Wishvast is a mobile phone-based social networking system that attempts to harness the pervasiveness of mobile phones in developing countries to build trust and optimize resource utilization and supply chains to facilitate people-to-people trade, with the ultimate goal of alleviating poverty. Beginning in spring semester 2009, our team laid out the theoretical foundation of the system and began to validate our concept through field research that was sustained for several years.
Co-investigator, field researcher, writer, prototyper
With: Steve Garguilo, Matt Maisel, Khanjan Mehta, Rucha Modak, Eric Obeysekare, Andrew Okello Syata, Amy Vashaw, and Shawn Vashaw
For: Penn State Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship
Duration: 6 months
Background: The inspiration for Wishvast comes from a series of studies completed by Penn State’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship program with women-led cooperatives in rural Tanzania. I spent the first half of the semester reviewing this research to become familiar with the unique social and economic mechanisms that enable these kinds of businesses.
Insight: The insight we chose build Wishvast around was that the ability for these cooperatives to grow or sustain was typically constrained by the size and depth of their trusted social network. Once these strong social ties were exhausted, reach, growth, or scale becomes increasingly difficult. How might we leverage the pervasiveness of mobile phones (in areas where 97% have access to a phone) to transform weak-tie social relationships into trusted business relationships?
Storyboarding: Because we were working in a classroom environment, away from our potential users and context, developed several scenarios to provide the theoretical underpinnings for our system. Based on the background research, secondary sources, and some of our own intuition (lovingly called “swags” or smart, wild-ass guesses), we developed three use cases to explore our system’s functionality and potential impact. We made special note of assumptions that would need to be validated with field research.
Prototyping: By developing our working scenarios, we were able to begin defining some common functionality. In a time before the wide availability of iPhones and Androids, this meant getting clever. Steve Garguilo and I worked with fellow teammates Eric Obeysekare and Matt Maisel to develop a PC application that controlled a mobile phone’s SMS gateway through its serial controller. A lot of this work existed and was well documented in projects such as FrontlineSMS, but we build Wishvast’s unique messaging service—essentially group messaging—from scratch. The PC application could parse incoming messages and maintain these relationships and states in a database.
Field Research: Steve Garguilo and I travelled to Nyeri, Kenya in Summer 2009. Over the course of three weeks, we talked to nearly 100 people. These conversations ranged from from informal streetside chats to formal group interviews to chasing actors up and down the macadamia nut supply chain. I personally led efforts to understand informal lending practices—a similar social and economic mechanism that requires high levels of trust.
Synthesis: Our work over the summer helped validate a few of the core concepts of the proposed Wishvast system, particularly labor hiring practices and supply chain coordination. I also helped build some foundational primary research for further exploration of microfinance and informal lending. The research Steve and I collected also generated several new possible scenarios for future study including applications in local tourism.
Outcomes: The Wishvast team was awarded a grant from The Clinton Global Initiative U to continue its work. Steve, local entrepreneur Andrew Okello Syata, and I were able to publish a paper to the International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering about our research in informal hiring and supply chain management. For this work we were awarded first place in an undergraduate research competition at Penn State. I advised Adam Brown, a student in the Schreyers Honors College on his undergraduate thesis—on microfinance and informal lending practices.