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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.

    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.


    « The conclusion of hundreds of experts: savings is not relevant »

    The Microfinance Gateway has published the outcomes of a virtual conference on “Understanding Multiple Borrowing and Avoiding Over-indebtedness among Clients”, organised by CGAP, MicroSave and the Institution for Financial Management and Research.

    The Gateway explains that “while there are no easy answers, several insights did emerge from the nearly 700 comments posted during the conference.”  These insights are summarised in a brief publication posted by the Gateway last week.

    The document is succinct – totalling just three pages – and a quick analysis of the word count is highly revealing.  The terms below appear with the following frequency.

    Loan (credit, borrowing):  9 times

    Payment (pay, repay, repayment):  6 times

    Savings:  0 times

    Insurance:  0 times

    The Gateway requests that you “stay tuned if you want to learn more on the topic and where to find practical tips and resources from the experts.”

    And if the conclusions of this conference are disappointing to some readers, it is perhaps our responsibility to participate in and help shape the direction of this conversation…it may be the time for a savings revolution. 

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    Reader Comments (5)

    David -

    Thank you for this post. I too wondered why savings was absent from a conversation about debt and indebtedness. But, CGAP did do a publication called Too Much Microcredit? A survey of the Evidence on Over-Indebtedness in Sept. 2011. Savings comes up on page 31.

    Reading the report which I found very helpful pointed to a tricky trade-off. The more savings becomes part of the solution, the more one wonders if savings will be whisked away by banks with troubled policies or mobile providers with troubled systems. Savings groups seem like an easy answer and maybe they are a start but they can't be the only answer.


    Fri, February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKim Wilson

    Thanks so much for putting this out there. I agree with you that it is incumbent upon us to make savings part of the discussion. Yes, it is time for the 'revolution'!

    Savings can't be the only answer......to what? There has never been one answer to ANYTHING in the world of development work - be it work on poverty, poor health, drought, civil unrest, gender-based violence, etc etc etc. I accept and agree that savings isn't the only answer, but I wonder why we are so driven to get to THE answer or to the formula that combines things in such a way to give us THE answer.

    I feel the work we do regarding savings, financial services for the poor or financial inclusion or whatever you want to call it, should occur in an incremental fashion. Build on what we (and more importantly, savings group members) learn and go from there...without trying to jump too quickly to what the end model should look like. For me the journey is just as important as the destination.

    I think answers should be flexible and agile - responding to changing environments, marketplaces, idiosyncrasies of a place. Now, the principles upon which this 'revolution' should be based are a different story. Principles form a bedrock from which answers flow or evolve. We must start somewhere and evolve from there.

    I think a more interesting discussion could be...on what principles is the savings revolution (for lack of a better term) based? And further, to steal a quote from David Hulme I think it was (forgive me if the attribution is incorrect) "Whose reality counts?" Is it the experts perspective which should be given the greater weight? Or the users of the financial services? A balance of both? Who does the balancing?

    One very important lesson I have learned over the past few years is how different things look when you actually have to carry out your own recommendations. I sometimes shudder when I think of some of the findings, conclusions and then recommendations I meted out over the years as a consultant - as if the 'answers' were so easy. As a consultant, it always seemed so clear what needed to happen in a given situation. Now, however, I have been taught the very hard lesson of humility and I realize that perfection only exists as an ideal, not as a reality. So now I believe that it is good enough to start somewhere and follow what is learned. I agree with Kim that we should not pretend that we have THE only answer. Having said that, I don't think we should apologize or allow others to 'pooh-pooh' savings-based methodologies because they aren't the whole answer. My attitude is that while savings isn't the only or complete answer - it is a damn good piece of it!

    What I have taken as my motto now is....

    "Let not perfection stand in the way of good enough"!

    Mon, February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJill Thompson

    Brett Matthews takes up the same subject and the same virtual conference with his usual eloquence on his Village Finance blog (villagefinance.net).

    Brett says:

    "Watching the microfinance world from the standpoint of a practitioner for the past 12 years, I have found that the most tragic aspect has been how ‘the forgotten half of microfinance’ was first remembered, then acknowledged to be absolutely critical, then placed on the ‘to do’ list — and then, year after agonizing year, pushed further and further down it."

    Thu, February 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterPaul Rippey

    I'm not inclined to think that savings are a magic bullet, but in the absence of other ordnance it will do for the moment. The beauty of savings is (as we all know) that it reduces vulnerability and increases option for people who can't really absorb much risk, while credit does, sometimes, just the opposite. But the most impoprtant part, for me, is that it is one of those very rare things in development - it allows the people who do it to take over a much bigger percentage of their development agenda and (at least in the case of savings groups), allows us to become quickly unimportant and go and do something else - or the same thing somewhere else. There is an unswerving imperative in development to figure out the next step instead of allowing the next step to be something that people we work with figure out for themselves. Sometimes it's OK (as they say on British fireworks) to light blue touch paper and retire and, at least from the limited studies we have at hand, the results are not so very depressing. Might a cynic suggest that lack of interest on the Gateway could reflect a reality that there's much less professional mileage in savings compared to debt?

    Wed, February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHugh Allen

    Interesting perspective Hugh.

    I like the idea of letting the next step get figured out by the so-called beneficiaries.

    I tend to agree with the professional mileage comment too!

    Wed, February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJill Thompson

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