In 1985, Aldus Corporation gifted the world with PageMaker, a software which made publishing industry professionals feel more powerful than ever before. Before PCs became ever-so-common, PageMaker became the industry standard in publishing and carved out a new category of software, desktop publishing software, or in short, DTP. PageMaker was such an amazing invention, that some believe that it saved the Mac OS. It became the modern day letterpress. Since then, Adobe has made incremental improvements to this software year after year, and after moulding it into the newer InDesign, has brought the power of DTP to the masses. But I believe the next most extraordinary invention in publishing hasn’t come out of this PostScript giant, but from a small creative start-up in the Financial District of San Francisco called Inkling. And they call it: Habitat.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I attended the LAUNCH conference (a conference for start-ups and investors) in San Francisco. As I was walking around the start-up demo tables, I started to realize the huge magnitude of what I think has plagued the tech start-up community today: ELITISM. To describe it in its simplest way, I define elitism in the context of start-ups as “ventures that aim to benefit a really small % of society”. I earlier believed that this was true only for the start-ups I was following closely and what I saw emerging from hackathons, but after looking at some of the best start-ups in not just the country but in the world line up to present their hardware and software that I struggled to consider meaningful, I knew my hypothesis was validated. This hypothesis has grown from a lurking concern in my mind to a mental block that I am struggling to come to terms with, and that is why I want to talk about it with you.
Why are most new companies, especially tech ventures, not trying to solve real human challenges? Let’s back up: why am I concerned about this, and what is it that I call meaningful that these start-ups are not doing? I believe that most of us have one common purpose of existence: to make the lives of other people better, in the pursuit of happiness. And that the more lives that we improve, the more we serve humanity and the more purposeful our existence becomes. And so, one of our core endeavours as we create start-ups and work nights and weekends to build products and services should be to improve the lives of more people and create more meaningful impact in human lives. If this theory is so reasonably sane and simple, then why are entrepreneurs all over the place solving small un-problems (eg. filters for pictures) and getting away with it successfully?
I love Drupal. I have been engaged with the technology, the community and the vision for about 2 years now. So much so that I attended DrupalCon 2012 in Denver and loved it (I compare it to Google I/O when I consider the quality of tech conferences I have been to). But unfortunately, due to the reasons I am about to describe, I have come to the realization that Drupal is actually a horrible solution to build apps (content or non-content heavy) in agile environments, which is pretty much the case with most web start-ups. This has led me, the sole developer/engineer of my startup, to switch from building our core platform on Drupal (which I did for several months) to now building it in Django from scratch. This is not a pro-Django article, as I think I could accomplish the same with more or less similar difficulties in the 7+ MVC frameworks I have worked with in the past. I want to tell you exactly why Drupal is not right for such a context. Continue reading →
MS Powerpoint is a beast of a powerful tool, and immensely popular for giving people the ability to make presentations without making them think much. You know something is popular when it’s name becomes synonymously used with the adjective it helps accomplish, for example, searching with “Googling”, presentations with “Powerpoints”, tissues with “Kleenex”, etc. But despite much success of this feature rich tool, designers tend to hate Powerpoint. They instead settle with Keynote, InDesign, image slideshows, or sometimes even prefer to hand-draw live instead of relying on this toolset. So you ask, why? Continue reading →
333 pages for not even your main report. Are you freakin kidding me?
Performance Reports. Indicator reports. Sector planning reports. Strategic plans. Donor information reports. Analysis. More analysis. Synthesis reports. Budget reports. Interim reports. Blah blah blah. This, my friend, is the best-in-class state-of-affairs in public policy and advocacy reporting, external communication and innovation medium, whether it may be from a government department, a consulting firm reporting in public affairs, a local or international advocacy group, or your average researcher. Each document, comprising of no less than 40 and sometimes more than 1000 pages of bleeding Times New Roman* text, is meant to serve as yet another step towards the advancement of public knowledge of public issues. But to me, it serves as yet another calamity from the perspective of good communication and information design skills. Just like is the case of Powerpoint, never before has the abuse of Microsoft Word and InDesign been greater. Sometimes I feel like the people writing and publishing these documents should be paid by Adobe for preserving the PDF standard, which they may use for paying the fines charged for wasting people’s vital time.
I would like to go to the extent and take the liberty to partly blame these poor communication practices for our inability to meet the development goals of our century. These have stifled innovation, created artificial barriers to entry and significantly slowed us down. Our failures in communicating theory, quantitative and qualitative data, and agendas for moving ahead as a society to masses of people in a succinct, clear and consistent fashion has left us hanging at the mercy of change makers who read and interpret these reports for a living. It has distanced public good agents from public good advocates, a crime which entire nations, at times, face jail-time for. If there were ever a worldwide census for least used and exploited public good available to one and all for free, these reports would win hands down and UNDP would be up on the stage giving a 17-minute speech while collecting the award. Of course HP and Xerox would be thanked generously for helping so graciously for giving UNDP the tools help create what in future will become heaps of recycled paper.
Enough trash talking. But really, why do policy makers, sometimes some of the most intelligent individuals on the face of the earth today, communicate in such a horrendous manner? While I was a student of technology and design, my graduate school is a public policy school, and that is where I found some answers to this big question. I learned some of these lessons while working on a recommendation report for a poverty-stricken African nation’s IT sector with 9 other people recently - and I have used that below to provide contextual real-life examples. These are in no way exclusive or entirely accurate, and so I welcome critique if you think otherwise.
This past week, I got to sit in on two talks by the visiting Ann Mei Chang, the Senior Advisor for Women and Technology in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the US Department of State, and previous mobile product lead at Google. Ann Mei spoke about several ICT for development “rules” and learnings in lay man terms, things you would ideally read in the Conclusion slides of most paper presentations at an ICTD conference or gathering. She reminded me very much of the Kentaro Toyama10 point presentations on the same topic.
The most interesting thing that I heard/learned from her actually did not come in any of her presentations; it was something I picked while unintentionally eavesdropping on her conversation with another student on women issues. She gave what I think is an absolutely interesting analogy on how we should approach women empowerment issues today, and I am going to try my level best to convey her message. When asked about why we should put such significant energy on segregating and differentiating women’s issues in the developing world, Ann Mei drew out an interesting analogy from her experience with mobile products. She said that we must treat women’s issues in the developing world like how Google approached their mobile teams several years ago. Back when she started leading the mobile team at Google, there was special and separate (from mainstream Google products) attention given to Google experiences on mobile devices. But things changed – with the rise of mobile, the idea that the web design world should be thinking “mobile first”, and in fact that mobile and desktop experiences must not be thought of in isolation, became the right way. In the same way, we need to give special attention and create policies specially for women today until they are as “mainstream” in all aspects of society. And when we can achieve that, and when the capabilities and role of women are not considered to be any different from that of men, we must get rid of these, as in that ideal world, women will not need that special attention as they will stand for themselves. Or as Sheryl Sandberg would like to put it, they will have a seat on the table.
An important points to note here: I shared what I learned from Ann Mei with my friend Tamar who responded to me telling me how she didn’t think women should get reservations and special ‘quotas’, as that is not what makes a level playing-field. And she is right. But I feel like Ann Mei’s argument to that would be: YES – we must not do it that way. That is indeed wrong. By special attention, we mean that women should be given more opportunities and governing social support systems to realize their true potential, much like mobile was given its own team. And that’s what makes this analogy so powerful.
You must be thinking that this post is another means I have employed to share my lame humour. On the contrary, I am probably much more serious than ever before here, because defecating and toilet sanitation do indeed have huge implications on social development, ones which cannot be ignored by anyone. According to the great Bill Gates himself, “4 out of 10 people don’t have a safe way to poop – that’s 2.6 billion!” . This means more diseases, and exponentially rising risks of lack of safe living conditions in developing countries. Additionally, in countries like India, this situation affects women in rural areas to a greater extent: In a CNN -IBN panel discussion recently, Udit Raj, National President of the Indian Justice Party and SC/ST confederation, pointed out that in such areas, women cannot defecate between sunrise and sunset, leading to higher number of health problems (as if having poop not properly eliminated/recycled wasn’t a big enough problem) . There isn’t enough that can possibly be said about the role of women in development of society, just so so fundamental. But the problem isn’t limited to villages; there doesn’t seem to be an online publication, but my friend Kaleem Rahman, who worked for Microsoft Research India previously, once shared the stories of him exploring the state of bathrooms in low-cost primary and middle schools in Bengaluru, India. When asked about how that had to do with ICT and development, he told me how important an indicator of socio-economic progress the school bathroom served – something we are not used to thinking about even in economic development literature.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has identified this problem to be an acute one in their struggle to fight diseases . Here is an informative video from their Reinvent the toilet initiative that points to the extent of the problem:
So clearly lack of access to toilets is a troubling problem, and something that should be on top of the agenda of every social entrepreneur concerned with public health or disease prevention. And this is a design problem in several ways. But there is a another aspect of this problem, not as acute, that relates more to the system design AND design-as-a-craft. And that is one of bathroom and defecation design (trust me, there is a real academic design community around this). I have begun to become extremely critical of bathroom design, especially toilet design, since recently because I believe that we need to stop accepting the status quo if we are unsatisfied with it – which many of us are. We all travel extensively and observe a range of bathroom systems. Since childhood, I have had the opportunity to visit India once a year or so, and this is a system I have become very critical of because of how “inconvenient” I think it is.
TIO is most definitely not in your brain’s abbreviation repository, so don’t spend time thinking about what it stands for. TIO stands for ‘This Is Oman!”, a phrase that sprung somewhere within my friend community and became rather viral rather quick in my less glamourous home city of Muscat. It is a phrase used to share a compassion and thrill of being in the city less talked about internationally, upon homecoming during breaks, while appreciating the subtle beauty and modest entertainment opportunity the country has to offer. It’s now used as pun, a silence-breaker and a happiness expression among the college going youth. For a while, Twitter has featured an image taken in Muscat, Oman, as it’s home screen pre-logging-in – fascinating! Upon seeing this image every single time, I contemplate the pleasure of living in the city, and say aloud “TIO!”.
But there is a bigger, stronger reason for sharing this piece of information with you. There is a human development significance to this image that may not be clear to the Twitter visual design team that I would like to take the liberty to share.
I have always been extremely impressed by the people running and teaching for Teach For India (TFI). Also, I am very lucky to have a friend who is currently a teacher in the program, after getting an American college degree. I was very fortunate to come across Acumen Fund’s video channel featuring one of the days in the life of a TFI teacher. Enjoy this!
A very impressive Seth Godin, marketing guru, tells us about what it takes to build a market in trying to create social change in the 21st century. Absolutely brilliant lesson for social entrepreneurs which took me forever to learn.