TL;DR: Mother of Pearl is a scalable initiative producing critical skill sets and information
flows in a resource efficient way, where conventional approaches fail or are not enough.
It relies on cheap digital audio players, and content can easily be multiplied, adapted, or curated as needed. It is intended to work under extremely severe circumstances, and can be implemented out of a day-pack.
But only because we now got really busy – building it on the ground, with all the little but important details such as getting stuff through Cameroonian customs, civil unrest, curfews, lock-downs, kidnappings left and right, organizing volunteers, producing local content, and thousands of IDPs all the while competing for priorities.
In short: All my half-idle armchair musings got exposed to a hefty dose of “experience in the field” through the ever resourceful, ever hopeful, very well connected, and indefatigable @gentlewest and his ingenious sidekick brother.
There are of course dozens of lenses through which one can look at the broader context and the intervention itself. I will only touch on two that fascinate me to no end as tiny asides (Our planet and The Gutenberg Parenthesis) before we get down to brass tacks:
In the harshest of conditions humans rely on the spoken word.
The combination of this most ancient technology with modern audio players
and memory technology is a key enabler on a broad set of issues.
1. Affordable: Our approach uses very compact and affordable audio
players (0.8 to 2 EUR) and allows spreading accurate, up to date, and
appropriately customized information to a target audience that may be
illiterate, struggling, and remote.
2. Minimal capex, custom opex: There are no front heavy investments
such as building, staffing, and attending of conventional schools. The
syllabus can be tested, tailored, and refined to actual needs and
3. Bootstraps out of a backpack: It can be launched with minimal logistical
demands in a crisis situation with all relevant information pre-loaded
and requires minimal management, because it is literally self-explaining.
4. Practical: Importantly the devices are compact and robust enough to be
used during housework, fieldwork, relief work, guarding, or menial tasks,
and can even be operated by pre-school age children. Unlike broadcasts
it can be re-listened, paused, and scheduled on demand. And unlike books do not
light or quietness, and sophisticated storage.
5. Data rich: Being inherently digital this approach allows for transparency
and accountability, with little risk of misuse. With minimal overhead it
becomes possible to improve or translate content locally and allow for
extremely detailed two-way information flow, uninhibited by literacy
Once these networks are established they can relay literal information
(ebooks) with very few limitations.
6. Learn from Failure: Catastrophic failure of the devices is rare. Care,
operation, and repair familiarizes the users with key concepts of battery
care, solar charging, and electronics at minimal risk and cost. It is also a near perfect platform to “educate the educators”.
Our pilot project demonstrated the viability and feasibility using (focus) groups in Cameroon (also known as Africa in miniature). The groups are:
- (young) women
- prison inmates
- internally displaced persons
We are now in the process of properly incorporating, ideally within the ER ecosystem, and warmly welcome ideas, volunteers, replication, reflection, and sponsors.
We’ll write below some more detail on what we’ve done, who we’re talking with, and what some of the next steps could be. @gentlewest will write more on how things work or don’t work in the field, and what we could use some help with.
And we’re also very open to discussing the wider topic, how this can be sustainable, if it has potential for language conservation, or any other “harebrained scheme”, what risks we see, what it says about EdgeRyders approach, how it can be relevant to you, etc. etc.
About the name:
Mother of Pearl, or nacre, is the result of an intricate organic process that creates a useful, beautiful, and strong (if somewhat brittle) material from some of earth’s most abundant elements - calcium.
In many organisms it is used to contain crises from spreading and will at times yield pearls
that rival the most rare of materials in their diverse beauty.