Slow connection: Myanmar test for IT crowd

Here’s a piece I did for Reuters on the state of IT in Myanmar. The Economist pipped us to the post slightly, but always nice to know other people are thinking along the same lines.

Myanmar has fewer phones per capita than any other country and probably the fewest Internet connections, and that has regional telecoms and IT companies licking their lips.
But behind those statistics lies more than simply a virgin market waiting to be tapped. Myanmar has been run by generals for decades, leaving not only pent-up demand for connectivity, but also a complex web of interests and a unique ecosystem of technological make-do. All of which will require careful navigation by would-be investors.
A recent gathering of techies in Yangon’s Myanmar Info-Tech complex illustrates the promise, changes and problems Myanmar presents as the next frontier for investors.
The meeting was organized by a loose triumvirate of business-oriented folk, bloggers and the country’s IT diaspora. It was a so-called barcamp – an unstructured conference and chat-fest whose format was dreamed by up California techies tired of the exclusive, closed-door meets that are a regular feature of Silicon Valley.

Rest of the story at reuters.com

The Missed Call: The Decade’s Zeitgeist?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a longer version of an upcoming syndicated column.)

When people look back at the last decade for a technology zeitgeist they may choose SMS, or the iPod, or maybe even Facebook. Me? I’d choose the cellphone call that rings, briefly, and then is silent.

It’s one of those social phenomena that has so embedded itself in the culture that we don’t even notice it. It developed its own syntax, its own meaning, and even shifted the boundaries of cultural mores and social intercourse. Even I didn’t realise it was so widespread until I started researching this article. And yet, at least in the middle of the decade, it spanned all continents and was accounting for more than half of cellphone traffic in many developing countries.

So what is the miscall and why is it—was it–so big? The miscall is simple: I call your cellphone but hang up before you pick up. Instead of you thinking there’s a mistake, you know exactly why I called, and either call me back, or don’t, depending on how we’ve agreed on what the miscall means. It’s a form of communication that requires no words, no speech, and, most importantly, no expense. At least for you and me. Not, sadly, for the cellphone operator.

But initially cellphone operators weren’t too bothered.

There’s a temptation, after all, to regard the miscall as a poverty thing, done by poor people. I don’t have any money; you have money, so you call me. Indeed, in Ethiopia it’s called miskin—Amharic, deriving from the Arabic for “poorest of the poor”, with a distinct connotation of being worthy of pity. And among youth the lure of the cellphone is matched only by the limits on a budget. So, someone somewhere is going to call back, so money will be spent on a call, somehow.

But two researchers for Norway-based Telenor Hanne Geirbo and Per Helmersen found that was only part of the picture, even in a place like Bangladesh. Combing the data from a single day of Grameenphone’s traffic, they concluded that “the charged traffic generated from an initial missed call is minimal compared o the missed call activity.” In short, a missed call didn’t result in a real call.

This was communication in itself, not just a plea for communication.

Not only that: making the missed call was so easy—hit the green button, wait for a ring and then hit red—that it was stopping other services, like SMS, from getting any traction. And we’re not talking small potatoes here: Missed calls constituted upwards of 70% of Grameenphone’s total network traffic in any hour. Some people were sending miss call after miss call, one after the other—100, or even several hundred, miscalls in a short period. This, in the words of the researchers, was “a major cause of congestion at peak periods,” leading to calls disconnected, or not being connected in the first place. In 2005 one Kenyan cellular network estimated that four million miscalls were being made daily on its network.

A miscall, then, is a lot more than a call me back thing. It’s a fast way to communicate a key piece of information to someone who is already expecting it around that time, and only needs to be activated:  “I’m home, throw the gate keys down.” The timing is the context that gives the unspoken, unwritten message meaning: A miscall at 6 pm may mean I just left work.

And, if there isn’t any specific time context it may just mean: “I’m missing you.”

Then there’s the another parameter: how many missed calls are made can vary the message. Two missed calls means “I’m running late” or “I’m at home, where are you?” depending, it would seem, on what part of Bangladesh you’re in. In Syria five missed calls in rapid succession means “I’m online, let’s chat.” There are business uses too: Farmers in Bhutan, according to UNCTAD’s annual Information Economy Report published in October, know how much milk their customers want by the number of miscalls. They then miscall the customer back within 15 minutes; no miscall means no stock. Researchers in India, where miscalls accounted for about 40% of all calls, found that the miscall was used by print and ticketing shops to let their customers know their orders were ready.

Missed calls can be fun if you don’t have much else going on in your life. Try to irritate your friends by miscalling them; if someone is doing it to you, try to pick up before they hang up, losing them credit and the game. This may sound inane, but these calls are likely to be serious network congesters. If the power goes off, the researchers found, Bangladeshis would entertain themselves by miscalling friends, relatives, and even complete strangers. The researchers found one young woman met her boyfriend that way. If you call communicating only by cellphone a relationship. Who said blackouts couldn’t be fun?

Talking of flirting, missed calls can create a private space between two people who couldn’t otherwise connect without fear of exposure or ridicule. One 44-year old Bangladeshi admitted to expressing his love by sending the object of his affections hundreds of miscalls. In Damascus it’s no different: One young man proudly explained to a journalist from Syria’s Forward Magazine last year that he sometimes gets 250 miscalls from his girlfriend.  Young couples in a relationship miscall each other to check the line is free or to keep the line busy—either way ensuring their paramour is not otherwise engaged, so to speak. Starting to feel sorry for the network operator yet?

Husbands expect calls from spouses at fixed times as signals that the house is running smoothly. Children check in with their parents. Newly married women get their mothers to call without incurring the wrath of their mothers-in-law. Friends miscall a member of their circle who couldn’t make their evening out, as if to say: we’re missing you.

There are rules, of course, about who one can and cannot miscall. No one below you in the hierarchy, either in the family, the office, or the community (one man is quoted as specifying “driver and electricians…it’s a matter of prestige.” And don’t miscall your teacher or your boss. At least in Bangladesh. in Africa, where it’s called variously “flashing” and “biper”,  there are complex rules about who can be flashed. Among friends, one commenter on a Nigerian blog said, it’s about exclusion: with miscalls “there is complete communication beyond the scope of outsiders.”

In other words, the missed call is not some reflection of not having enough credit. It’s a medium of exchange of complex messages that has become surprisingly refined in a short period. Much of it is not communication at all, at least in terms of actual information. It’s what the researchers identify as phatic communication: where the interaction is the motivation not the content of the message itself. Or, as a Filipino professor, Adrian Remodo put it to a language conference in Manila in 2007 at which they votedfto make miscall, or miskol in Tagalog, the word of the year: A miskol is often used as “an alternative way to make someone’s presence felt.”

Indeed, the fact that the message itself has no content is part of its beauty. Just as the SMS is confined to 160 characters—meaning it can either be pithy or ambiguous, depending on the effect you’re looking for—so can the missed call be open to all kinds of interpretation. A lover receiving a missed call can fill her evening contemplating what was meant by those few unanswered rings.

The Telenor researchers speak of how this “practice contains valuable information about the communication needs and preferences of our customers.” Very true. But one gets the feeling that their call for more research to “provide the telecom industry with a much-needed window into the socio-cultural life space of our customers , and suggest new service offerings that better match their needs and circumstances” may have fallen on deaf ears.

I’ve not found much evidence of this, and that was written back in 2008. Some African cell providers gave away five free “Please call me” text messages to each subscriber. A Swiss company called Sicap has had some success in Africa with a service called Pay4Me, which is a sort of reverse charge call for mobile phones. The only difference I can see between this and the miscall is that the callee doesn’t have to make the call, so to speak. That, and the fact that most prepaid services nowadays don’t let you make a call if you have a zero balance—which accounts for 30% of African users, and 20% of Indian cellphone users, according to Telenity, one company hoping to offer the callback service.

Telcos in Afghanistan offer polling services where respondents, instead of texting back their answers, miscall a number depending on their choice of answer. More creatively, some socially minded organisations have used the miscall as a cheap way to communicate: Happypill, for example reminds you to take medication if you fail to miscall them at an appointed time each day.

The point is that while usage may vary it’s common in many countries—and has been for much of the past decade. As soon as mobile phones came with prepaid vouchers, and operators included the name and number of the caller on the handset display, so did the opportunity arise for someone to pay for your call.  In France and in French-speaking Africa it’s called “un bip”, I’m told, and one commenter said that it’s included in some prepaid packages. In Iran it’s called “tak”; in Australia “prank” and in the U.S. “drop call”. In Italy, apparently, it’s called “squillo” and in Oman a “ranah” (where there’s even a pop song based on the practice).

And it goes further back than that: “Call me and hang up when you arrive,” my mum used to say to her impoverished student son.

Of course, there are reasons to be concerned about this. One Indian columnist wrote:

What, then, will happen to the human voice? If two rings on the mobile are sufficient to say “I miss you”, what will become of the impassioned verses that poets have so far written to appease their beloved? I wonder how a dialogue will sound in a world where voices have become ringtones.

It may be that the miss call culture is in decline. Jonathan Donner, a Microsoft researcher who has looked into this phenomenon more than most, noted back in 2007 a “beep fatigue”, leading some to turn off their caller ID function and ditch phone numbers that clearly indicate they are on a postpaid package. And in some places where the costs of a call and an SMS have fallen to pretty much nothing, the appeal of the miscall has waned in some places.

An SMS would work, but requires typing, and in a place like Bangladesh, where more than half the population is illiterate that’s not a popular option. And text messages sometimes take a couple of minutes to arrive: a call is immediate—something that’s apparently important to my Filipino friends.

Then there’s the fact that the missed call can be discreet in a way that a phone call, or an SMS, can’t be. You could make a miscall from inside one’s bag or pocket (and I frequently do, though that’s by accident.)  Which may explain why, a student  in Pakistan wrote earlier this year:

what amazes me the most is unlike other fads such as texting obsessively etc have gone away pretty quick ,this ‘miss call’ culture still reigns supreme in most of our society.

My tupennies’ worth? As the SMS, which created its own culture out of the limitations of what was not supposed to be a commercial service, so has the miscall created its own norms. Whether these survive the next decade is unlikely. But we should watch these things carefully, not because they represent commercial opportunities—we’re bound to mess that up—but because they speak volumes about the inventiveness of the human spirit, and its ability to squeeze rich new forms of communication out of something that, on the surface, seems to be nothing—a briefly ringing, and unanswered phone.

Afghanistan’s TV Phone Users Offer a Lesson

By Jeremy Wagstaff

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There’s something I notice amid all the dust, drudgery and danger of Kabul life: the cellphone TVs.

No guard booth—and there are lots of them—is complete without a little cellphone sitting on its side, pumping out some surprisingly clear picture of a TV show.

This evening at one hostelry the guard, AK-47 absent-mindedly askew on the bench, had plugged his into a TV. I don’t know why. Maybe the phone gave better reception.

All I know is that guys who a couple of years ago had no means of communication now have a computer in their hand. Not only that, it’s a television, itself a desirable device. (There are 740 TVs per 1,000 people in the U.S. In Afghanistan there are 3.)

But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve long harped on about how cellphones are the developing world population’s first computer and first Internet device. Indeed, the poorer the country, the more revolutionary the cellphone is. But in places like Afghanistan you see how crucial the cellphone is as well.

Electricity is unreliable. There’s no Internet except in a few cafes, hotels and offices willing to pay thousands of dollars a month. But you can get a sort of 3G service over your phone. The phone is an invisible umbilical cord in a world where nothing seems to be tied down.

Folk like Jan Chipchase, a former researcher at Nokia, are researching how mobile banking is beginning to take hold in Afghanistan. I topped up my cellphone in Kabul via PayPal and a service based in Massachusetts. This in a place where you don’t bat an eyelid to see a donkey in a side street next to a shiny SUV, and a guy in a smart suit brushing shoulders with a crumpled old man riding a bike selling a rainbow of balloons.

Of course this set me thinking. For one thing, this place is totally unwired. There are no drains, no power infrastructure, no fiber optic cables. The cellphone is perfectly suited to this environment that flirts with chaos.

But there’s something else. The cellphone is a computer, and it’s on the cusp of being so much more than what it is. Our phones contain all the necessary tools to turn them into ways to measure our health—the iStethoscope, for example, which enables doctors to check their patients’ heartbeats, or the iStroke, an iPhone application developed in Singapore to give brain surgeons a portable atlas of the inside of someone’s skull.

But it’s obvious it doesn’t have to stop there. iPhone users are wont to say “There’s an app for that” and this will soon be the refrain, not of nerdy narcissists, but of real people with real problems.

When we can use our cellphone to monitor air pollution levels, test water before we drink it, point it at food to see whether it’s gone bad or contains meat, or use them as metal detectors or passports or as wallets or air purifiers, then I’ll feel like we’re beginning to exploit their potential.

In short, the cellphone will become, has become, a sort of Swiss Army penknife for our lives. In Afghanistan that means a degree of connectivity no other medium can provide. Not just to family and friends, but to the possibility of a better life via the web, or at least to the escapism of television.

For the rest of us in the pampered West, we use it as a productivity device and a distraction, but we should be viewing it as a doorway onto a vastly different future.

When crime committed is not just saved on film—from Rodney King to the catwoman of Coventry—but beamed live thro to services that scan activity for signs of danger, the individual may be protected in a way they are presently not.

We may need less medical training if, during the golden hour after an accident, we can use a portable device to measure and transmit vital signs and receive instruction. Point the camera at the wound and an overlay points out the problem and what needs to be done. Point and click triage, anyone?

Small steps. But I can’t help wondering why I’m more inspired by the imaginative and enterprising use of cellphones in places like Afghanistan, and why I’m less than impressed by the vapid self-absorption of the average smart phone user in our First World.

Now I’m heading back to the guard hut to watch the late soap.

Broadbangladesh

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Illustration IHT, by Felipe Galindo

I wrote a piece for the IHT on a company of expats bringing wireless broadband to their native Bangladesh. Would love to have gone there to have a look, but budgets aren’t what they were (love the illustration):

In Bangladesh, where less than 1 percent of the population has Internet access and where the rare broadband connection is prohibitively expensive, bridging the digital divide may require new approaches.

A group of Bangladeshi expatriates think they have found one that could work – a plan to bring affordable Internet access to their homeland through a blend of high-end wireless technology and social entrepreneurship.

Bringing Bangladesh into the Internet age – International Herald Tribune

Computers: Right Back Where We Started

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A lot of my time is spent writing for and talking to people for whom the computer remains a scary beast that is best kept at arm’s length, or, better, in a closet. I feel for these people because I’m not naturally a techie myself.

I failed science and math in school and almost certainly would again if I retook those exams. (I blame the science teacher, an evil vicar who tormented me, but that’s another story.) But perhaps these technophobes have a point? Perhaps computers and the Internet haven’t really done us any favors?

Firstly, the stats. Has the computer/Internet boom made us more productive? Apparently not. Well, it did the first time around: the 1990s technology surge (the steep red bit in the chart above) made us all productive, and that continued until about 2003 (the extra years beyond the bubble burst helped by the momentum of the surge, and some serious cost-cutting. But since 2004 the U.S. has been in decline in terms of the rate of productivity growth (or trend productivity, to give it its proper name), to the point where we’re pretty much back where we started in 1995. I know it doesn’t exactly follow, but given a lot of us didn’t have BlackBerries, ultraportable laptops and ubiquitous Internet connections in those days, does that mean we’re doing about the same amount of work then as we are, with all those gizmos, now?

Scary thought. And in some ways the answer is yes. According to research firm Basex, nearly a third of our day is eaten up with interruptions from e-mail, cell phones, instant messaging, text messaging, and blogs like this one. In financial terms that’s a lot of

McKinsey sees it differently: We’ve outsourced or automated all the simple stuff, so we’re left with people whose jobs can’t be done by computers.

I see it a little differently again. I believe that we have mistaken ubiquitous computing — in other words, the ability to do stuff anywhere, anytime — as making us more productive because we’re filling “dead time”. It’s this misunderstanding of time that I think is causing us problems. Take some of these quotes from a story on how BlackBerries make us more productive, from July last year:

I can now use downtime–waiting to collect daughters, train journeys–to continue to read and action e-mails, which means I don’t have a huge queue waiting for me when I’m next in the office

After a recent long weekend, I would normally have returned to around 150 e-mails …Instead, I spent an hour on my PDA the night before I was due back into work, and the next morning, I walked in to only six mails that required attention. Not only did this make me more efficient, but it totally reduced my stress levels

The technology both increases output by enabling what would otherwise be unproductive downtime to be used positively, and is liberating in that it allows flexibility and responsiveness.

The BlackBerry has definitely extended the capability of utilizing ‘dead’ time effectively–trains, taxis, 10-minute waits or answering questions like this

We are all benefiting from quicker response times to things that need actioning ‘now … Communication between department managers is much quicker.

Each statement is usually followed by a ‘I realise I need a balance/the wife hates it’ comment, as if the user is aware of the pitfalls. But the pitfall is not the ‘always on’ culture this creates, or even the lack of awareness that the ability to react quickly to something will simply prompt another reaction and require another response. The pitfall is that the “dead time” of waiting for your daughter to finish school, or the “unproductive down time” is actually an important component of our lives, and therefore of our productivity.

Sitting in your car waiting for your kid, the lazy hour on a Sunday evening after the washing-up’s cleared away and the kids are in bed, used to be time when you’d think about what needed to be done, or to reflect (on your daughter, hopefully, so you’re mentally ready for her rather than still mentally scanning emails when she’s gushing about gym class.) Dead time was there for a reason: a chance to think outside the box, reflect, think about that email you’re going to send the boss rather than jab a misspelled couple of lines on your BlackBerry so you can cross that item off your Getting Things Done list.

Productivity may be slowing because we’ve just filled every second of that dead time already and there’s nothing left to fill. If that’s even partly true, then the productivity was fake, since it was based on a false assumption: that the dead time was empty, an unused resource. Anyone who has sat in a moving vehicle and looked out of the window reflecting on stuff knows that this is actually the most important part of the day, and by removing it most of our BlackBerry-wielding friends/colleagues/bosses/spouses have turned into zombies, unable to locate themselves in the here and now.

The solution then, to this productivity crisis is to use technology less, not more. I’m not suggesting we don’t use BlackBerries — although I don’t — but I’m suggesting we stop deluding ourselves that these gadgets are saving our marriage/hearts. They’re not. They’re like ping pong paddles with the ball on a piece of elastic — we think are batting the problems out of our lives but they’re just coming back at us. Time to put the bat down and look out the window.

How Technology Shrinks and Amplifies Distance

Two pieces in the NYT/IHT that weren’t about technology, but kind of are, illustrate how technology can shrink distance but also grow it.

First off a piece by Geoff D. Porteran analyst in the Middle East and Africa division of the Eurasia Group, explores how African would-be immigrants to Europe are now making their way to Europe via the Canary Islands, some 50 miles off the coast of Mauritania. Until technology came along, this was a very risky business: The Atlantic is big, and the Canaries are small, making it hard for sailors in small fishing boats to find them.

Still, chasing fish stocks is different from finding a small cluster of islands in the middle of the ocean. At least it was until battery-powered, handheld GPS units became widely available.

Over the past several years, GPS technology has become smaller, more user-friendly and – most importantly – cheaper. A simple unit costs little more than $100. And because GPS uses satellites, they work as well on Fifth Avenue as they do 50 miles off the coast of Mauritania.

With the new oceangoing canoes outfitted with handheld GPS units, the Canaries were no longer so far away nor so hard to find for the Africans.

Cheap GPS has shrunk the distance between Africa and Europe, perhaps not for the better if boats are still getting lost, and the illegal immigrants are simply caught and turned back. Perhaps it merely creates more business for snakeheads. But there’s no denying that GPS has become a tool of the masses, even in the developing world, and that that carries with it huge implications for the size of the world and the shrinking of distance.

But sometimes technology has the opposite effect. Another IHT piece, by author and diplomat Judith M. Heimann, explores how U.S. airmen shot down over Borneo in 1945 quickly learned the local Dayak language and helped turn the local people into a formidable guerrilla force. Ms. Heimann’s point is that those individual airmen who were isolated from their comrades learned Dayak faster, and stands in contrast to the soldier of today in Iraq or Afghanistan:

And now, as I read the newspapers, I cannot help noticing how in today’s unconventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers’ and leaders’ current lack of success in co-opting the local people contrasts with what was achieved by a small number of American airmen 60-odd years ago.

How come this difference? And what can we learn from it?

The difference may well be directly related to the number of soldiers involved. The airman who was the quickest to learn the local language and to become a competent survivor, was the one who was alone in a Dayak village for months before meeting up with any of the other Americans.

The slowest to become capable of helping themselves and being part of an effective anti-Japanese unit were those in the biggest group – four American flyers.

Think about it. When do you learn a new language most easily? When you have no choice.

Compare this with the gizmos every soldier today carries — communications devices, sustenance, translation gadgets, night vision goggles — and you realize that while such devices may sometimes save him, they also isolate him from the sort of contact with local people and culture that turned a disastrous flight over Borneo into a successful grassroots campaign against the Japanese. Here technology merely creates a gulf, a sort of shield where the soldier remains dependent on his devices and reduces the chances of building the kind of bonds those stranded airmen did with the headhunters of Borneo.

‘Guests’ can succeed where occupiers fail – International Herald Tribune