SIS Associate Professor Devendra Potnis receive the College of Communication and Information Bud Minkel International/Intercultural Award this October.
The award recognizes the work and research Potnis has conducted over the past two years in Kenya, Benin and India – much of this has been geared towards helping people who are disadvantaged in their communities due to financial, technological, cultural, or political barriers.
“I think it’s our responsibility, our duty, to help people who are disadvantaged and marginalized. It is our social responsibility, moral responsibility and ethical responsibility,” Potnis said. “I have these skills, I am an information scientist, so I can teach them information literacy and other relevant skills for using mobile technologies and social media to overcome the barriers to their development.”
The projects he’s headed up include:
- Two diplomacy labs conducted with the US Department of State in Benin, which is in West Africa, and Kenya. “We developed guidelines for how the United States can actually play a role, for how diplomats can recruit and train people using social media to solve the local problem of corruption,” Potnis explained. He said that corruption is often the number one reason for poverty in developing countries, so helping residents of those countries fight corruption via social media results in lower corruption and better governance. One example of this is teaching citizens to use mobile phone applications such as SnapChat to record and upload videos of government officials who are extorting bribes, he said. Other applications included using social media platforms such as WhatsApp to spread the US message.
- In India, Potnis conducted a study of women living in very low poverty to see what barriers they have to owning mobile phones. About 245 women living in rural and urban slums were surveyed as part of the study, with the results showing that eight types of pre-existing inequalities create barriers to owning mobile phones, which reinforce the gender digital divide for women. Women experience more barriers than men in the same context for owning and using mobile phones.
- Potnis partnered with Dr. Bhakti Gala of Central University of Gujarat, India, to do a study funded by the ALISE/OCLC LIS Research Grant Program. They developed financial, information, and mobile technology literacy toolkits that they then made accessible to a segment of the population that earns less than $2 a day in India. India’s government is pushing for a cashless society that uses mobile phones to facilitate financial transactions, but about 35-40 million people in the country do not have the digital, information, or financial literacy to operate in that type of society. “These people are less likely to be part of this mainstream, so they are excluded. If they do not build these skills, they would be left behind in the cashless society envisioned by the Government of India. So to bring them into the mainstream, they need to have these skills, so this toolkit will essentially help them to use mobile phones for finance,” Potnis said.
Potnis said he first realized his capacity to help underprivileged populations as an information scientist while doing his internship with the United Nations in India in 2005, and ever since then that has been the goal of his work.
“These people need somebody like me who understands the technology, understands the context, understand the culture. So, I am like an interface,” he said.