I’m in a reverse warp zone. In a large volunteer attempt to help run a the technology portion of a training simulation, while technology is touted by many as an amazing liberalization of information and communication, there are many details that go into an often nuanced process to make this a realization.
I’ve purchased USB sticks, quad band/tri band phones, broken the locks on many more and retrofitted safaricom/att unlocked and motorola phones for my research, consultancy work and prior simulations. But this year has been a colossal doozy. I’ve come head to head this year with US telco in 2012. For the SIM we began with 5 volunteers and 40-50 students, and now we’ve expanded in exciting ways to a team of 30-40 volunteers and over 120 students. With this comes a feat in preparation and logistics. I’ve spent over 2 hours on the phone with T-mobile trying to active 2 SIM cards. While i’ve purchase SIM cards all over the world, placed them in my unlocked phones/USB sticks with very little hitch, retrofitting the same plastic sim card here in the United States has cause more confusion around the world with T-mobile than you can imagine.
After multiple phone calls with pre-paid customer service who transferred me to post back to pre and post again finally back to pre-paid. Questions like you have a sim card but not a new phone? sim for voice, text, another sim for broadband? (yes, because T-mobile has limitations) oh. you have usb sticks already? but no SIM card? ……..I spent another 30-45 min with a very nice woman over a bad connection (which I think may have been due to a distant call center) I had to recite a litany of numbers that she couldn’t hear. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. Speaking over shotty network is common around the world, where you decide it’s better to text, rather can call, or just get used to the nature of it, but it’s always humbling to realize that back here in the US we’re a bit backward about mobile flexibility.
Where the idea of walking down the street to a kiosk, purchasing a 50 cent sim card, topping it off and calling it a day is non existent here. We’re locked into this labrynth that’s hard to work around and retrofit. Especially for learning purposes that try to simulate the humanitarian environment during crisis.
And while all the technology is cool and exciting it’s these frustrations that field staff talk about during emergencies. There often is an answer, from a skilled person very far from the field, or half the answer with a set of new and larger inflexible challenges because the fixer doesn’t understand the limited environment… (really? no electricity all day?) Or a new policy that can “open doors” but maybe not right now. Or just more time that we all don’t have during a crisis– to make it work. And all of these components are absolutely key for change, but until that time comes, operations still continue and we have to deal with the immediate challenges. And the more we can learn, teach and improve this part of the space the more we’ll help close the gap with the large ecosystem of humanitarians.
Two things ring out for me with this revisited experience. One, as a non techie, but one who advocates for accessible usable technology in crisis, if we can’t iron out these seemingly mundane details. (like just get the sim card to work…..) then the more highly complex questions take on a different meaning . What’s left is the sweat and frustration and unheard conversations of community of users struggling with the basic low tech challenges with large implications; for not only sustainability but adoption.
The second thing that rings out to me is that…. some of you may say… well it’s just US Telco. Yes, true, but how many US local communities with somewhat similar skills and resource limitations will or have already faced similar problems? Vulnerability is global, across all divides and as we continue to address these issues in “far away” places (in the minds of some), we should also think of how to fix them locally, and hence participate in global change.