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.


    « Early Antarctic Savings Groups »

    Twenty-two castaways are struggling to maintain hope on Elephant Island, a barren and frozen speck halfway between Cape Horn and Antarctica. It’s taken them 15 months to get this far, after their boat, the Endurance, was trapped in pack ice, ending –before they’d even begun— their aspiration to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent by foot. For several months they await the return of their leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton, who has made an improbable 800-mile oceanic dash to the inhabited South Georgia Island on an open lifeboat to seek rescue.

    Meager rations are doled out as the group ‘saves down’ on what’s left of their stores. Ration sizes are altered from time to time, depending on the availability of locally procured seal meat and blubber and their own sense of how long they’ll have or be able to endure. But that’s not the only subsistence parameter they manage; their ‘financial lives’ are a tad more nuanced than that:

    “There was a good deal of bartering in the matter of rations, and several food pools were formed. Typical of these was the ‘sugar pool’ in which each man who belonged passed up one of his three lumps of sugar each day in order to partake of a feast when his turn came around every sixth or seventh day.”
    Source: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2007).

    It may seem surprising that in a moment of desperate need, they opt for cycles of empty-bellied sacrifice and sugary reward rather than for even distribution of calorific lumps. It is likely that each one of them would be openly disgruntled if the leading officer ordered rations to be doled out weekly rather than daily, and yet that’s what they decide to do themselves. Does this not go against the logic of rationing as a mechanism to assure daily survival?

    We can rationalize this in several ways. They may be seeking an element of personal control over the basics of their precarious existence. For once they defer satisfaction because it’s their decision, unforced by circumstance, fate or command, and that thought is comforting. The notion of impending reward may also be a crutch to remain optimistic in very adverse circumstances. There’s got to be a tomorrow, because I still need to get my sugar back. And creating a sense of shared and voluntary sacrifices and rewards through a group setup may serve to increase the bonds of camaraderie. It gives them one more thing to do, to talk about, to supervise, among the oppressive tedium of daily survival.

    Is there an ‘optimal’ rationing strategy that would have achieved all that? No: top-down doesn’t go with empowerment. Equally, in terms of financial services for the poor, there can’t be a silver-bullet financial product that will satisfy all customers’ needs. People want a sense of personal choice and control, with all the apparent inefficiencies and contradictions that may bring on. We must remember that when they are addressing their subsistence, people are managing not only their money but also their relationships and outlook.

    Ignacio Mas is an independent consultant working on technology-enabled models for financial inclusion (www.ignaciomas.com).

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