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Today’s Revolutionary: Barcodes


 We all are familiar with the Universal Product Code, or UPC - that rectangle of white and black lines that adorn just about every product made and marketed anywhere. 

You might not know where the code came from, how it works, and what it’s impact is.

The present design was the result of a competition sponsored by the US National Association of Food Chains in 1971. Supermarkets had long dreamed of some sort of machine that could replace the laborious work of typing in prices of every item sold in a cash register. Finally, the technology caught up with the dream, and in 1972 bar codes were introduced in one supermarket in Cincinnatti in the US.

A laser swings its beam back and forth in the form of an “X”, and when the light bounces back from the barcode, a computer recognizes the pattern, and converts it to numbers, in binary code. I was surprised to learn that both the white spaces and the black spaces are conveying information: a think black line is “one”, a thicker black line is “one one”, and so on. Similarly, a think white space is “zero”, a thicker one is “zero zero”… The codes don’t carry any information about price or the product. All they do is tell the store’s computer where to look for information about the price and the product in its data base.

Depending on whether you sympathize with management or labor, you could say that bar codes enabled greater efficiency, more accuracy, and shorter waiting times - and all this is true. However, you could also point out that the bar codes put thousands of people out of work and downgraded the skills necessary for the checkers who remained (and thus the salary expectations too) - you could add that barcodes enabled people to consume more, more quickly, with less human interaction. I’ll leave it to you, Dear Reader, to decide if that is good thing or a bad thing.

Finally, before you pull out your credit card or your supermarket loyalty card the next time you buy bread and milk, you should realize that the barcodes allow the supermarket to know exactly what YOU bought, when, and what your buying patterns are over time. Basrcodes make Big Data possible, something else for you, the reader, to judge the merits of.


Catch up on the over 180 previous “Today’s Revolutionaries” here.


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Savings Groups are catching on in Europe and North America.

Follow this movement, and maybe get involved yourself.

Start by reading the Northern Lights page of Savings Revolution.

Then, if you like, contact us below, and we can talk about how you can form your own groups. We’ll put you in touch with someone who can help you do that!

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    Favorite Sites

    Here are some other sites that Kim and Paul read, that we think you might enjoy.

    The SEEP Savings Led Working Group site. Congratulations to SEEP for putting together this comprehensive, easily accessible go-to site on savings groups. Check out their library, their report on outreach by country, and lots of other goodies.

    Making the Road - a blog by Bill Maddocks. “Through honesty, courage and persistent inquiry we learn the way forward as development practitioners and human beings.” Bill brings rich experience not just with development work, but with life, to these discussions. 

    Village Finance Blog. Brett Hudson Matthew’s thoughtful posts are grounded in an understanding of oral cultures, history, and social dynamics. Recommended for anyone trying to understand what’s really happening in savings groups. 

    Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion at UC Irvine. “Its mission is to support research on money and technology among the world’s poorest people. We seek to create a community of practice and inquiry into the everyday uses and meanings of money, as well as … technological infrastructures”. ‘Nuff said.

    David Roodman’s Microfinance Open Book Blog. David Roodman combines intelligence, honesty, and a sense of humor. He attempts to bring intellectual rigor to the analysis of the impact of financial services, and isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers in the process.

    Clean Air, Bright Light. This site by Savings Revolution co-founder Paul Rippey contains useful information about lessons learned in using savings groups to promote clean lighting. Still in development but check it out anyway!

    The Evidence Project. Chris Dunford was CEO of Freedom From Hunger for many years and probably more than anyone helped FFH earn a reputation of being willing to look closely at what they were doing, and whether they really were meeting people’s needs. Chris continues that role now as a blogger…

    Center for Financial Inclusion. CFI supports traditional microfinance to become more client friendly, more inclusive, and generally smarter. They have a long-term vision for the sector, and the blog attracts many good writers and thoughtful comments.








    Financial Promise for the Poor 

    Financial Promise for the Poor: How Groups Bulld Microsavings is your go-to book on savings groups. Its contributors are authors you often read in this blog. It covers current innovations in microsavings happening around the world.

    Also, don’t miss…

    Savings Groups at the Frontier, the book inspired by the 2011 Savings Group Summit!

    Buy in UK or US.

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    Over the last twenty years, many people have become interested in helping poor people around the world get good financial services. Mohammed Yunus and the institution he founded, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, won a Noble Prize in 2006 for helping start a movement that has brought financial services to millions around the world. 

    Banks and microfinance institutions are one way to bring financial series to the poor. Savings Groups, managed by the members and based on savings rather than debt, are another solution. In fact, we think they’re such a good solution that they really are revolutionary.

    Savings Groups are self-selected groups of 15 to 30 women and men who get together to save and borrow. Rather than go into debt to an external institution, they manage their own savings through transparent procedures and all the money they earn through interest on loans stays in their village, and in their group.

    This seven-minute video is a great short introduction to savings groups:

    A number of international non-profit organizations work with local partners to train people in villages and cities in how to manage their own savings groups. There are now over five million savings group members in Africa alone, and the movement is also growing in Asia and Latin America. (There are even a few groups in Europe and North America).

    Savings Revolution is designed to help you learn more about Savings Groups, and to get involved with the most exciting new approach to bringing safe financial services to people around the world.


    Savings Revolution sold to Barclays Bank

    Kim Wilson and Paul Rippey announced yesterday that the Savings Revolution website has been sold to Barclays Bank for undisclosed considerations. Kim and Paul started Savings Revolution in 2010 to be an independent voice for community-managed, savings-led groups. The site has been a labor of love for them, financed out of their own resources. In announcing the sale, the founders thank everyone who has contributed to Savings Revolution, and express their hope that the readers will continue their loyalty to the site under the new ownership and management.

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    It's like banking

    What is a person’s worth? It used to be about reputation in the community, the loyalty exhibited to friends and employer, the people you could count on in case of need. With increasing development and the broader reach of markets came the need to impersonalize economic transactions, and with that the increasing monetization of most aspects of our lives. Money has become the measure of all things.

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    153 million dollars available to form SGs in Nigeria




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    Unprecedented Savings Group promotion in India


    In a massive and surprising shift, India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, NABARD, traditionally the chief promotor of Self Help Groups in India, has decided to drop the SHG model in favor of self managed savings groups. NABARD through its partners has formed over 2.2 million SHGs with about

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    Analog Groups - Going the Way of the Dodo?

    If we are to believe the investment itch to fund all things digital, savings groups go the way of vacuum tubes, i.e. they will become ancient history. Accion through its Venture Labs is investing part of its $10 million capital base into Emoneypool, a digital platform for Savings Circles (aka savings groups). The investment will somehow need to pay off and at this stage it seems like a 5% service fee will be the key. Time will tell. Until then get rid of those rusty locks and heavy boxes. Help - albeit extre expensive help - is on the way. 

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    E-Recording Reaches Rwanda! (Part 1)

    World Relief decided to start piloting the e-Recording app in Rwanda. It is an Android smart phone app, developed by FSD Kenya, designed to eliminate the traditional ledger and passbook system, moving savings into the digital age. The app performs all the record keeping and calculation functions of the group, including recording attendance, savings, issuing loans and loan repayments, and social fund contributions. It also instantly calculates share-out amounts for each member. All information is saved both locally on the phone as well as in the Cloud allowing the data to be accessed remotely. It certainly has its

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    New CRS PSP manual

    Catholic Relief Services, as many readers know, has developed a particular approach to savings groups involving fee-for-service trainers called Private Service Providers (PSPs) who continue to form groups and expand their networks after any funding is over. I have written favorably about this approach on Savings Revolution here.

    I’m very grateful that Guy Vanmeenen, CRS’s Senior Technical Advisor for Microfinance in Africa (see picture) has generously made this brand new version of the CRS PSP Implemenation Guide available to the world. Even if you aren’t going to adopt the entire PSP system, you will find inspiration here. In particular, you will admire and hopefully emulate the carefully thought out strategy for post-project growth and expansion. 

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    Retro Status Quo

    Dear Paul - Please don’t keep your promise about solar women and their special bond to lighting. It takes us back to the promise of the 1950s - women and vacuum cleaners: “I promise in the next two weeks to write about women vacuuming their homes.” Yes, the vacuum removed dust and did all kinds of nice things for the family but that women were tasked with such efforts was less than liberating.

    In case today’s revolutionary disappears, here is what it says:

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    Paul buys a dumb phone

    As a traveling American, I face the insane roaming costs of the US telephone companies, and so I use the work-around of having a local phone and swapping SIM cards in each country I visit. It’s inconvenient for me and for anyone who wants to talk to me, but it’s affordable. A few months ago, when my old traveling phone was getting tired, I tried to buy a new low cost traveling phone - that is, an inexpensive phone that I could just make local calls with. 

    I went into the Safaricom shop in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi - the mall that would be the site of a tragic terrorist attack

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    Why Academics Mustn't Control Research

    Two problems plague academic research: nimbleness and quality. The upshot is that research is not all that relevant to the decisions practitioners need to make on an ongoing basis.

    I found myself considering the limits of academia at a conference at MIT. Alex Counts, CEO of Grameen Foundation challenged a panelist about calling RCTs - randomized contronl trials - the gold standard of research. Alex suggested I take a look at his blog post of last fall, which my inspired my response below. 

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