Kelsa+: IT Access for Low-income Workers

Kelsa+ is a program that offers low-income support staff in modern offices Internet-connected PCs for free, unrestricted use during their off-duty hours. This project assesses how such a program affects workers' basic digital literacy, and how that it turn affects self-esteem, skill development and work opportunities.

Overview

Most formal organizations in developing countries employ support staff for tasks such as housekeeping, security, maintenance, and transport. Many of these workers in India come from disadvantaged, often rural, backgrounds, have studied no further than high school, and earn $50-200 per month. They have few on-the-job opportunities to upgrade their skills or learn new ones, and often remain caught in a low-growth career trajectory. 

Kelsa+ (meaning “Work+” in Kannada) is an initiative through which organizations in developing countries can increase digital literacy and skill development among such low-income workers, through the provision of an Internet-connected PC for the support staff’s free, unrestricted use when off duty. In this project, we ran a pilot implementation of this initiative at the Microsoft Research facility in Bangalore, through which the 35 workers employed as support staff at any given time have access to a dedicated, free-to-use, Internet-connected PC at the workplace.

Research

Two initial studies (MSR-TR-2007-145 and ICTD2009 papers) around this initiative focused on tracking the usage of this resource by workers over time, employing a number of qualitative and quantitative methods for data collection and analysis. We found that it is not just that the facility is frequently used by a large share of workers, but that usage of the PC in such a shared environment, with peer support and institutionalized maintenance, led to gains in individual workers’ basic digital literacy and related skills such as second-language (English) proficiency. In addition, we found indications of positive effects on workers' self-esteem. A few workers obtained new career opportunities as a result of their digital literacy skills.

The ICTD 2007 paper touches on early stages of the Kelsa+ project as one case in describing the tensions between agency and welfare aspects of development in ICTD projects. This builds on a core observation that often technology is used for entertainment applications, even among low-income users and even in donor-funded welfarist projects.

A more recent study (DEV 2010) assesses the potential for basic digital literacy skills to translate to supplementary income earnings for low-income workers. We find that there are significant user interface barriers that prevent low-income participants from using microtask websites like Amazon MTurk to complete projects and earn money on their own, even when the task itself (image annotation in this case) is tractable for them. We make a set of changes to the UI and Instruction modules of a target microtask and find significant improvement in performance by low-income users.

 

People involved: Researchers, Interns & Partners

Aishwarya Lakshmi Ratan, Udai Singh Pawar, Sean Blagsvedt, Kentaro Toyama, Bill Thies

Shashank Khanna, Sambit Satpathy, Thanuja Subramanian, Lilian Zia, Itamar Kimchi, Gautam Prasad

Hope Foundation Bangalore

 

Publications

Shashank Khanna, Aishwarya Ratan, James Davis, and William Thies, Evaluating and Improving the Usability of Mechanical Turk for Low-Income Workers in India, in Proc. of DEV 2010, ACM, December 2010

Aishwarya Lakshmi Ratan, Sambit Satpathy, Lilian Zia, Kentaro Toyama, Sean Blagsvedt, Udai Singh Pawar, and Thanuja Subramaniam, Kelsa+: Digital Literacy for Low-Income Office Workers, in Proc. of ICTD 2009, IEEE, 19 April 2009

Udai Pawar, aishwarya ratan, and Sean Blagsvedt, An Office ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ Exploration, no. MSR-TR-2007-145, January 2008

Aishwarya Lakshmi Ratan and Savita Bailur, Welfare, Agency and 'ICT for Development', in Proc. of ICTD 2007, IEEE, December 2007