A computer science group from the State University of New York at Stonybrook presented three applications or “apps,” that is to say mini-computer programs, that they had designed for use on no-frills mobile phones owned by women working in the informal Senegalese economy. The pilot tests for two of the apps—a dictionary and a book-keeping calculator—were deemed successes. The third app—for measuring profit and loss—was judged a failure.
The pilot was a failure because the fish sellers found the mobile phone profit-and-loss calculator useless. The Stonybrook group did not learn why the app was useless, however, until a second round of testing in which one of the Senegalese computer science students happened to have a grandmother who was a fish seller. After talking with the fish sellers, he explained to the Stonybrook group that all the prices for both fresh fish and dried fish are fixed. Since everyone charges the same price for fish (one for dried, the other for fresh) on any given day, there is no way for the women to wait until the price is right.
It’s a small example, but we wish we saw more stories like this – public sharing of people trying a program, critically assessing it, and learning from what doesn’t work.