From Technology in Tunis...to a Wireless WSIS

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Friday, February 15, 2008

When Banking on IT Goes Wrong

Last two weeks, I was a poster-child for disappointment and frustration towards that payment system, which most of us have become used to; and that which we like to call the ATM, or Automated Teller Machine system. In short, the system failed me – much to my chagrin – and at a crucial time when I needed it most.

It all started with a trip downtown into Accra with the family, which called for a stop by the ATM of my bank. When I got the error message from the first ATM, I shrugged it off, feeling it was one of those things: maybe the festive period had spawned a huge number of withdrawals and the system had heated up. My mind began to change when I went to the second ATM some 10 minutes away—still unable to withdraw.

It was with the third ATM somewhere in town when the frustration begun to build. Seeing frustrated customers shaking their heads and muttering not-so-sweet nothings to themselves compounded the arrival at a decision that something was awry with the ATMs. The straw on the camel’s back was at Airport Shell, when the money pretended to be coming, only for the ATM to issue me a slip of paper, claiming I had “exceeded the daily limit”! This took the biscuit, and prompted me to get to my phone to my bank. They explained engineers were working on the system, and I wondered why they didn’t have the courtesy to have a message displayed at the ATMs that works were in, say, progress.

Far beyond the lack of customer service Ghanaians are wont to rightly complain about, this experience underscored—yet again—the extent to which we have thrown caution of IT and ICT tools to the wind, fully embracing such-systems – with all their imperfections – as if our life depended on it, all the time forgetting that, like this experience, it needs must let us down.

I believe that it will let us down because it is a system created and maintained by human beings. Consequently, the margin of error of its perfection will be greater on some days. This is no mere philosophical pondering but, in my view, a reminder of the importance of complementing old practices – such as keeping money on oneself – with new ones, where we rely on the banks to take care of our money for us. The day the money “refuses”—or fails—to come out is the day we find ourselves as poster children of ridicule. We can certainly avoid it!

Where’s that Mobile?
One thing we certainly cannot avoid is the usage of our phones this year. As it has become an indispensable tool, so has the need to further maximise the functions on it.

This week, we turn to the generation of phones that started using USB connections. Although as far back as 2003/2004, mobile phones, like NOKIA, could be connected to the computer, the cable used was one that was specific to NOKIA. USB connection was introduced to the computer around 1997, but it would be from 2003, early 2004 that they would begin to be commonplace on mobile devices, like NOKIA and MOTOROLA.

Even today that many phones are USB-compatible, few people are chosing to use their mobile devices…as mass storage devices. Quite a number of my colleagues, for example, both own USB flash disk and a mobile phone—but none take the opportunity to exploit the mass storage capability that the phones offer. There are two main reasons for this.

First of all, if the phone has, say, 20 MB space, there is evidently little incentive to use it as a mass storage device. Arm your phone with a memory card, and you might contemplate it. I suspect however that this activity exercises few people’s minds when they’re going to bed!

Secondly, even if you do have, say, 1 GB space on your phone, which is still not de rigeur for many mobile phones, the contemplation of it as a storage device when you have your USB flash disk purposefully for storing data will not be a visceral act.

In my view, these are the two predominant reasons why the trend towards storing important data on your mobile phone has not become the norm. With time, however, this trend will probably not catch on—except for those who consider themselves tech-savvy, and make that extra effort to maximise and exploit that humble of devices.

Smile, you’re on candid camera
Whether you’re a commuter, driver, or passenger, consider yourself a walking reference if you have a camera phone. Even if you are not used to taking pictures with your phone, the very fact that there is one at all on your phone gives you sufficient power to be able to make real impacts and contributions.

Back in 2003 when camera phones were either on high-end phones or non-existent, a close relative of mine who was involved in a serious car accident, which saw the-said relative end up with broken feet, was able to capture the scene of the accident—with a standard digital camera, that had video recording. The video would go to prove the guilt of the driver that slammed into the car from the opposite direction, because the son who was a passenger had the presence of mind to capture the scale of the accident and damage caused before anyone – witnesses or otherwise -- could unwittingly tamper with the evidence.

It would be ridiculous to think that one would carry a camera to capture accidents, but it’s clear from this very real and near-fatal accident that the digital camera was as critical a witness as the two relatives involved in the accident!

More recently, the President’s accident in November 2007 was a moot case, for witnesses on the scene were able to take pictures almost-instantaneously. Some claim they even took video coverage on their mobile phones. As I was in the vicinity leaving a work-related assignment, I arrived on the scene some twenty minutes after the incident. Still, armed with my standard camera, I was able to capture quite a few memorable shots, which I uploaded on my blog. Within two days, the number of people who had typed “kufuor and accident” and happened on my blog surpassed 50.

Whatever the case, it is clear that whoever you are, and wherever you may find yourelf, the phone has become an accessory to capturing a little piece of history that can assist you in an accident, or simply bring a joy to your face—something much needed this New Year!


Bye-Bye Netscape
It was sad news early this year, when reports came in that internet browser, Netscape, is dying a slow death, on account of the new business focus by its parent, America Online (AOL). The new focus by AOL is for the company to be more ad-supported, and, apparently, there is no room for Netscape within this new focus. Furthermore, the success of the Mozilla Foundation, which pioneered the successful FIREFOX browser, will continue to be subsidised by AOL at the expense of Netscape. The long and short of it all is that AOL is pulling the plug on Netscape, preferring for people to use FIREFOX. All that said, the portal netscape.com will still be available for those who hark after the good old times of when Netscape ruled before Internet Explorer came to steal its thunder.

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