Sustainable Interaction Design in Cambodia

June 29, 2009

So, I've spent almost a month now as a resident geek at the InSTEDD Innovation Lab in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

InSTEDD is working on epidemiology-related technologies that are very relevant to my research interests:

InSTEDD's mission is to harness the power of technology to improve collaboration for global health and humanitarian action. We are an innovation lab for tools designed to strengthen networks, build community resilience and improve early detection and response to major health-related events and natural or human-caused disasters.

I was invited to their Cambodian lab to give a usability review to some of their software, and to give some interaction design training to their team. It's been a fantastic escape from San Francisco. Cambodia has been alternating depressing, exciting, confirming and challenging. Certainly I have learned more than I have been able to teach.

Last winter I was doing some preliminary research for Swift, and contacted InSTEDD to learn more about their platform for "team-sourcing" the analysis of information about the spread of disease. (I was given a preview of Evolve and thoroughly blown away.) I was super impressed with Eduardo's explanation of the lab, and happily jumped at the invitation to work as resident in Phnom Penh.

As part of InSTEDD's strategy of 'sustainable innovation' we are creating a full engineering team that over time owns and reinvents technologies used in the region. All technologies go obsolete - so for true sustainability you need to assemble a team of people that will invent the 'next thing' - and give it the skills, capital and opportunities to do so.
- @edjez

I actually had no idea what to expect here. I've lived in the woods a couple years without bandwidth, but I'd never really worked as a designer or developer in conditions quite like this. Phnom Penh has its fancy bits, for sure (the lab here is quite nice), but you are never far from tragedy.

Particularly the history in Cambodia is haunting. An entire generation of intellectuals and hackers, killed. There are no second-generation programmers in Cambodia. It's terrifying. The horrors of poverty are nothing compared to human nature. Somehow being a user-centered technologist means understanding this. Somehow.

I work on a lot of international projects, but at the end of the day I am just a homebody country mouse — I've hardly traveled at all, especially compared to the jet-set geeks that I tag along with. So a 15-hour flight to Phnom Penh seemed like a good tonic. I couldn't imagine a more appropriate place for understanding technological capacity, understanding humans, understanding human-centered design.

I have some rather deep frustrations with San Francisco. I feel really lucky to have lived and worked there, but after a couple of years I am more than ready to get out — most developers are overpaid, overworked, out of touch with the world. I have encountered enough dispassionate, disengaged arrogance from rich programmer zombie dudes that I have been ready to quit programming altogether.

So, as much as I have an interest in technology for the developing world, I've been longing for more first-hand experience with austere (read: realistic) technological environments. As a developer and designer I consider this just due diligence; it's basic design research about the real world, the real design problem. Designing for maximum constraints just doesn't really work from San Francisco bubble.

One of the great lures of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) is the possibility of "leapfrogging" old technologies and bringing major changes to the developing world. But leapfrogging technologies are not possible unless they address the much more subtle cultural issues. Which is to say, the process of technological advancement must be in organic, not imposed. San Francisco (or London or Berlin) solutions will never work in Cambodia. It's fundamentally an interaction design problem, which is has to be addressed by changing the conditions in which software is created.

InSTEDD has created the Phnom Penh lab to put development in the hands of the people that will be using it: Cambodians dealing with epidemics in Cambodia.

Ushahidi understands this deeply, cultivates serious African talent, and is working on a lab in Kenya, I hear.

At my nonprofit Meedan we hope to learn from this leadership and create a tech lab in Syria, where Arabic-speaking programmers from the Middle East — people who deeply understand the design needs of that region — will be in charge of developing our most important technologies. This, I think, is the simplest and most appropriate model for sustainable interaction design, and I am thrilled to work with people who get it.