Otherwise, precious time, money and, worst of all, hope is squandered on subpar tools that have little chance of achieving their purpose.
(Pictured: Camille Ramani (standing) at work in Kenya.)