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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.


    « Getting In Front of the Beautiful Forevers »

    We all get caught up in what we do. Whether we market ideas or products, our tendency is to talk up whatever meager bits of evidence jive with our vision of success. Call it passion, inertia or self-justification. It’s even expected of us: in our personal experiences, whenever we express doubts on topics that have been occupying our time, we get surprised, et tu, Brute? sorts of looks.

    It seems that if you are an expert, you’ve got to be a champion. Academics like to call out practitioners on such behavior and consciously avoid exuberant language that might suggest they are anything but dispassionate. The main critique one of us once got about one of our papers from a friendly academic was how often we’d used the word very — telling indeed. Academics exaggerate in their own way, though, burying their views in those methodological tugs of war.

    From time to time along comes a book like Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers that presents bald facts, forcing us to stare into a new and ugly landscape, one peopled by wretched families scraping by at the edge of urban society. Nothing seems to work for them – not the booming economy beyond the slum gates, not the government and its public mis-services, not the NGOs and their fleeting appearances, not the politicians with their eye on the electoral calendar, not technological modernity in whose name the slum threatens to be wiped out to make room for an airport expansion, not the community around them and the petty jealousies that thrive within it. A wicked brew of dysfunction makes desperate people turn on each other with gathering virulence.

    What hit us most about this book is how effective unchecked corruption can be in preventing organized social and political action from aggrieved classes. Corruption sustains the established order because it creates endless opportunities for divide-and-conquer games at all levels. (Memo to selves: check whether revolutions tend to be more successful in less corrupt countries.) Which is why the term corruption is so apt: bribe-taking eats away at the sociopolitical fabric.

    If development is freedom, poverty is prison. You’ll find many accounts of the hardship of being poor, but you won’t read a more vivid description of a family’s descent into isolation than in this book. The slum becomes their jail, walling off every option, every dignity.

    Boo’s are not the picturesque livelihoods of trader or shopkeeper, farmer or craftsman, as idealized in Portfolios of the Poor and caricatured in countless donor reports. Hers are the picaresque livelihoods of con-artist and thief, Corporator and water-broker. Some make a more honest living but none are better off for it. Take this passage for instance describing Abdul, one of several young protagonists, in the tale. He collects, stocks and sells trash for a living.

    “All those swollen rat bites on his cheeks, on the back of his head. What to do? When the storeroom got too crowded, as it did in flush months like this one, garbage piled up in their hut, and rats came, too. But when Abdul left garbage outside, it got stolen by the scavengers, and he hated to buy the same garbage twice.”

    The author brings us their world as if through a novel, with beautiful economy of language, and devoid of sentimentality or judgment about the characters. But this is a work of non-fiction, despite all appearances, and thus its drama is all the more jarring. Beyond is a call to attention but hardly a call to action. In fact, for all its beauty this book almost begs us to stay still and gaze a bit longer at what is in front of us. It suggests no course of activity and does not inspire one.

    We do find counsel though within the book’s pages, interpreted through our own experience. Avoid drawing bold conclusions from studies claiming scientific rigor, for the problems of Annawadi or any such welter of real human beings might never be disaggregated or suitably experimented upon. Equally, avoid silver bullet solutions. Clearly, Ms. Boo’s slum needs services like water, trash removal, schooling and health, but no one service could possibly be seen as a solution, just part of a solution, at best. Most important, avoid pretending things are working when they are not. It is our moral duty to stop hype. Feigning success is not just pointless, it saps our energy and breeds the next generation of tired cynics. Our evidence can show us whatever we wish to see, but too many examples in the book unmask aid interventions for what they are – failures.

    Behind the Beautiful Forevers just made us promise to try to do a better job of seeing what stares us in the face, and to tell it how it is.

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    Reader Comments (2)

    A thoughtful review of a wonderful book. I particularly like your observation that the book is a call to attention more than a call to action. The reader must really take in the swirling external forces at play upon every member of that community and the personal resources each individual brings to bear on them. As you suggest, it's a great way to better understand the lives of ultrapoor families.

    Fri, September 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanet Heisey

    I am going to get this book to read as soon as I can. Thank you Ignacio and Kim for an eloquent review. It is honest and, yes like you said, jarring. I needed that!

    Wed, October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJill Thompson

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