Wyche to Explore Technology Use and Innovation in Kenya

Posted on: April 1, 2015

Entering Kenya

Department of Media and Information Assistant Professor Susan Wyche's research is being supported by one of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development awards, the foundation's most prestigious award for junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar. Wyche will use the five-year, $582,613 grant to study technological innovation at sites in rural and urban Kenya.

"Technological advances in computing are traditionally understood as coming from industrialized nations, or those that invest heavily in technology research and development," Wyche said. "However, centers of information and communication technology innovation are shifting in the world. Emerging economies, such as Kenya, are no longer simply the recipients of innovative design from industrialized nations – the things we're developing. They're actually developing innovative technologies that are being adopted by the rest of the world.

M-Pesa"In the face of limited technical infrastructures and meager incomes, 'bottom of the pyramid' communities – or the 2.5 billion emerging economy residents who live on less than $2.50 per day – develop ingenious strategies to navigate these constraints when using technology. These workarounds are less obvious to people living in technology-rich environments, such as the U.S., and they have motivated innovative computing applications that are now used worldwide.

An example of this phenomenon is Kenya's revolutionary mobile banking system, M-Pesa (the "M" stands for mobile and "Pesa" is Swahili for money). For nearly a decade, Kenya has been leading the way with this innovative mobile phone technology, which allows you to send money using your mobile phone.

"When you are working in environments where access to electricity isn't everywhere, where people live on much less money than we do here, it spurs creative ideas," Wyche said. "This project is about understanding those creative ideas and how they can motivate solution to globally connected problems in computing."

Susan Wyche main 2Wyche's research will investigate the relationship between the bottom of the pyramid communities' interaction with computing and the discovery of technological solutions to globally connected problems in human-computer interaction (HCI), such as issues of sustainability, managing natural resources, recovering from natural disasters, diversifying online participation and providing employment opportunities.

One goal of this research is to lead to improved models of innovation and to advance our understanding of where and how transformative ideas emerge. It also seeks to fill a gap in knowledge regarding how constraints that exist in the United States, but are more visible in sub-Saharan Africa, can motivate innovations in computing.

"The challenges facing society – from managing natural resources and recovering from natural disasters to diversifying online participation and providing employment for growing populations – are immense, urgent and globally connected. Results from this CAREER research have the potential to substantially increase the number of technological solutions to these problems," Wyche said.

Susan Wyche KenyaWyche chose to do her research in Kenya because it is considered the tech center of East Africa right now and she has been working there since 2007.

As part of the grant, an interdisciplinary design studio course will be established where students will collaboratively design concepts based on Wyche's research. The course will be taught at both MSU and at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is intended to enable faculty early in their career to build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

Wyche's CAREER grant will begin in 2016. During the summer of 2016, she and a student will do field work in rural Kenya and the slums of Nairobi where they will interview people and observe how they use technology.

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