Customization Requirements (Barrier)

A communication-related barrier to meeting development goals was the need to customize information for stakeholders’ needs. Technology-mediated texts like SMS or websites amplify the capacity of development projects by enabling messages to reach larger numbers of intended beneficiaries (a bridge). However, technology-mediated communication also amplifies the complexity of language and literacy demands (a barrier) and the difficulty of conveying specific, relevant information (a barrier). Disseminating general information was of limited value:

“All these information disseminators are not serving farmers properly; they are providing certain kinds of information; but that information is unusable. Farmers say, ‘We have a problem, and we can’t use that information… To know what I should do, that information they are not giving.’” (Project leader)

“We don’t have specific information in response to crop or region. So since we don’t have that, we send very general [information]. So we have people who call with more specific questions.” (Team member)

“At this point we were depending on video-based systems where we deliver [a] single speech and all over India are delivering it. So that is too generalized a system. So farmers should get their own advice; that is a personalized system. Personalized systems are difficult to build.” (Project leader)

Matching actionable, relevant information to intended beneficiaries was a challenge for several reasons. Sometimes stakeholders had conflicting needs and capacities. For example, in the project that sought to connect domestic workers with potential employers, there was a mismatch between the skillsets desired by employers and the skills of the domestic workers. Employers sought information regarding available cooks, for example, but domestic workers sought job information regarding opportunities to provide basic cleaning or laundry services. But even when stakeholders desire the same type of information, their needs may conflict in other ways. For example, in the project to develop mobile phone-based literacy games, challenges arose in matching the level of difficulty to the varying levels of language capabilities across schools and across students:

“With fifth graders, you are working with a huge bell curve of students. Ages range from nine to fifteen; the range of English knowledge is very widespread. It’s not like they stay in the same school. There is so much more migration there, especially at the bottom of the pyramid.” (Team member)

Other problems stemmed from the difficulty of identifying stakeholder information needs as the pool of stakeholders grew and their needs changed. For example, the agricultural projects aimed to provide farming tips relevant to farmers’ current crop and season:

“We are sending messages. We have to filter them so that the wheat farmer gets a wheat crop tip. Farmers change what they are growing.” (Team member)

“The technology is easy; collecting the right information is the hard part. So if you’re growing wheat in an area which is otherwise growing rice, you want to be careful about those combinations. You can’t generalize.” (Project leader)

“We need scientists who know the local phenomena perfectly. We can’t tolerate any mistake here. Everything is typed; your name is typed. And everything is on record. We can’t risk it.” (Project leader)

The above quotes indicate the importance of conveying accurate, relevant information to meeting development goals. Inaccurate information could not only irrevocably damage project credibility with vital stakeholders like intended beneficiaries, but it could also directly oppose development goals: e.g., harm farmer livelihoods. Project members engaged in several strategies to mitigate the challenges of providing relevant information to intended beneficiaries. For example, the job-matching project expanded its scope to begin offering cooking instruction to the domestic workers involved in the project. It proved too challenging to identify and recruit potential employers who needed services in line with the domestic workers’ current skill sets, so the project leader and partner organization arranged cooking training. This enabled the project to then convey desired information to both parties: potential employers could receive information about available cooks, and domestic workers could receive information about job opportunities they were qualified to pursue.

Other projects engaged strategies like (1) creating user profiles to enable a better match between information and user needs and (2) incorporating locally based human mediation to select and convey relevant information:

“The answers must be very specific and pointed in their solution ability even if the question is not. That’s tough. So how do you bridge the gap between the vagueness of the question and the requirement of the answer? You keep focused. You create a profile of the user and use the knowledge from the past to answer the question.” (Project leader)

“We are gathering information from sources which are national and statewide, but users want information that is regional. There are few small ideas about how to do this. In small regions, there are farming-related shops. We could give interface to people in the shops to post on [project name]. This would allow us to bring it into the scope.” (Team member)

In the second quote above, we see a strategy that makes use of current routines and communication patterns (e.g., farmers visit their local agriculture shops) to develop a useful path to information. This example suggests one way that a combination of technology-mediated and in-person communication can mitigate barriers to conveying customized information.

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