For a man following a doctorate in ICT, Hasib Ahsan is remarkably reluctant to believe in purely technological solutions. This is a conviction he has developed over years of working at the grassroots where he has seen technology-led solutions to community issues failing time and again. Now, older, wiser and having completed his lead technology role in a US$ 23 million five-year agriculture extension project, Ahsan highlights the importance of valuing human knowledge and building long term relationships to make effective change.
Human centred development
“Technology is not a silver bullet,” reiterates Ahsan, “it is only a tool that we utilise to solve a problem. There is a larger purpose to what you are doing.”
(According to a story in ICTworks, technology may account for a mere 10% of the success of an ICT based solution.) “Let’s take telemedicine as an example: You confer with a doctor via a video call to get diagnosed and be prescribed medication. The technology, in this scenario, is being engaged as a media and has not replaced the expertise of the doctor. Even if we think of machine learning or algorithms, these are still based on human knowledge.”
Ahsan has been involved in the development sector for over a decade now, cutting a wide swathe from disability, health and livestock to water and sanitation, but mostly in agriculture.
An MIT Design Thinking Fellow, Ahsan and mPower, the ICT-based social enterprise in Bangladesh he has worked at since 2011, are proponents of human centred design (HCD), incorporating it in all projects across the organisation, big or small. (Ahsan is currently on sabbatical from his position as Director, e-Agriculture to follow his PhD at the IT University of Copenhagen.) HCD is a framework that develops solutions by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process.
From this perspective, winning a grant is not a penultimate step but the first one:
“Are you going to deploy a product you already possess? Or will you talk to the people on the ground you are hoping to affect, discover their fundamental problem you are going to solve, gain an understanding of the infrastructure available and appreciate the ethnographical outlook, before building a prototype? And then testing it to make sure the people are able and willing to use it?”
Through all these steps, diligence is paramount as even a small error can lead to a chain of drastic events in a complex domino effect. This is particularly true in a sector as delicate and fraught as agriculture.
In 2013, Ahsan was chosen to lead mPower’s work in the US$ 23 million USAID funded five-year agriculture extension project – part of the Obama administration’s Feed the Future Initiative. The experience was a significant application of practicable human centred design thinking in agriculture. Agriculture is the largest employer sectorin Bangladesh and has been instrumental in poverty reduction since 2000.
mPower spent the first eight months on the field, understanding the ground realities of the agriculture system and the policies that affect it, the nature of the locations, the extension officers and farmers and the cultures of the peoples. The mapping unearthed a laundry list of problems from which the fundamental issues that could be addressed were chosen. Once apps were designed to address the priority issues, prototypes were developed, tested and fine-tuned before being implemented at scale. Capacity of farmers and extension officers on the ground was built at the same time.
Nine mobile apps were finally created and deployed across the three sectors of crop agriculture, livestock and fisheries based on smartphone, SMS and voice calls. Analysis of the data gathered from use of these apps in turn provided policymakers a better picture of the different issues affecting different farming areas and communities. A memorandum of understanding was also signed with partners in the public sector so they could continue with the efforts once the grant ended.
To put the human end-user perspective at the forefront at every step also requires building good relationships with other partners in the endeavour. The project required mPower and thus Ahsan to work in collaboration with larger NGOs such as the international humanitarian agency CARE as well as government institutions and farmers and their families.
Human relationships are everything, be it in ICT for development or policy. Ahsan advises taking the first step by leveraging the existing relationships of senior colleagues in one’s organisation, maintaining relationships with peers in other similar organizations and being polite and courteous with government partners. “Be humble” with the end users on the ground, build international networks by attending international events such as CPRsouth and apply for and get recognised via awards, etc. Keeping one foot in the world of academia and making sure to publish doesn’t hurt either. Ahsan also struck gold in working for a CEO who gave him the space to do his work, while working in business development. His job has given him great insight into how donor agencies function.
Ahsan cautions however that building relationships, especially with government, is a journey to be taken and not a single act. It can be frustrating and so requires you to be passionate about your purpose.
“Use your connections. If you don’t have connections, work for an organisation that does. If that is not possible, involve the organisation that you do work in with larger organisations that do. And if that is not possible, hire people who had previously worked in the development/policy sector as they will have connections.”