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.


    « Toilets for all! »

    Meet Mr. Toilet from Jessica Yu on Vimeo.

    I had the honor of spending some time over the last couple of days with Jack Sim, the founder of the World Toilet Organization. Jack was here in Portland doing a series of visits and public appearances. If you haven’t see the short video “Meet Mr. Toilet”, please click on it now and watch it - it’s only three minutes long. I’ll wait.

    Hi - welcome back! Wasn’t that a great video? It premiered at the Sundance Festival to great acclaim!

    It was a pleasure to meet Jack and hear about what the WTO is doing (that WTO, not the World Trade Organization), in part because I’ve just been in Burkina Faso and seen some of the great work that Plan Burkina Faso is doing promoting ECOSAN latrines through their savings group program. (ECOSAN latrines separate the urine and feces, and turn them both into products that enrich the soil. This is particularly pertinent in that Sahelian country where population pressure has shortened fallow periods, decreasing soil fertility drastically). Plan has built hundreds of latrines with partial subsidies, which is good; but other people in the villages have seen what the latrines can do, and have built their own with their own funds, which is wonderful.

    If you believe that savings groups are a point of entry for other developmental activities, then by all means read up on them, inform your group members about the importance of good sanitation, and introduce them to new approaches to dealing with human waste. If your members are healthier, your groups will be healthier. And - let’s be frank - if they aren’t dealing with human waste appropriately, they probably aren’t very healthy now.

    Just to save time, let me try to pre-empt the objection, “What do savings groups have to do with sanitation? After all, they’re financial institutions, not social institutions!” It’s true that Deutsche Bank doesn’t provide information on sanitation, but then, their customers already have clean water and enough to eat. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy, which essentially says, “If people are hungry, the first order of business is always, ‘What’s for lunch’!”

    For more information, check out any of the links above, or just search the web for sanitation, composting toilets, ecosan, and so on - there’s tons of stuff.

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    Reader Comments (2)

    Love it Paul.....and in my experience, savings groups are the ultimate in financial AND social institutions!!

    Fri, June 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJill Thompson

    Mr. Toilet is spot on! "A big breakthrough will happen when we look at the poor as if they are customers: we’ll get to sell them products that are beautiful and sexy.” The trick is convincing customers that toilets are desirable, a beautiful addition to a home, a status symbol, and something to save toward. I've seen donated latrines go unused, but ones constructed out of adobe bricks cherished by the families that both constructed and use them.

    You make a great point - savings groups are the perfect vehicle for promoting sanitation.

    Thu, June 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine Oglietti

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