Micah Alex
Micah Alex Gardening the in-between

This blog is co-authored by Micah, Shafali, Yatharth and Dinesh

The journey is as important as the destination, but so are the roads we build for the journey in the first place

रस्तो के सपने और सपनों के रास्ते

With smart devices being so commonly available, it is now possible for communities to reorient newer tools and technologies towards oral traditions and storytelling as their common recording medium. However, this is not an easy task as the effort of accessing, learning and reconfiguring digital apps/tools often outweighs their versatility. Content-making and content-consumption is limited, therefore, not just by physical accessibility issues but also due to spoken languages, literacy levels, differing expertise, context, specificity and culture. As a case in point let us consider the available devices that allow for content creation and interconnection. Smartphones are made to be attractive and addictive but offer the least amount of negotiability and safety. To be able to negotiate the internet, means to be aware of its capabilities and possibilities. However, smartphones cater majorly to social entertainment. A culture of locking users into inadvertently sharing personal data with companies is constantly pushed through the sale of cheaper and cheaper smartphones. The obsession behind scalability and data-mining has driven it out of smaller localities, neighbourhoods, communities. The internet is thus, forcefully molded to always work at global scales. This means that the design of these devices and technologies are by nature, broad-sweeping and therefore, lack any kind of specificity. This point becomes clearer in the next example. While phones might be most familiar in low literate contexts, they are inherently personal devices. In low income areas they are generally unavailable to the women and the low literate members of a household. Devices could instead be inclusive, available to a group and adaptable to different contexts. Encouraging the reuse, repair and recycling of peripherals can also be adopted as a strategy to keep the costs of using local tech-ecosystems low.

Our work in Mirzapur

Through the Work 4 Progress project, we started to experiment with our ideas of how to deal with this. We were bringing these ideas to the communities that we were partnering with to see if they would agree with us and see value in such an approach. W4P with Development Alternatives have been helping stimulate economic initiatives over a couple of years now in Mirzapur, UP. It is one of the districts that were identified as one of the backward districts. Over the last few months, Janastu and Medha have joined the effort. They have actively engaged in a dialogue with some of the girls from a few villages. The objective was to learn from them about the ways that we can help them identify collaborations in order to create a hyperlocal system of gig offerings from their talents. This brought forward the need for providing connected devices to the girls. However, this was a decision that we couldn’t and didn’t make lightly. As their exposure to the Internet, connected devices and the Web increases through interventions like ours, there is no option but to nurture a safe and cohesive community network. The way we approached the project to build an entrepreneurial micro-market among the girls was through

Three different phases:

  • Hamaari Pehchaan (Our Identity)
  • Hamaare Sapne (Our Dreams)
  • Hamaara Gameplan (Our Gameplan)

In keeping with the idea of technology that is more local and community-driven, we made a conscious shift from ‘meri’ to ‘hammari’. The first phase involved the girls asserting their identity and voicing out their opinions, expressing their likes and dislikes. This would then feed into their aspirations and dreams and then the final phase where we would collectively flesh out a game-plan for the dreams that the girls collectively share while also designing for their individual aspirations. These three phases, according to us, would not be possible without a curious yet carefree, practical yet playful way for them to engage with technology. It also meant encouraging local collaborations to maintain the technology and to leverage it.

A Caring Ecosystem of tools and Technologies

Keeping this in mind, we reconfigured existing devices and tools to attempt to set up a supporting backbone for the girls and their dreams. This backbone would involve, reconfiguring the tools for different cultural/communal/individual practices, providing different devices that can be reused and repaired and designing for local communication networks.

About one our newer makings

So in our different phases we are using and reconfiguring different tools. For phase 1, Hamaari Pehchaan, which was about expressing individual personality - we started exploring Inshot, a video-making app, with the girls. They were told to do some activities with the application. We also tried to get a local mesh going with the file synchronisation service, Syncthing, but it hasn’t stuck. We also started putting together a special device during this phase. The Aamne Samne Pi was built to be modular, open-source and repairable. Using a raspberry pi, we built a system that the girls could use instead of a laptop. We also preinstalled content-creation and curation tools that are open source and among the ones we use. As Phase 2 continues and we engage with girls daily, they continue to explore their different dreams for themselves, their families and communities. We are also showing the different ways that we, as a team, make digital objects like websites, illustrations, blogs, youtube channels and marketplaces. As we go into phase 3 these activities will help us gauge interest and design our engagements accordingly. Through our explorations of configuring different pathways that this ecosystem could start and reproduce we came up with a few scenarios. In this section, I’ll be adding descriptions of the mentioned tools in the comments

Scenario 1

These scenarios and use-cases illustrate how some of the tools that we have been introducing to the girls could be used.

Scenario 2

These tools also represent the ethos of the Janastu team that is local, contextual and open-source.

Scenario 3

The Way forward

It is necessary for builders of community networks to reflect on how to also build support systems that complement these networks. These systems must work to simplify and recontextualise the process of using and reconfiguring different technologies for cultural/communal/individual creativity. It is not just enough to have one groundbreaking app or digital product when we talk about alternative technological development pathways. The stakeholders must strive to, inclusively, create ecosystems of support/co-mentoring/peer-learning/experimentation. These are only possible to create when there is an environment of fun, curiosity, play and learning. We are looking forward to exploring tech eco-systems that allow for young women to express freely, discover each other and connect for creative opportunities. A healthy online-offline, local-global network for young women to include and identify others around them can jump start a culture of stimulating economic growth lowering the stakes of and barriers to experimentation. This exploration is in service of them being able to articulate their identities and aspirations in safe, non-judgemental spaces while providing support to see how we can take these learnings forward.

Scenario 4