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Discovering Design Constraints in Kathmandu

A few insights on the challenges of designing tech-based solutions for women in Nepal's busiest city.

Photo of Shauna Carey
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As part of our initial Amplify program research for this challenge, I am currently traveling in South Asia with a few colleagues.  After an incredibly busy and productive week in Delhi, the team has headed to Kathmandu to learn more about safety and security for women and girls and to find out how we might incorporate ideas and insights from end-users into the challenge.

After two days in Kathmandu, we have learned a lot, but my biggest take-away has been the daily technology challenges here. After speaking to women in several neighborhoods and income brackets (as well as experiencing these issues myself), I can say that—despite their popularity—apps and other tech-based safety solutions face an uphill battle in truly improving security for women here.

1. Lack of electricity. In Kathmandu, the electrical grid shuts down on a certain schedule every day for 15 hours. No matter who you are or where you live, this is the case. Some places (like hotels and hospitals) are lucky enough to have generators that make up most of the difference during this time, but the vast majority of Nepalese households are either using candlelight or small electrical inverters. As someone who routinely forgets to bring my computer and phone chargers when I need them, I can personally attest to the fact that our devices—while revolutionary in keeping us connected—are only as good as their last charge...which, of course, requires electricity.

2. Overburdened cellular networks. When we spoke with young women from a local Kathmandu neighborhood about their safety, all reported that calling the police or a friend would be their first course of action if they felt unsafe. They also all mentioned that you have approximately a 1 in 4 chance of actually getting through in such a situation, as Nepal's cellular networks are often overused. Often calls must be placed several times before going through, which—in an emergency—completely counteracts the primary benefit of a mobile phone: immediacy.

3. Literacy and texting. In Nepal, the adult literacy rate hovers around 60 percent, which makes texting rather difficult. Add in the fact that Nepali script is so complex that most texting here is done by souding out Nepali (or one of the country's other 100+ languages) using English characters, and most women and girls in low-income communities are going to face serious challenges participating in an SMS-based solution.

I would love to know what creative solutions our community can think of to circumnavigate the technology barriers above. I would also challenge us to think about what offline solutions we can use to increase safety in Kathamndu and other similar cities. Ready? Go.

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Photo of Marina Okulova

Shauna, you have raised really challenging questions which definitely are relevant in many regions in the world. I wanted to offer one idea that I have come across with regards to the literacy challenge. Using images to communicate the messages, like the article suggests illiterate farmers in rural India do to share practices. It of course implies a smart phone and internet connection, which brings back to your other two challenges but it is an idea to consider?
http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/06/05/mobile-learning-how-smartphones-help-illiterate-farmers-in-rural-india/