Long-time Cyborgology readers might remember that last year I went to Kumasi, Ghana to install an automated SMS system to help Ghanaians find condoms. This year, we are going to install ten vending machines across the city in hopes that people are more comfortable anonymously buying condoms from machines, than from crowded pharmacies. Since street names and building addresses are rare, giving directions means relying on landmarks to navigate the urban environment. When I asked people to draw a map that would help someone get to a hospital I usually got something that looked more like a subway map than a bird’s-eye view of the area. This is interesting because 1) it calls into question our definition of a map might look like and how it would function and 2) mental mapping of cities are not only spatial, they can be relational and contingent. In other words, the most important thing about a landmark might not be its specific location in relationship to the rest of the city, but where it sits in a given set of instructions. This is the kind of urban navigation that we must work with when installing our condom vending machines. (more…)
The SMS service will be advertised using an ad campaign that is based on field work from the previous year by Dr. Audrey Bennett of RPI's Language Literature and Communication Department..
Next month I’ll be in Kumasi, Ghana doing field research and I thought I’d share what I hope to accomplish over there, since my work is informed by much of what I write about on this blog. (I will be blogging over here.) We hope to set up an information system by which Ghanaians can find condom sellers nearby. The primary interface will be text messaging using a fantastic open-source project called FrontLineSMS. By texting a certain number, the user will be asked to send their district and a list of nearby landmarks. The database will send back a list of condom sellers within a reasonable walking distance. We also hope to have several other front-end access points that are already becoming popular places to socialize. Our aim is to increase access to condoms in order to reduce the infection rate of HIV/AIDS. As of 2009, according to UNICEF, 230,000 people (about 2% of the population) live with HIV in Ghana. I should also note that cell phones are not a luxury item in Ghana. Adoption has exploded over the past several years, and it is estimated that about 67% of Ghanians own a cell phone.