Where the Streets Have No Name - Field Trip in the Wild
Biju Thankachan, University of Tampere, Finland, Biju.Thankachan[at]uta.fi
Sumita Sharma, University of Tampere, Finland, Sumita.s.sharma[at]uta.fi
Tom Gross, University of Bamberg, Germany, email[at]tomgross.net
Deepak Akkil, University of Tampere, Finland, Deepak.Akkil[at]staff.uta.fi
Markku Turunen, University of Tampere, Finland, markku.turunen[at]sis.uta.fi
Shruti Mehrotra, Grey Orange Ltd, Gurgaon, India, mehrotrashruti1[at]gmail.com
Mangesh Ashrit, Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore,
Image Credits - Andreea Niculescu
When Bono, of the iconic rock band U2, composed the song Where the Streets Have No Name, he
believed that it is possible to identify a person’s religion and income based on the street on which
they lived. However, in this article, we are neither discussing religion nor income. We are sharing
our experiences of conducting a fieldtrip at Dharavi, Mumbai as HCI researchers with a focus on
designing interactive solutions for people living there, the users. The title of this article represents
two thing: first, streets inside Dharavi do not actually have names, and second, the phrases “going
into the wild”, “real world”, “unchartered waters”, and “terra incognita”, especially with a team of
researchers belonging to different cultures, nationalities, and background. The main benefit of such
field studies is that they often lead to creative and serendipitous innovations . ‘Knowing the user’
is the primary motivation for conducting such studies and it provides us with a whole gamut of human
experiences to develop solutions which affect them .
It all started with a call for participation for the Field Trip Track, to be organized for the first time in
the history of INTERACT conference. The first author is involved in a study for designing user
interfaces for low-literate users for rural healthcare workers in Central India, and this field trip was in
a way an addendum to understand low-literate users in urban area. The title of our field trip was “ICT
based Interventions for Anganwadi Healthcare Workers in Mumbai” . Anganwadi workers form the
core of the healthcare system for a large section of the rural and semi-urban population in India.
They provide health-related information to pregnant women, care for newborn babies and play an
important role in immunization programs. Traditionally, Anganwadi workers use paper-based
information leaflets as a part of their job to spread awareness among people. Although mobile
phones have made their inroads into the day-to-day life of these workers for basic communication
(making a call), it is yet to be seen how a mobile device is being used as a technological aid for their
work. There are enormous challenges in addressing the issue of mobile phone usage, especially in
developing regions, owing to numerous reasons such as illiteracy, cognitive difficulties, cultural
norms, collaborations, experience and exposure, motivation, power relations, and social standing.
The purpose of this field visit was to inquire the role of mobile devices in the day-to-day work of
Anganwadi workers at Dharavi; whether mobiles are used as a technological intervention and in
what manner and form. The field trip would provide an opportunity to interact with potential users of
technology, understand their needs, concerns, preferences and expectations regarding technology
and provide us insights in developing ICT based solutions for this user group. The team consisted
of two organizers and five participants including a student volunteer. Five members of the team were
Indian nationals (including the organizers) and two were Europeans.
The Streets of Dharavi
The field trip was conducted at Dharavi, Mumbai. Dharavi is one of the largest slums in Asia spread
over 535 acres and accommodates a population of over a million people. Dharavi was put on the
world map by the popular Hollywood movie – Slumdog Millionaire. As in common in movies, and
sometimes also in research, the ‘real world’ or ‘in the wild’, is portrayed as a chaotic yet exotic far
away land, waiting to be ‘fixed’. This is far from reality – Dharavi is a bustling economy for which it is
often referred to as “Durable Slum” . Its characterizing eco-system are different unregulated small-
scale industries manufacturing leather goods, garments, earthenware flourish alongside the
residential shanties. The crisscross of narrow lanes presents itself as a giant maze and only a local
resident knows the way out of the conundrum. Despite the oddities, Dharavi is a self-contained, self-
sustained locality with schools, Anganwadi centers, clinics, grocery shops, electrical repairs shop,
internet café, and all that is necessary for an urban small city. What better way to break the
stereotype than by visiting the place and interacting with the people there.
Figure 1 – Locally produced earthenware on the streets of Dharavi, Image Credits - Andreea Niculescu
It took us nearly an hour to reach Dharavi from the conference venue (IIT, Bombay) by cab. We met
the local NGO representative from Daya Sadan at a designated place and proceeded through the
narrow lanes, which at some places allowed only one person to pass through. We were being attuned
to the sights of electrical wires, TV cables, and water pipes all coiled together. This surprisingly
diverse array of cables and pipes (see figure 2) seems like a safety hazard but was a common sight.
Finally, we arrived at the Daya Sadan, the school and skill development center, where we would
meet and interview the locals participating in the field trip. The place was noisy as there were women
working on sewing machines, and we had to adjust ourselves to the corner to conduct the interviews.
True to the Dharavi spirit of diversity, we interacted with Tamilian (people from southern state of
Tamil Nadu) immigrants in a Christian school with a prayers heard from a mosque nearby.
Figure 2 – Black electricity and TV cables and green water pipes hang together on the top. Image Credits -
Dharavi’s portrayal in several in movies and documentaries, including Bollywood Movies and both
national and international press, has resulted in a tourist culture to the place. Several international
and local people are able to visit the area in a guided tour, which probably emphasizes its popular
media image. With the fieldtrip, there was no tour-guide. However, walking through the streets with
the Daya Sadan representative, we were still overwhelmed yet observant of the surroundings. We
knew we would be going to Dharavi before we landed in Mumbai and several of us had seen the
images and movies. However, the experience was unlike any other, even for the local researchers.
There were six female Anganwadi workers, their age ranging from 30 years to 43 years and their
experience of working as Anganwadi workers varied from 10 years to 22 years. Their educational
background ranged from 10th standard to graduates. Despite the fact that the users are definitely not
low-literate it was interesting to interview them about their technology usage within the context of
urban slums. Dharavi alone has close to 300 Anganwadi centers and these Anganwadi workers are
involved in spreading healthcare-related information in that area.
We planned to conduct one-on-one interviews with Anganwadi workers. However, we had to change
our plans because all the users arrived at the same time. We decided to conduct focus groups
instead of making some of them wait, as it would have been difficult to conduct six parallel interviews.
We divided ourselves into two groups with three users each. One group had three researchers and
other one had four researchers. We ensured that there were at least one female
researcher/volunteer in each group so that the users feel comfortable during the discussion as it
touched up on the topics of pregnancy, sex education and similar issues (we assumed there could
be some reluctance to discuss these issues within an all-male or international researcher group).
We used the interview guide we had preapred for the focus group discussions. The questions
focused on their technology usage—particularly mobile phones—in their day-to-day life.
In the first group, two users owned smart-phones and one user had access to the regular feature
phone and in the second group, only one user owned a smart-phone. We term smart-phones as the
one that is touch-enabled or Android phones, whereas the feature phones are the regular button
based such as Nokia 3310 (older version) or Samsung Duos. Although smart-phones have gained
popularity among all sections of the population, still a large section do not have access to them owing
to cost, fear of damage and perceived difficulty in using them.
The discussion included questions such as - have you used a touchscreen-based phone? For what
activities do you use your mobile phone? Do you use mobile phones for work-related tasks? Have
you played any games on the mobile phone or used the phone for fun related activities? These
questions were the icebreakers to get the conversation started. Users with smartphones were very
familiar with apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook. The healthcare workers had their own
WhatsApp group through which they communicated with other group members, shared work-related
documents by taking pictures and sending reports. Those users who did not have access to smart-
phones often approached their colleagues who had one and asked them to send messages on their
behalf. The users mentioned that in one of the WhatsApp groups, their supervisor was also a
member but did not have administrator privilege. This gave them a feeling of empowerment, where
despite being lower in the social hierarchy, they retained the control over the group activities.
Through Facebook, users got information and reminders regarding birthdays within their social circle
and provided them the option to share pictures and wishes. In fact, one user mentioned that it is
more important to wish friends on Facebook rather in person, because everyone in their social
network sees the Facebook post. This works in two ways - it makes the recipient feel special when
they have lots of wishes on their timeline and also serves as proof for the sender, in case the
recipients forgets in the future. Overall, Facebook was mainly used socially, while WhatsApp was
used both with friends and family, and for work. Besides using WhatsApp and Facebook, smartphone
usage was otherwise limited. Users with feature phones, as expected, were less technology savvy
and used their phones only for voice calls. However, users were willing to learn to use and
experiment with a newer phone or app.
The discussions provided a number of insights for the researchers. They helped us understand the
current practices in technology usage and mobile phone usage in particular. These focus group
discussions also helped us in analyzing the routines of the healthcare workers and identify pain
points where new technological interventions could be designed. Bookkeeping, gamification, user-
specific social media, educational tools are some of the avenues where new forms of interventions
for the healthcare workers can be thought of.
Breaking the Stereotypes
After the whole experience, the big question is: what new insights into ‘knowing thy user’ did the
study offer? The answer: it provided a way to break the stereotypical notions of ‘people living in
Evidence shows that in India smart-phones have been spreading strongly during the last 2-3 years.
In 2016 there were 1 billion mobile phones and 220 million smart-phone users. WhatsApp is seen
as an important feature of smart-phones and already in 2016 had around 100 million active users in
India—being the biggest market for WhatsApp . Still it was fascinating to listen to some of the
users when the explained how natural the smart-phones and WhatsApp are an essential part of their
daily work practice.
Three patterns were particularly interesting and reflect the discourse in ethnographic studies:
situated action; flexible workflows; and mutual awareness . Situated action refers to the fact that
in general cooperative work is planned and well organized, but needs to be adapted to the respective
situation and contingencies. For instance, paper documents are photographed. Those photographs
are used as scans and allowing to work on multiple sites without carrying too much paper documents.
One users told us that if the manager requests a document or a report she could always provide it
immediately—independently of her current whereabouts. Mutual awareness plays an important role.
The workers regularly keep each other up-to-date via phone calls, and WhatsApp messages.
Additionally, the scans are shared with colleagues, which—as one user told us— is the basis for
informing each other, but also for backing up documents for each other in case of a data loss.
Overall, our users were literate, active users of technology and applications such as WhatsApp and
Facebook, professional in their handling of sensitive topics on reproductive healthcare, and
potentially using technology to feel empowered.
All the field trips during INTERACT were a one- time event and there is little possibility of repeating
the field trip or to interact with the users again. Since all the participants of the field trip had gathered
on the sidelines of attending the conference, a second visit for a detailed contextual inquiry is
seemingly difficult. However, in situations where all the researchers belong to the same city or
somehow travel and other logistics are taken care of, then such field trip could prove beneficial.
Another big challenge of such a field trip is the efficacy of the whole exercise. Since the users know
that they would be interviewed by researchers, an element of ‘demand characteristic’ about what the
researchers are looking for, is likely to figure in the responses of the users . Moreover, it is unlikely
that the researchers and user would meet again, the responses of the users should be carefully
weighed while drawing conclusions.
The researchers of the field trip come from different background, nationalities, domain, cultures, and
experiences. They also have different motivations and expectations for joining the field trip. It is quite
possible that the researchers are meeting for the first time and may not have formed a team
dynamics. In such a scenario, it is possible that individual researchers move towards fulfilling their
own interests, which sometimes might lead away from the primary goal of the field trip. Although,
pre-prepared questions might help to remain glued to the topic, however, it is difficult not to bring in
individual opinions and pursuits.
When the conference is over and everyone has bid goodbyes, the thought comes what next. This
field trip has given all of us a possibility of collaboration in future and one such example is the writing
of this article. There is also the possibility of extending one's research, and forming new teams for a
project, funding application or writing a research paper. Bonding and friendship is another outcome
of the field trip. Nevertheless, the possibility of conducting the field trip again with the same team
members remains a distant dream.
This field provided us an excellent platform to ‘know the user’. Without the help and support of the
conference organizers, it would be a herculean task to arrange the users, researchers from different
geographical regions, logistics and all the other overheads related to organizing a field trip.
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