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A Kenyan Idea With Global Reach

24 March 2009

I linked to txteagle before, but after watching a video of its founder, Nathan Eagle, I felt it deserved a standalone post.

For those who haven’t already heard about txteagle, it’s essentially a way to put small tasks in the hands of mobile phone users in rural areas of developing countries and pay them for completing those tasks. The outsourcing has been likened to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, but relies only on the “assistant” to have a mobile phone with a sim card. Better than Mturk, you’ll see in the video that the idea behind txteagle can be pushed beyond use as a method of outsourcing, but also a way to encourage the deployment of new water wells in rural areas, as a system to monitor blood banks in far-flung parts of a country, and even a method of conducting survey research.

I think it’s clear that rural Africans stand to benefit financially from the success of txteagle, either directly or through positive externalities. I’m curious about changes in individuals’ experiences. How does day-laboring via mobile phone (or more likely, 20-minute-laboring) impact the other activities in which they engage? How will their work change their expectations? How does this link to some unknown international actor change their world view?

I have delayed posting about txteagle because I have felt so maniacally passionate that they got it right and worry that I might be overlooking the cons. All the same, here’s what I like about it:

  • The idea really began in Kenya, even if Nathan Eagle is from MIT (and Stanford before that). He was living in Kilifi and he came across a problem and he asked a younger colleague in Kenya to try and help him figure out how to fix it. Much as we needed Mr. Eagle to learn all he could about programming in the States, I doubt he would have found the same use for his skills in the States.
  • The idea is going to be for Kenya and other countries like it — it’s not like clinical trials that go to African countries where costs are cheaper but profits will be made back in the States. As Eagle himself says, “This is their technology. The mobile phone is theirs. It has had a far greater impact on their lives than it has on ours.”
  • At the same time, the benefits from this idea extend beyond the boundaries of developing countries. If you want to outsource some work cheaply yet efficiently, you might find a suitable group of folks at txteagle to do the work for you.
  • Eagle is getting some research data out of this. You see, we in the academy — even the ones who care about developing countries — are just hustlers trying to get information that we can analyze systematically from which we can make inferences about the world.

I’m not surprised a private endeavor — rather than aid — is working so well, but I’m still impressed. Not just with the idea, but the process it took to get to that idea and the appreciation for context. It’s nice that Eagle does some myth-busting about Africa and the developing world (the simple pie chart showing the developing world outnumbering the developed in mobile phone subscribers is fantastic), and I admire that has done a great deal of teaching in East Africa to build the technical capacity necessary to meet the entrepreneurial visions of African computer scientists. I just feel like he gets it. And he gets it in a way so few ex-pats I’ve ever met have.

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