April Fools! Yuk yuk yuk!

 

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.

    Search Savings Revolution

     
     
     
     

    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.

    Monday
    Jan312011

    « What If My Bank Made Me Join a Group? »

    Friends and colleagues have asked me, “How would you like it if your bank made you sit with a group of neighbors in order to carry out your banking business?” The question is asked rhetorically, and the questioner never waits for an answer. It is assumed that it is obvious that the rituals of savings groups are an inconvenience to people, that anyone in her right mind would choose the ease and convenience of formal banking over the endless meetings and risks and involvements of savings groups.

    I’ve been reading the book Community: The Structure of Belonging, by Peter Block. The author spends a couple of chapters reminding us of how isolated and alienating life has become in the industrial world, particularly for those who live in suburbs and spend a lot of time in automobiles. Among many sources, Block draws on three people whose work I greatly respect – One is Christopher Alexander, whose book A Pattern Language is the reference for my family, every time we set up a home, and has equally inspired the city of Portland, always highly rated as one of the best places to live in the US.  Another is Werner Erhard, whose courses argue strongly for the possibility of authentic communication. The third is Robert Putnam, who has popularized the concept of social capital, a quality that is measured by the richness and frequency of interactions among people.

    Reading Block’s book has been an opportunity to think about my own life, which is filled with all sorts of distractions from my work: board meetings for a local NGO; fund raisers for other people’s NGOs; conference calls with friends with whom I’m organizing various events; neighborhood salons, at which the folks on our street get together, have wine and cheese, and talk about matters of mutual interest; weekly shopping trips, that we always make with our neighbor, a habit that started when we were trying to live without a car and has continued since we got one, not for the negligible gas savings but for the chance to ride and shop together.

    Every one of those activities has been a deliberate choice, and I treasure them all. They have helped me feel at home in a new city, they take me out of monologue into dialogue, they introduce me to new ideas, they give me minor conflicts to resolve and situations to mediate. When I am being a member of my community I am a more interesting person than I would be if I stayed home, went shopping alone, and watched television in the evenings. All the things that hurl me into contact with other people, that take countless hours, that are often at the wrong time, that are sometimes inconvenient – they are not interruptions to the rest of my life. They ARE my life.

    Community is being rediscovered in the United States. Farmers markets are catching up, some, to big supermarkets; supermarkets are convenient, but only ten percent of shoppers in them have a conversation with another shopper; farmer’s markets have less choice and take longer to shop in, but people have more conversations with other people. Community is alive and whole, complex, irritating and satisfying, joyful and sad, comfortingly safe and disturbingly risky. It is unpredictable because it depends on human beings, but for the same reason it is empowering and satisfying.

    This has been in the back of my head every time I have thought about the question, “How would I like it if my bank made me sit with a group of neighbors in order to carry out my banking business?” But I want to answer it this time: I don’t know. It would be terribly inconvenient. But I’d make a lot of new friends, I’d learn a lot about my town, it would be fun, it would be messy and alive and exciting. It’s a close call.

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    Reader Comments (9)

    I love this post

    Tue, February 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHelene

    I do, too.

    Tue, February 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMegen

    My Morning in the Formal Economy

    Or should I say my morning of being financially included? I agree with Paul.

    I went to Bank of America in Harvard Square to open another account Saturday morning. If I could connect the very cool Square (a gadget that fits on your phone and takes credit and debit cards) to a separate account, I could help students raise money for their various charitable causes. I would sell carpets and scarves right from my office, able to track the account using Google Analytics. Two hours later, my brain full of various options, I ended up opening two accounts. I know not why. Clearly my banker had not read Nudge and could not set easy defaults. I had too many options each with different charges, and all incredibly expensive. Just to get out of there, I opened two accounts. Of course, I will close one when I have the courage.

    In contrast, I met with my condo association this weekend. The association is a form of savings group. We meet, save up together based on our square footage, invest the money, and use what we can to fix up our house. The meeting takes a pleasant hour. We could just meet once a quarter, but choose to meet monthly. We trade parking tips for snow emergencies, share phone numbers of good electricians and plumbers, eat snacks, review the books and have a good laugh. The tough decisions like raising our monthly fees to build a reserve are not easy. But, at least at the end of the meeting, we leave understanding what we have heard. I can’t say the same happened at my inclusive, option-spewing, formal bank.

    Tue, February 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKim Wilson

    Since reading Community, I've been thinking about new ways of being and belonging. Now Paul is making me think about new ways of doing business! I've got nothing like Kim's experience but yesterday I went into what might have been a humdrum neighborhood association meeting with a whole new mindset.

    Wed, February 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

    This is great. I especially love the comment that "this IS my life." Dennis and I were talking yesterday about how we can organize, but it is simply not possible to plan out our lives. We have had the great good luck always of feeling part of small communiities with whom we could share our joys and our misfortunes. I hope the trends toward community will outweigh the forces of isolation (one reason I can't stand vote by mail) for our children's sake.

    Thu, February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary Ann Buchanan

    Paul,
    I also really liked this. It seems to be kind of a New Hampshire thing but groups of more than 3 people cause suspicion up here. It's "Live Free Or Die", "Fences Good Neighbors Make" and "Property Protected by Smith and Wesson". When I was in New Bedford I worked at the community level for more than 20 years, immersed so much in so many communities that at times it was hard to breathe. Most of the various community groups I worked with were imposed in some way on those that joined them but the imposition was easily shrugged off by the current value each group member derived from showing up. And as with most things those who showed up most often (not only in body but in mind and spirit) gained the most from the experience. When I moved to NH during the first 2-3 years of This Endless War I was a member of a great affinity group. We met to share ideas and strategize, go on field trips to harass Karl Rove,Ed Gilllespie or do civil disobedience at our local defense contractor. I didn't have any gratitude for G.W Bush bringing us together but I was grateful never the less. I think there is a higher level outcome of groups that is more than just the utility of what happens mechanically in them. I think main line microfinance too often promotes the idea that clients can "graduate" out of groups once they have the means. I think that is unfortunate and negates the distilled value and power of a well functioning and dynamic group. To be honest I think that is what has always excited me about this field - not fat loan portfolios and the more, better, bigger but the synergy that is born out of solidarity and common purpose. Thanks for this! Bill

    Thu, February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill Maddocks

    Hi Paul and Kim

    I loved this post and Kim's response too. More often than not we extrapolate our own preferences in terms of the kind of financial services we would prefer to people who have a different set of socio-economic needs and user preferences.

    In my limited experience working with the groups, I have observed that groups that are situated in more remote rural areas tend to benefit greater from the group feature since it acts as a crucial social safety net providing unemployment, health and other emergency benefits that we take for granted in the more advanced economies.

    I have not found the group feature as effective in creating a marginal value addition in urban areas where people value their time differently and hence of limited utility. This is not to say that groups are not useful in urban settings but that I have not seen people willing to spend as much time (for better or for worse) in building and strengthening social ties with their peers.

    I agree with Bill's statement that ultimately the people who gain the most (normally) are the ones who put in the most into such groups.

    I wonder what Malcolm Harper would say about your post. I have heard him speak very eloquently about the downside of being in a group.

    Thanks again for a thoughtprovoking post,

    Wed, February 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVinod Parmeshwar

    Hi Vinod!
    Interesting what you wrote re value added of urban vs rural groups. The organization I direct is working primarily in urban township areas and yes, people do value their time differently than in rural areas. We spent a solid three years of tireless promotion and groups talking about their success before the VSL concept took root and demand exploded. But, at least in our context (South Africa), we don't see the unwillingness to form groups as primarily related to the way time is valued, though it surely plays a part. This isn't based on anything scientific, it is just observation; however it seems people were reluctant to come on board due more to a caution and skepticism borne from having been 'burnt' many times by unscrupulous promoters of various schemes; from the pyramid scheme to bogus funeral policies to RoSCAs and ASCAs where more people than not would abscond with the funds, etc. Weak social capital and the urban reality of transience plays a role here where the unspoken 'threat' is of social exclusion and condemnation holds little weight.

    I believe that people needed to be convinced that their self-interests would be met via this type of communal action and that the 'evidence' needed to hit a certain critical mass before we found our tipping point. But perhaps that is just the reality here in South Africa?

    Fri, February 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJill Thompson

    good post, thanks Paul! Resiko Kardiovaskular

    Wed, August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSolusi CMP

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