Enter the maze

StoryBank: crossing the global divide

An Indian street at dusk

You can sit in front of a browser and the whole world is at your fingertips. You can find anything in Google. The whole idea of the new generation of web tools is that now everyone can create content, everyone can join in – you can blog, network with the world on Facebook and share your photos on Flickr. Everyone can now have a web presence! Everyone’s views and concerns can be heard. Except they can’t…trouble is all that content is actually only from people like you and me.

Understanding what really matters

Most people in the Third World don’t have direct access to electricity never mind computers or the web. Many can’t read or write, never mind blog. As a result Westerners often jump to conclusions about what needs fixing. Western technologists often barge in with their solutions without actually finding out what the local problems really are first. When solutions aren’t based on an understanding of what really matters, things can easily be made worse rather than better. Great that you turned up with hi-tech water pumps to give people drinking water. Trouble is you didn’t think about what would happen after you left and there were no affordable spare parts. It’s such a shame when you were only trying to help. If only you had understood the lives of those people you were trying to help better. If only the world wide web did reflect everyone’s concerns and worries. If only those people where the social injustice was the worst had could create their own web content to tell their stories…

Matt Jones of the University of Swansea has been telling us about a project to change all that. A project intended to really make a difference.

The power of stories

So, picture this. An elderly Indian lady is sitting on the steps of her house. She's throwing scraps to a group of scavenging, chattering chickens. Now, listen carefully, very carefully: there's the bustle of village life, the shouts of children, an occasional motor and, ever so gently, occasionally, a soft word. She's talking to the birds. Is she in urgent need of computing resources? How might technology enhance her life? How would your solutions fit this context? Perhaps they would, perhaps they wouldn’t, but if not perhaps just hearing her story will spark an insight into what you could do that would help.

Sharing technology stories online

The power of such vignettes to engage, stimulate, and challenge is the motivation behind the StoryBank project. The StoryBank team’s aim is to build an online collection of stories: stories told aloud, stories told in pictures, stories that capture the essence of local community life. The stories will give engineers and designers insights into the storytellers’ needs as well as relating their prior experiences of technology: what went right, what went wrong, how the technology actually fit into their lives.

The StoryBank isn’t focused on the past. The intention is for it to be an engine of change to shape the future. If it works it will help engage people in constructive conversations about the real issues that matter. It will help engineers really understand the needs of cultures that aren’t their own.

How to make it work

By using spoken stories illustrated by still pictures, the StoryBank team hope to give a stronger voice to people who can’t read or write, never mind use the Internet directly, to tell their stories. The first problem to solve is how to collect the stories. Some simple reliable technology is needed that is cheap, easily transported around, works anywhere, and records both sound and images. Sometimes the time is just right. Camera phones are the answer!

So now the Storybank team are gathering stories, building the technology to make them easily available and testing the ideas. Next time you snap a photo of the antics going on at a party on your mobile and send it round your friends, remember the same technology may also be helping some of the most disadvantaged people too. Really making a difference.