Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Interpreting Poverty through Images

Here is an interesting post that I came across.

Exploring Different Perspectives of Poverty Through Photography
by Duncan McNicholl

Some excerpts:
Many people only experience sub-Saharan Africa through photographs. The teary-eyed child in rags is familiar to all of us as the portrait of poverty charities use to communicate a hopelessness in need of our pity and charity. I reacted very strongly to these images when I returned from Africa in 2008 after a 4 month volunteer placement in Malawi, working with Engineers Without Borders Canada. I compared the images I saw to my Malawian friends – people who embodied intelligence, resilience, and compassion – and I felt lied to.

It seemed that these photos presented by development organizations and the media were deliberately providing only one perspective of rural Africans like my friends in Malawi, which was despair.

.....This photo project, which I am dubbing ‘Perspectives of Poverty’, is not to say that people do not suffer in Africa. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and we must not lose sight of the fact that millions struggle to get by. But how we interpret the lives of others is critically important since it affects how we support those struggling to overcome poverty.....

The opposite is true of microfinance. As a community it projects only the face of success, making light of the difficulty and struggle of entrepreneurship and a landscape littered with failure.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mobile Phone Data Capture

Madura is about to embark on a massive mobile phone enabled data capture exercise that will create some of the largest and most unique datasets in the world on the poor. We currently have about 160 locations that manage loan repayments through a mobile app that runs on a windows platform. We are now about to make an additional 500 of our field staff capable of capturing massive information through various mobile applications. The survey apps are being tested on these same windows phones that have worked well for us for our loan servicing needs. However, in this case, the apps are much more data intense. Consequently the phones have to work much harder, run longer, be able to withstand being dropped off the bus a couple times and have sufficient memory to store data given that network connectivity tends to be spotty. We are hoping for a 2 year life for the phones. Given the number of phones and platforms out there, choosing the right one appears to be no easy task. Anyone with experience with heavy usage of smart phones, please do tell me about it!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Engineering organizations

Something that's been on my mind lately is how organizational structure influences organizational outcome. Alex (Sandy) Pentland is a really interesting guy to follow in this context and in the context of social dynamics in general. He runs the Human Dynamics lab at MIT and has created a device that can measure subconscious signals of communication (tone of voice and things like that) that can predict the quality of interactions and therefore outcome. He calls them 'Honest Signals'. Take a look at this video where he talks about them.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Is organization an innate human trait or learned?

I've posted before thoughts on why the poor tend to be fragmented in their economic activity rather than organized into groups and it sparked some discussion (see Driving socioeconomic change by making women more dependent). I've been thinking now about the ability to organize in general. Our microeducation team at Madura just got back from the first pilot testing of our digital 'mini MBA' program. This is a video based training program that brings business education to the poor that has been developed in collaboration with Dr. Madhu Viswanathan at University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne and his Marketplace Literacy initiative. They tested with two different groups - one that was reasonably educated (10th or 12th grade) and one that was largely illiterate, and came back with some very interesting learnings. Here's one: There are a couple places where the video instructor asks them to pause the video, organize into groups of three or four and talk about some particular question or topic. The groups, particularly the more illiterate group were unable to carry out this instruction of organizing into groups. It had to be explained really explicitly and they are now looking at adapting the video to include a demo of how to break up into smaller groups. So, I wonder, is organization itself an innovation that we have taught rather than an inherent human trait?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Madura is looking for a postdoctoral scientist

Madura is looking for a scientist who will do cool things that haven't been done before. Here's the ad:

Postdoctoral Scientist: Rural Social and Trade Networks

This is a unique position where you will reconstruct the trade and communication networks of rural South India from various large empirical data sets and make it available to the greater scientific community. Real time understanding of the social and trade network topologies and dynamics will be used to design interventions that can significantly impact the dynamics of the network as part of an ambitious large scale social experiment to bring about poverty alleviation.

The key requirements are large imagination, a strong desire to work for social change, the ability to work efficiently with large datasets in MATLAB and C and the ability to design cool GUIs that will facilitate public access to the data.

This position does carry publication potential. However the primary goal is to create understanding that can result in fast productive interventions that positively impact the standard of living.

Please submit a cover letter outlining why this interests you along with your CV to

Spread the word!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Increasing the rate at which ideas have sex?

Interesting article in the WSJ by Matt Ridley called Humans: Why They Triumphed. He says:

Trade is to culture as sex is to biology. Exchange makes cultural change collective and cumulative. It becomes possible to draw upon inventions made throughout society, not just in your neighborhood. The rate of cultural and economic progress depends on the rate at which ideas are having sex.

Underlies the assumption on which we work at Madura - that poverty is an outcome of an impoverished network with slow flow of information. By increasing the rate at which people connect and interact with knowledge and information, we believe, interactions become more productive and magic will happen. In Matt Ridley's words we are facilitating trade and idea sex.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Who cares about poverty in the summertime?

Apparently not too many people.

First I’ll come out and admit that I’m addicted to playing with Google trends. I find it a fascinating commentary on our collective consciousness and weirdly entertaining. So, I was looking at search trends on ‘poverty’ across the world and there are two things that I find intriguing. First, there seems to be decreasing search volumes over the past several years although there are increasing news references. This is puzzling. But more interesting was that it was oddly seasonal, dipping twice a year. Check it out:

A country by country view was revealing. The decreasing interest over time cannot be attributed to the USA but the seasonal trend is more apparent, dipping during the summertime and then again over Christmas.

I then checked out other English speaking countries. UK and Australia both had some seasonality, less apparent in the UK than Australia, and dipping at slightly different times of the year. Turns out the dips correspond to the academic calendar for each country.

I have no idea what to make of India:

But what’s up out there? Are teachers just assigning a lot of homework on poverty all over the world?