Literacy Bridge: How one organization is adapting technology to help world’s poorest

(Credit: Literacy Bridge)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost half of all nonprofits and public charities end in failure. This is due to a lot of different factors lack of planning is a common mistake and for nonprofits working in the world’s poorest countries, a common pitfall is a fundamental misunderstanding of the target population.

One Seattle-based public charity, Literacy Bridge, uses a combination of clever technology and a continuous feedback loop to maintain a genuine understanding of its target population’s needs. The organization began developing an information-sharing device called the Talking Book in 2007, and has now reached around 200,000 of the world’s poorest people.

“The advantage we have with the Talking Book is we have someone who spent time to understand the community, and who has enough of a tech background that they’ve been able to develop a product, a solution, that is tailored to their needs,” said Dorothy Gordon, the first director-general of Ghana’s Advanced Information Technology Institute. Gordon is a visionary leader for technology professionals bringing development to Africa, and works in an advisory capacity to Literacy Bridge.

Literacy Bridge has so far reached some of the poorest communities in the world, in rural regions of Ghana, where people live off of less than a dollar a day and with little to no access to internet or electricity. For the most part, people in these communities cannot read nor write.

Designed for the learning needs of these illiterate populations, the Talking Book is a portable low-cost talking computer that provides simple, locally relevant information on health and agriculture in a way that suits its target audience.

“This program where people are able to learn about things in their own time, in their own language, with their own means of communication that they’re used to… allows other interventions to be much more powerful,” Literacy Bridge Executive Director Cliff Schmidt told Humanosphere.

The interventions Schmidt is referring to range from life-saving instructions for mothers on safe childbirth to introducing farmers to new ways to improve their crop productivity. The Talking Book presents these topics in interactive and relatable ways, such as songs, stories, dramas, games and quizzes.

Literacy Bridge measures the success of the Talking Book based on user data, feedback that users can record directly onto the device, and in positive results reported by those using them. This feedback loop is part of what’s made the Talking Book such a success, despite its rocky beginnings; the project launched around the time the economy collapsed, and initially struggled to get the device out to those who needed it.

“We have the funds to do this in about 20 communities right now, impacting about 1,100 families,” Schmidt said in 2011, in an interview with Humanosphere founder Tom Paulson.

But as the developers learned what messages and tools were most beneficial for rural Ghanaians, the Talking Book became more relevant and useful. Now, partly because the program model relies on users to share the device with their families and social circles, the Talking Book is reaching more people than ever before.

There are around 2,000 Books in circulation today, reaching around 200,000 people. By 2018, Schmidt says, he hopes that number will reach 1 million.

Schmidt attributes some of this success to the deliberate way the device was designed to fit the target population.

“Technology tends to create divides,” said Schmidt at Literacy Bridge’s second annual benefit dinner in Seattle last week. “It doesn’t actually tend to lift up the poorest of the poor. And the reason is because the wealthier, and the more educated, tend to be able to make the most use or have the most access to the most technology.”

He explained that the device could easily have a display screen, and people living on three dollars a day would gladly pay for it. But the Talking Book was tailored for a specific demographic the very poorest of the world’s poor and the technology must be adapted to fit the needs of that population.

“When our technology is designed to be primarily of interest to people who have been most marginalized by technology in other ways, then now, maybe, we will be able to leverage the power of technology.”

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About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com

  • russnelson

    I’ve contributed to Literacy Bridge, and you should, too.