Development Apps

I googled “Africa cellphone” to find this picture, and I know I have seen it on at least one company’s marketing materials.

Reading this week:

  • Kenya: The Struggle for a New Constitutional Order edited by Godwin R. Murunga, Duncan Okello, and Anders Sjögren

I spent the summer at an internship reviewing old grants for development projects. This was a lot more interesting than it sounds!! There were all sorts of grant applications, from all over the world, and grantees provided regular updates on their progress. That meant as I reviewed the old grants I got to see these people face new problems and overcome them (or not).

The major schtick of the place I was interning was that they did innovative ideas. This is the 21st century, so a lot of time “innovation” is synonymous with “cell phone app.” This isn’t exactly crazy; a lot of the reason that development is hard is that development requires interconnectedness between people, and the whole point of cell phones is to make that easier. So I reviewed a number of app grants. Like all the grants, these too were pretty interesting to me mostly because of all the unexpected problems that people ran into.

Before we get too into this, I want to apologize for vague blogging. Seems like a lot of work to get permission to publish people’s processes, so I’m just going to allude to stuff.

The app with perhaps the most lessons learned had to be one that was designed to help with patient follow-up. Right from the outset they wanted to make it usable to the most number of people possible, so they designed it to be used on feature phones, aka dumb phones. This is a good instinct! They worked real hard to make it super accessible. But man were some of their assumptions off.

One of the funniest to me is that they discovered just how limited some people’s phones were. They initially designed it so you had to reply with a text message, like “yes” or “no,” typing that stuff out T9 style. But then they discovered that some people didn’t even have the capability to do that, and had to switch it up so you could just reply with a number, like “1” or “2” (one creative solution to this technology problem was that some people just gave smartphones to their target audience; for one of those developers, the deal was that if you got a smartphone you were supposed to text vital information to people with dumbphones).

Another assumption they made was that people could read. They figured out a lot of their users were in fact illiterate, and had memorized the menu. That was actually the sort of problem I had read about before! I can’t find the original article I read detailing it, but over in India YouTube has become the search engine of choice for many people. Two things made that possible: really cheap data, and voice search. This WSJ article makes voice search (aka voice-to-text into the search box) just sound like a feature they just added for fun, but there is a huge number of illiterate phone users in India. However, these illiterate users can just talk to their phone, and get a video back, which gets around the reading thing (I’m not worried about this as some Black Mirror future scenario, but it kinda plays into this analysis that everyone in Star Wars is functionally illiterate). This pops up all the time in apps and app designers should think about how to make their app usable by the illiterate (Maybe the blind or disabled too? Dream big). Ignitia, which texts weather forecasts to farmers, found that using keywords consistently helps illiterate farmers decipher their forecasts (they text things along the lines of “Heavy rain today. Sun tomorrow.” Farmers can recognize “rain” in the first sentence, and know it will rain today, and that “sun” in the second sentence means no rain tomorrow).

Yet another non-intuitive assumption that designers made is that every phone or phone number corresponded to a particular person. This was a bad assumption! A lot of times a single phone would be shared between several people, such as a group of friends or a family. I didn’t actually discover anyone who came up with an elegant way to solve this problem, but if you’re designing an app make sure that it can be used by several people on the same phone pretty smoothly. And maybe don’t just send a push notification for sensitive information? Yet another company ran into a problem when people’s phone numbers kept changing. They tried to maintain a database of people’s contact information, but people would switch service providers all the time, and therefore switch phone numbers, whenever a different service provided a slightly better deal. The company’s database got out of date really quick, and again I didn’t see them come up with an elegant solution to solve it. Things to keep in mind!

Another thing just from my personal experience using a phone in a rural village in Zambia is that make sure your app doesn’t use a lot of data! Optimize the shit out of that thing! And data access can be spotty! Make sure your app works with only an intermittent connection to data! I have a lot of vague hypothetical thoughts about this, but make sure your app also functions elegantly when it reconnects to data! Don’t have it download out of date stuff just because it was in the queue! And make sure that your app can pick up right where it left off after a failed download, instead of making a large download start over just because data was interrupted for a second!

One solution people have tried to implement to the whole data being expensive thing is to subsidize their user’s data cost. Unless you have the engineering chops of Facebook, this is probably a bad idea. My favorite was one company that had it set up so that their agents were supposed to text them back, and so had provided their agents with prepaid texting plans. Turns out their agents used all their text messages to chat up girls, and when the time came to actually use their text messages for their intended purpose, they had none left. The company had to switch to a different system to avoid having to get their agents to text them, all because they couldn’t resist hitting on women. Men, amiright?

There were more lessons, but they’re hard to convey in a vagueblog. I also think that the best design ideas for development apps are yet to come. There are a whole lot of efforts to leverage the technology, but I don’t know if I’ve seen a “killer app” (or, since it’s for development, “lifesaving app”) for the developing world. That being said, there are a number I like. A few different apps that give users information via a map (like vegetation data) have been good, so maybe better geospatial information could be useful. I also like the simple implementations; one company trains people in first aid, and then loads onto their phones refresher videos so they can review the lessons at any time. Very neat! Maybe excellent avenues to pursue. The deepest lesson however is, like everything else in development, to let your users guide your app. You’ll find they manage to use it for things you didn’t think of, and have suggestions that could make it way better.

Addition 10/25/2020:

One lesson learned I didn’t include above is one company that tried to distribute their app via the Google Play Store, only to find out that 95% percent of attempted downloads couldn’t be completed because the Play Store required people to have an email address, which was very uncommon in the developing country context they were working in. This was literally something like a million potential users who tried to access the app but just couldn’t. It seemed niche so I excluded it from this post, but then today I come across this New York Times article about Seesaw’s experience suddenly being a critical pandemic-era app. The line I wanted to quote here was that “Numerous students didn’t have email addresses and needed a different way to log in from home.” It looks like the assumption that a potential user has an email address or will attempt to get one is a very bad assumption indeed!

Gang Violence

Reading this week:

  • African Conflicts and Informal Power: Big Men and Networks edited by Mats Utas

I was reading, as I am wont to do, the New York Times, when I came across this article:

Veterans Fortify the Ranks of Militias Aligned With Trump’s Views

It, uh, it sparked some feelings and thoughts and frankly I’m not entirely sure what all of them are. Fortunately I have a blog on which I can write whatever half-baked thoughts I have, and also fortunately no one ever reads it so there is little risk of repercussion. So here we go.

The article is about the so-called “militias” (“armed gangs” or “terrorists” is a better term) that have grown over the past decade or so, and as you have gleaned from the headline, how a number of them include a high percentage of veterans.

My first half-baked idea has to do with the type of gun nut who thinks the second amendment exists because people might have to literally take up arms against a tyrannical government. This, in the 21st century, always seemed more than a bit whack to me, mostly because I don’t think it would work. While there are more guns than people in the US, gun ownership is concentrated in a fairly small number of people, and the government’s military has the advantage of things like warships with Tomahawk missiles and special forces soldiers and satellites and drones and all the other things that make it really effective at killing people, more so than civilians with rifles, even if they are assault rifles with high-capacity magazines. I have other objections to the general notion, including the fact that if you want to overthrow a government violent rebellion isn’t even the best way to go about it, but let’s just stick with the government-versus-people scenario.

Mostly I need a convenient place to stick this link, but first off the Pentagon has wargamed a scenario where it goes against a domestic threat. I don’t know what their assumptions are, but the probably deciding factor in a second civil war is which way the military would go in the scenario. This is part of what that New York Times article speaks to, I think. I think that the veterans in these groups sort of assume that the military would be on their side. On one level, that’s not a crazy assumption. I know I just said you can’t pigeonhole veterans, but I think it is fair to say that the military leans right on the political spectrum. I would hesitate to ascribe that, Heinlein-style, to any particular characteristics of the military lifestyle. I think the military mostly recruits from right-leaning areas of the country and so the people that wind up in the military are right-leaning. So these gangs/militias are right-wing, they have right-wing veterans who know a bunch of other right-wing military, so they might assume that the military would favor these groups. Not a crazy assumption.

The next half-baked notion I want to talk about has to do with the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. First off, and I will mention this because I don’t know where else to put this in, but I took the Oath of Office as a Peace Corps Volunteer which really threw me off. I didn’t know we did that, and so I was surprised when it happened, and for a while there I really had to think about my role in the Peace Corps and how I would defend and uphold the Constitution if called upon. I eventually just decided the enemies of the United States, foreign and domestic, weren’t going to be storming into my Zambian village, and gave up thinking about it. But of course I took the oath far more often as a member of the military.

The most significant thing I want to point out in this half-baked section is that upholding that oath is not necessarily a straightforward thing to do. This intersects with the article when it comes to the Oath Keepers. They’re another one of these gangs, but their schtick is that they claim to be continuing their oath to uphold, etc. The fact that these guys can claim to be doing that while the Southern Poverty Law Center calls them “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today” should be telling. Like I just said, I took the oath a lot as a member of the military. Specifically, as an officer, I took the Oath of Office. However, enlisted members of the military, and therefore the majority of the military, take the Oath of Enlistment. These are pretty similar, except that the Oath of Enlistment includes specifically the line that they swear to obey “the orders of the officers appointed over me,” while officers simply don’t swear that.

Why the difference? I always figured it was because while saying you’re going to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” sounds all nice and straightforward, man that is hard to put into practice. If you were to be serious about it, every single person who swears that oath would need to be a constitutional scholar. How else could you decide with any certainty whether or not any particular order you are given is against your oath to uphold and defend the Constitution?

I don’t think you could spin a scenario that would be obvious 100% of the time. If, as a member of the military, your commanding officer orders you to storm the White House and capture the President, that seems pretty straightforwardly like an unlawful order and unconstitutional. But then again what if the President is there illegally, because he refused to concede in a contested election, or something? Then maybe getting him out of there is pretty constitutional? But how is any member of the military really supposed to be able to tell? Even if you’re the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, I’m going to bet you’re probably not an expert on that sort of thing, and you’re just going to have to go with the best advice you can get. If you’re some enlisted guy, what chance do you have?

The answer to the conundrum is mostly “well this doesn’t really come up all that often,” and the other part of the answer is the difference between the Oath of Enlistment and the Oath of Office, mentioned above. Every member of the military has an obligation to not follow an unlawful order. But for enlisted members (in my interpretation), the default assumption is that an order given to you by an officer is probably lawful. Unless there is a pretty specific reason you should know it’s unlawful, you won’t be faulted for carrying out those orders (and I think the bar is pretty high; you can seriously argue after massacring a village that you were just following orders). Officers, on the other hand, don’t get that pass. You have a responsibility, as an officer, to not simply assume an order you are given is lawful, and actively counter all those orders that you receive that don’t pass that bar.

But then again, I just pointed out that even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs probably isn’t going to be an expert on these things. So how is some random junior officer to know what to do? This is why I don’t think the military is likely to break from the government in power. In a scenario where the legality of a given order is in question, I personally think the military is going to default to the most conservative approach (do you have to emphasize “small-c” in writing?), which will be to follow orders. Even the almost universally beloved (within the military) “Mad Dog” Mattis will make the legally shaky move to deploy troops to the southern border when asked, and only actually balk when it came to not deploying troops to Syria. All that to say, I don’t think there is much chance of the military breaking with the government, even if the government orders it to deploy against American civilians.

The final half-baked bit is the alignment of these armed gangs. A few points here. The original NYT article I linked to notes that these gangs are “traditionally” anti-government. That makes sense to me, from a “the second amendment is in case we have to take up arms against a tyrannical government” perspective. But the alignment of a number of these groups have been changing, and again as the article notes “as [the militias] have inserted themselves in cities with large protests, the groups have found themselves sometimes welcomed by local law enforcement” (I personally wonder how much of that is due to the efforts of white supremacists actively working to infiltrate both the military and law enforcement, so that it’s not so much law enforcement welcoming the militias, but simply a case of overlapping membership). But these gangs aligning themselves in any way with either law enforcement or the military really undercuts the notion of fighting against a tyrannical government. It’s hard to say you’re defending the people of the United States when you kill those people. However, the point I was trying to wander to is that although I think it is unlikely that the military will break with the government, if these gangs are aligned with the government, they could wind up on the same side anyways. The real driving force behind these gangs isn’t to uphold freedom and democracy (because frankly you can’t do that from behind a gun), but just hateful, fearful, American racism. If your goal is to kill Black and brown people, aligning yourself with the American government is historically not a bad way to go about it.

Those are my half-baked thoughts. Maybe someday they’ll coalesce into something meaningful.

DeLorean Upgrades

Reading this week:

  • Politics in Africa: A New Introduction by Nana K. Poku and Anna Mdee

So as I have mentioned before, I own a DeLorean. DeLoreans are the most amazing car ever made, but also they have some design flaws. Plus, they’re all about 40 years old now, so they’re bound to have some quirks. A common one is a voltage leakage somewhere in the car, which means that if you leave the car alone long enough, you’ll come back to a drained battery, which sucks. Since I only ever drive the thing about once a week, I have long had installed a battery disconnect, so that when I park it I disconnect the battery.

This is pretty straightforward and easy. The battery compartment in the DeLorean is actually in the interior, behind the passenger seat. So the usual thing I do is sit down in the driver’s seat, reach over, move the passenger seat forward, reach into the battery compartment, and connect or disconnect the battery. It is a perfectly fine solution. Except that, you know, it probably takes a solid five seconds or something to do, and you wind up putting your arm at a weird angle, which, like, come on. So I decided there was a better solution. I started poking around for different battery disconnect solenoids I could find in the internet, before discovering that DeLorean Parts Northwest already had a kit put together. So I bought that.

The center console with one of the dummy switches removed. The two switches on the driver’s side are for the windows, though the switch for the passenger window is actually supposed to be right next to the passenger’s seat. It got moved by a shop I hired to install a new radio but who subsequently wound up breaking the gear shifter. That’s just how DeLorean repair typically goes, but the switch position has been bothering me for years now and the other thing I wanted to do today was put it back.

What they sent me is what is pictured up top. You got the solenoid, a chunk of battery wire, a toggle switch that’s already wired up, another thing for continual 12V power I didn’t wind up using, and some connectors and stuff. The kit is advertised in part as a security device – the toggle switch is supposed to be hidden somewhere, so a would-be thief wouldn’t actually know how to get the car started. I decided against that. The center console of the DeLorean, you see, has five switches… or so it appears. Two of the switches are for the windows, one is for the rear window defroster, and two of the buttons are just fake. They’re “dummy switches,” just for decoration. They do, however, just scream to be used, so I wanted to put the toggle switch in place of one of those. My initial idea was to get like a super cool red toggle switch thingy, but then I got a better idea to try to 3D print a switch cover that looks like the other DeLorean switches, but housed the toggle switch for the kit. So I learned how to do 3D cad for the first time and bashed this together:

Getting it printed was a whole different adventure. The number of 3D printers I don’t have access to right now is frankly astounding. I bought my dad one years ago, but my parents are moving and his is in storage. Yale has a center with 3D printers, but it is currently closed for COVID. New Haven Free Public Library also has 3D printers, and they are also closed. There are all the online services, but they were more expensive than I thought they would be, so turns out our local print shop in fact has 3D printer services, but the 3D printing guy was on vacation when I called, and when he showed back up, they were out of black filament, so I had to wait another week. Really frankly astounding.

Anyways. It was almost time to rip the car apart. But first, shopping! It was pretty impressive, if I say so myself, the level of stereotypical manliness that went into the Saturday morning when I did this. First I climbed into my 80’s sports car and drove to the hardware store, where I bought some connectors and some tools. Then I drove to the autoparts store, where I bought more parts for my sports car. Then I drove home, and started working on my sports car.

Stuff I bought so I could do this install. Buying small amounts of wire is annoying and expensive.

I actually approached the process with a large amount of trepidation. I am very good at taking the car apart, and not so good at putting it back together. Some things I have gotten good at via repetition, such as replacing the thermostat, and one time I did an alternator belt change in the nuke school parking lot while wearing my uniform. Of course, there was that time back in high school that I would up shattering the window and then drove to my girlfriend’s place just so I could cry on her shoulder. True story. But today went pretty well!

The first step (after taking out the battery) was to install the new solenoid in the battery compartment. For that I had to drill some holes in the fiberglass of the battery compartment. I was worried about that both because drilling random holes in the car feels dangerous, especially around electrical stuff, and also didn’t have a drill, which made it harder, lemme tell ya. But I got it installed with the provided bolts, so that worked. Then I had to take off the center console, made significantly simpler by following the instructions in the official DeLorean repair manual I purchased. I could have been smarter about where I put my bolts and screws, but in the end I got them all back in the right spot (pretty sure). The parts on my DeLorean don’t fit the greatest after 40 years of amateur repairs, but the people in the Lowe’s parking lot today thought it looked pristine, so I guess it’s fine.

Tools, phone for listening to podcasts, and repair manual.

The next step was measuring out the wire and then attaching the connection hardware. I repurposed the engine cover as a workbench. Hopefully I didn’t lose any little parts into the engine or anything. This all went perfectly fine which was nice, and then I really just had to attach everything up after running the wires into the right spot. I took the opportunity to clean some dust out so that was good. I didn’t do anything fancy with the wire runs; they just wound up snaking into the battery compartment through the normal battery compartment opening, and are hidden by the interior fabric that just flaps down in that spot. So you can’t see anything unless you dig and I didn’t have to fret about putting more holes in the car.

At this point I did a test by connecting the battery back up, and it worked great! You flip a switch, the solenoid gives a satisfying “thunk,” and then the car can operate or it can’t. Very neat! I disconnected the battery wire again, and managed to get the center console back together, only temporarily putting the gear shifter through the tear in the leather caused by the gear shifter getting pushed through the leather last time the center console was reassembled. I cleaned everything up, put my now very scattered tools away, and the day was complete, with no crying! This is a feat for me!

And now, before and after shots!

Battery compartment before:

Battery compartment after:

Center console before (you already saw it but here it is again):

And center console after:

Ain’t it a beauty????


Okay when I wrote the rest of the above I didn’t actually have my little button cover yet. I just got it today and installed the sucker, and um, well I’m happy with it, but it could be a lot better. So turns out I messed a few things up. First off I had planned on just ramming through a piece of a paperclip as the hinge, figuring the PLA of the print would be easy to melt through. And it was! But what was not easy was getting anything resembling an actual hinge to work, and I quit before I completely melted the thing. I also didn’t actually measure the hole it was supposed to be mounted into, and just measured one of the dummy switches, which was a mistake because turns out the dummy switch is designed the way it is because the hole was smaller than I thought it was, not because they were cheap on plastic, so I wound up having to chop off a chunk of it using a kitchen knife heated up with a grill lighter. This is the detritus of all those efforts:

After all that, turns out I chopped off the bits not quite center (because like, I was using a kitchen knife heated with a grill lighter) and so when I installed it into the center console it didn’t quite fit center, so the actual button itself is no longer flush with the level of the button housing. At this point, I was just happy the button itself went into the button cover rather nicely:

These pictures taken before I had chopped off all the necessary bits; doesn’t it look nice though?!

Overall I am pretty happy with the project. It is functional and it looks pretty nice actually. I mean, clearly it was printed out of PLA and boshed in there, but I think the power symbol on top of the button housing turned out really well. And it mostly sticks on there, despite the lack of hinge. The advantage of 3D printing is of course rapid prototyping, and I have all sorts of ideas of how to make it better, but printing this one cost me $37 because I don’t own my own printer. I am considering changing that. We shall see.

Infrastructure in Zambia


This is another in my burgeoning genre of “op-eds I tried to publish somewhere else but couldn’t so here you go.” I wrote it in fall of last year when I knew slightly less about African infrastructure development.

For the past two years I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mbala District, Zambia, teaching fish farming to rural farmers. I also worked on projects in malaria and HIV prevention, nutrition, and women’s empowerment. I was enthusiastic about the work and unlike many PCVs I came back feeling energized about the ability to impact change in developing countries. But I also came back convinced that in a whole career of development work, there is nothing anyone could do in that village that would help them as much as building a paved road would.

My village was a mere 12km from the town of Mbala and connected via a dirt road. The quality of the road changed throughout the year, with the community spending weeks repairing it during the dry season only to have the rainy season carve deep chasms and massive mud pits into it. When rain hadn’t turned the road into a river, it took a 4×4 Land Cruiser about an hour to make the trip. Based on my experiences with that road, I have become an absolute convert to the school of infrastructure development.

I think the biggest long-term impact of building infrastructure will be on education. Newly hired teachers in Zambia are assigned to rural schools which probably don’t have access to electricity or running water. Teachers work as hard as they can to get transferred from these schools as quickly as possible. Building a road to a village followed quickly by power lines means rural schools will be better able to recruit and keep teachers so the kids in a village actually have a shot at education.

Even in schools with the best teachers, the lack of infrastructure massively hampers education. There are basic problems: students in Zambia have a required computer course to graduate secondary school, but at a school without electricity students will never see a computer, let alone get experience on one. Schools in Zambia are also responsible for printing standardized tests. At a school near me, which had only one government teacher and no electricity, printing these tests meant he had to walk 12km to town during the week. After printing them, he then had to walk back, leaving his students without a teacher for the day. With electricity and a printer, this all-day task becomes a 20-minute one.

Better infrastructure leads directly to better health outcomes. One of the major determining factors for the risk of a child dying of malaria in Zambia is the distance between that child and the nearest hospital. Right now, a child sick with malaria faces a walk under the African sun or an impossibly expensive taxi ride. Hiring a taxi to drive to my village over the dirt road cost 150-200 kwatcha. The farmers I knew struggled to earn 60 kwatcha for school fees every year. But in Zambia, paved roads are quickly followed by minibus service provided by plucky entrepreneurs. A minibus service over the same distance on a paved road would probably cost about 10 kwatcha. With paved roads, a sick child can actually get to a hospital when they need one.

Patients living with HIV have to travel to the hospital monthly to receive their medicine. An all-day 24km round trip walk every month can be insurmountable. That paved road and minibus service would save their lives too. Lacking their own transportation, health outreach workers rarely if ever make it to distant villages. A paved road makes it possible for these workers to actually go out and conduct bed net checks, provide training on malaria transmission and sexual health, and help make sure people are sticking to their regimens. Northern Zambia has one of the highest rates of malaria and HIV and both are problems that will never be kept in check until the infrastructure network is in place to make sure change happens.

The existence of basic infrastructure spurs other aid and development. Despite there being a variety of NGOs based in the town of Mbala, none of them operated in my area. They were willing to drive 50km west along the paved Chinese-built Mbala-Nakonde road (pictured up top), where they could access target villages in under an hour from town, but would not drive 12km east over a dirt road to my village. A village with a paved road is suddenly actually connected to the world’s development resources.

Roads extend the rule of law. The police in Zambia are chronically underfunded, and getting them to travel to a rural village often requires covering their expenses. Given the difficulty of getting to a rural village like mine, the police are unlikely to ever come. With a road in place, the police can actually show up. It would be easier for every other aspect of government to show up too: forestry officers can come and fight illegal logging, land surveyors can come and do the inspections necessary for rural farmers to get deeds to their farms, and the list goes on.

The United States has not helped to contribute to Zambian road infrastructure. From 2013-2018, the Millennium Challenge Corporation spent $332 million to help upgrade Lusaka’s water supply, which is necessary infrastructure I support, but nothing advertises America’s good will like a road. I never heard anyone talk about the water supply, but every road I traveled over people knew exactly who built it. Zambia is nearing completion of their Link 8000 project, named for the 8201km of roads constructed under the program. This should have been an ideal project for the US to get involved in; it was initiated by the local government and had clear, tangible goals. The US was invited to participate, but did not join. Zambia turned to China for funding instead, with work done by Chinese contractors. Spending America’s time and money on basic road infrastructure is a fantastic way to show the world how to do it right: at a reasonable cost, with as much skill and technology transfer as possible, to produce a high-quality product. Every kilometer of road America helps pave accrues good will and helps improve people’s lives.