Approaching women issues today like mobile issues of yesterday

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 Toyama 10 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.

Defecating in India is terribly designed

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!” [2]. 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) [3]. 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 [4]. 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.

Continue reading Defecating in India is terribly designed

Twitter, TIO!

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.

Continue reading Twitter, TIO!

Teach for India inspiration

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!

Curricula for yesterday, today and tomorrow

Reposting a segment from my melodramatic article from Policy & Design 4 Good titled ‘Curricula for yesterday, today and tomorrow’

Nothing has changed; the role and value of a K-12 education in the life of individuals remains ever so important. The true purpose behind offering this opportunity, the true intent while delivering this “holy” wisdom and the true hunger for demanding this elixir of life continue to remain humble and pure. If something has changed, then it has got to be the modernist outlook towards the role of an education. Nothing overly-progressive or visionary – just eye-opening and utmost genuine. A shift from the willingness to create a generation of optimized “engineers” for the industrial age to a hope and urge to develop global citizens who advance society in the knowledge age. That’s a powerful idea.

Traditional education (in whatever light and scope you see it in) has failed us time and again, locally and globally, in realizing this true purpose that needed to be accomplished yesterday and today, and that is being demanded for tomorrow. Continued emphasis on rote learning, rigidity and excessive control, and “training” children to become better Watsons (as in IBM Watson) has failed drastically and dramatically in creating a society of independent critical thinkers and obtain economic growth as Amartya Sen must have liked it. In essence, we are stifling innovation in all segments of society.

These challenges are rooted somewhere in neglect, but mostly in inability to reach community consensus and influence change in times when Kim’s peck on Kanye’s cheek demands more urgency than this educational catastrophe. Entangled and inconsiderate decision making in bureaucratic power structures and lack of private sector incentive in intervening in this utmost disappointing state-of-affairs has somehow stopped our world from maintaining its dominance in the solar system as the ecosystem’s Chief Innovation Planet.

Screw tomorrow; the scale of educational gaps that technology-empowered economies of today have magnified TODAY exceed that of Google Maps’ zoom capabilities. This only continues to become exponentially worse.

An MVP gone wrong and the 3 pillars of success

A few weeks ago, I decided to take a harsh and critical look at my venture’s (OpenCurriculum) Minimum Viable Product (MVP), and what we had built with a lot of focus and enthusiasm over the past several months. From initial user feedback, we somehow knew we had screwed up big time, but it took forever to sink in and make us want to re-do it all from scratch, only this time we would be doing it right, or at least we hope so. Several things have gone wrong, from underestimating the essential need and power of great visual design (to be covered in another post) even in these early prototypes to some poor thinking through a fair balance between contribution & consumption models of content (it’s a crowdsourced content platform) to the critical role of bootstrapping (not the same as funding bootstrapping). Very fortunately for us, we are surrounded by some of the most brilliant and visionary minds of this day, and so revising our plans to address pain points and producing something small that creates value beginning from its first interaction with the user, has been fairly straightforward and definitely eye-opening. Also, very fortunately, we have been able to come through this process without a dime of funding, so it doesn’t hurt as much to do a re-do.

Yes. A Re-do. Not a “pivot”. A pivot really happens only when you have grossly underestimated the market for your product, or not accurately created a product that solves people’s problems. And this happens all the bloody time with some smart engineers or arrogant business minded kids (just picking on you guys, I know that’s a bad stereotype) who believe that they are fully certain their problem of waiting in a long queue at Starbucks is the problem faced by 98% of human population. Well, I am not saying it’s not, I am just saying that our thinking can sometimes be very impulsive. Luckily for such people, pivots are kind of acceptable – as the culture of thinking around new “lean” tech start-ups is “oh sure – we started off with something, but because it didn’t work, we can change directions because now we actually know the real god damn problem. And hey, investors love this!”. I don’t know how far I want to go out in defending my position on how this is not good for entrepreneurial thinking in the long run – so let me leave that discussion for a verbal assault along with an academic by my side for sometime in future. The point I want to make is that it seems acceptable to do this today in the for-profit tech start-up world, because it is forgiving and you will get some funding nonetheless because of the nature of risky investments made in new ventures. For us, a non-profit tech start-up (mostly unheard of), it’s not. Fortunately for us, the venture’s mission, drafted over 2 years ago, is still very much a realistic goal for the problem, and the approach is still a very ridiculously difficult, yet reasonably correct approach. I am not saying we were genius at figuring out the problem; heck, saying poor people are dying and we need to start making them richer by reducing inequality is going to be a correct solution with no pivot needed for a venture focusing on eradicating poverty for the next foreseeable number of decades. It’s just a little more obvious (not necessarily easier) with the non-profits. Continue reading An MVP gone wrong and the 3 pillars of success

Why the $35 tablet “Aakash” release is such a good news (and what now?)

Photo courtesy: VentureBeat

Having read so much critique about the $35 “Aakash” tablet (or how much ever it really costs) from the EdTech and journalist community (for example, Wayan Vota’s post:, and Mike Trucano’s, I feel that as a member of this community it is my responsibility to share my views on why I think otherwise and why I believe in this initiative (note that I am not using the word “product”). I am certainly not naive to lessons learned from OLPC, as I have worked on a country-wide deployment myself. I just believe that we have become so readily critical about such projects that we forget to explore the underlying factors behind what makes something successful vs. what falls flat. While I am not one who gets excited by modern day gadgets and gizmos, this device (Aakash) has really made me look forward towards exciting possibilities for education in India. Let us start with the most basic concepts: for any innovative and market-demanded user-facing product to succeed and sustain, we need all or most of the following factors to go right: Continue reading Why the $35 tablet “Aakash” release is such a good news (and what now?)

John Doerr and Mark Zuckerburg on innovation and education

Mark Zuckerburg is not just a terrific computer scientist and leader, but also a critical and brilliant thinker who understands human intention and human development. He is probably not a very good speaker – but he inspires and is one hell of a visionary. Watch him speak to John Doerr at a rare appearance in a conference below:

Openness in K-12 education

From a while now, I have been meaning to express my views on why the idea of openness and sharing is important in the context of K-12 education. I am a strong believer of the role of free and open source software (FOSS) in education – but this is only part of the openness I want to talk about in K-12 education. (Thanks to for spreading awareness of FOSS in K-12 education)

Let’s think about the ecosystem of education and schools in the country you come from. And at every step, let’s do an exercise: think about the possibilities of openness as a factor that can potentially bring in a reform at that level. I will make several assumptions throughout this journey, as I will use my minimal understanding on practices in a large democratic country I know well. Here we go: Continue reading Openness in K-12 education