OSCVM Project Awarded $18,000 NSF Grant

Very pleased to announce that my work on Open Source condom vending machines will benefit from an $18,000 dissertation research improvement grant from the National Science Foundation. This money will go directly to parts and related travel expenses to help grow a network of locally made vending machines. Below are excerpts from the proposal on background and methodology. You can also view current schematics of the RPI prototype and contribute your own at OSCVM.org.

Doctoral Dissertation Research: Translation Strategies for Mutual Symbiosis in STS-Engineering Collaborations Award Number:1456138

Ghana has relatively low levels of HIV/AIDS infection rates (Adu-Oppong et al.), however there remains a regrettable dearth of up-to-date information on the sociocultural attitudes toward condoms and the rate of their usage. A study by Adih and Alexander that sampled 601 young men, 15–24 years of age found that “While 65% of the sexually active male respondents had used condoms at least once, only 25% had used condoms at last intercourse.” (P. 63) More sobering is the statistic that only 15% of sexually active men from the ages 15-30 use condoms regularly. This is especially concerning given that, according to Adu-Oppong , younger (24 years old and younger) female sex workers in Ghana were more likely to use condoms than their older counterparts but a full two thirds of respondents who did not use condoms with every client cited “refusal by client” as the reason. Adih and Alexander note regarding their data on the small numbers of young men using condoms,

contradict[s] findings from other researchers on adolescent condom use. In the current study, older respondents were found to be more likely ever to have used a condom. Other studies have found the reverse to be true: that younger subjects were significantly more likely to report higher frequency of condom use during intercourse (11,29). A possible explanation for this observation is that in Ghana, where contraceptive services traditionally cater to adults, younger people may find it more difficult to obtain condoms, they may not have the money to buy condoms. In addition, even if they have the means, they may feel embarrassed to go to the drugstore or family planning center to buy them (Adih and Alexander 69).

Adih and Alexander concluded that “HIV prevention programs for youth should emphasize personal vulnerability to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, instill in youth the self-belief that they can use condoms any time, and address how to overcome barriers to condom use” (63). An obvious prerequisite to this last concern is overcoming barriers to condom acquisition. Our initial fieldwork in Kumasi confirms Adih and Alexander's observation that drugstore condom purchases can be embarrassing. Some respondents reported not wanting to ask a pharmacist in a crowded space for condoms that were typically placed out of reach of the customer. All nine pharmacies in the biggest market in Kumasi were, 1) busy and had few if any private spaces away from crowds, 2) kept condoms either below or behind the counter out of reach of customers and, 3) reported some embarrassment on the part of customers purchasing them.

We hypothesize that a vending machine located in an inconspicuous location, or a location frequented by youth will provide a less intimidating, if not welcoming, opportunity to acquire condoms. Additionally, by creating an infrastructure for sharing design information, rather than importing pre-made machines, we hope to establish an ecologically sustainable system that will tailor itself to the needs and desires of Ghanaians. As social scientists, our role is to collaborate with engineers and public health professionals to build a technology that responds to existing needs while also avoiding some of the major recurring problems faced by development professionals. STS scholars, we argue, are uniquely positioned to understand the multivariate causes of project failure and recognize the early signs of new failures.


This work was initially informed by subsequent trips by the researcher and engineering students who conducted pilot studies using off-the-shelf machines in Kumasi. While the off-the-shelf machine worked well enough to even experiment with electronic notification systems, it was evident that it was not a sufficient product. Problems with the machines—import expenses and tariffs, limited capacity, and harsh environmental conditions—prompted an investigation into a new machine design using an “appropriate technology” (Nieusma 2004) approach. This aspect of the project highlighted the fundamental disjuncture between local needs assessment and “universal” engineering principles. The design process is not a simple matter of—to use the parlance of engineers— “optimizing for user-specified parameters.”

As Capps (2012) notes, “Product failure is deceptively difficult to understand.” That is to say, even well quantified issues such as mechanical wear testing can be challenging under ideal circumstances; add in the contingencies of development discussed in the Literature Review and we can see that the common, reductive approach of classically trained engineers is clearly inappropriate. Worthy of particular note here is what we have identified as Mode III failure or “Blind View from Nowhere.” We see this as an opportunity to investigate how to best deploy STS and related collaborationist theories (e.g. Nieusma and Riley 2010; Ratto 2011; Sengers et al. 2005; Bronet and Layne 2010; Guston 2014). Engineering students working on the project have reported significant differences between what they learned in classroom settings and the skill sets necessary to design something that will be built and sold in another country.

RPI engineering students have maintained blogs, and produced a wealth of information showing how their design decisions have been negotiated in light of the success and failure of a variety of prototype designs. They have also learned through conversations with Ghanaian professionals and guided research into STS literature. This is just one part of an iterative cycle: a complete working prototype made of very simple and easy to fabricate mechanical parts was finished at RPI in mid February 2014. In July 2014 KNUST and RPI engineering students worked together in a KNUST machine shop to replicate the design with a mixture of pre-fabricated parts and locally sourced material. The students installed a Ghana-made machine at a local hospital and it is currently dispensing condoms for 50 peswas each or approximately 15 cents American. The condoms are purchased from the government through the hospital’s Sexually Transmitted Infection clinic.

The next stage of work, which is just beginning as of this writing, will be to work with local engineers and business people to identify locally sourced replacements for their pre-fabricated parts. As previously noted, an unanticipated bonus has been the incorporation of hand-crafted textile artisans, which opens an entirely new network of humans and non-humans. Related to this sustainability dimension, the team will seek out e-waste components and other sources of material for repurposing and recycling. Finally, we are also exploring the opportunities presented by 3D printers in fabricating gears and some other components of the machine that require relatively high precision. “Rep Rap” 3D printers are especially promising given that 1) their designs are held under a creative commons license and 2) are made up of 3D-printed parts making them both highly customizable and capable of expanding their own production capacity. While a single machine is a high up-front expense, the ability to recycle local plastic waste would be a boon to both lowering expenses and improving sustainability.


A substantial portion of this research includes reflection and study of methodology itself. Ostensibly the applicants will be employing several published methods including critical making (Ratto 2011; Ratto, Wylie, and Jalbert 2014), reflective design (Sengers et al. 2005), and appropriate design (Nieusma 2004); but the particular aspects selected from each is a crucial component of the investigation. As noted previously in the example of the Adinkra cloth covering for the condom machine, we find ourselves switching “modalities” in fairly rapid succession: thus the investigation will raise questions about their relation to context: what made “embedded anthropologist” the appropriate mode for arguing against new solvents for ink production? How do you evaluate the efficacy of one modality against another? Within any one given modality, what “translation strategies” are most useful for moving between the STS framework and lay or professional frames of reference? This same set of question can be applied symmetrically to non-STS groups: once the professionals/lay people are successful in convincing STS researchers to see from their perspective, can they reflexively help to inform us about their equivalents in what we have termed “modality” and “translation strategy”? Are there liminal modes in which both we and “the other” occupy the same mode; perhaps even achieving a deliberately constructed universal language of making- an “Esperanto for Symbiosis”?

In sum: our primary research question--how do social scientists work collaboratively and productively with engineers, designers, business owners, and potential end users to produce usable technological artifacts? —is a kind of exploratory tool for developing both theoretical and practical generalizations about the means to establish long term symbiotic working relationships between engineers, STS scholars, and the constituents they serve. This requires an innovative mixed method approach that not only combines collaborationist methods but also positions those same methods as a field of investigation.

Kumasi, Ghana is the second-largest city in Ghana and the historic seat of power of the Ashanti Kingdom. The secular government is based in the capital city of Accra, the largest city several hours south on the coast. These two forms of government, along with the increasing influence of Christianity and Islam, make for a rich, yet contentious, political landscape. As already discussed in the Background section, Ghana is still battling the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and the stigma associated with the barrier methods of birth control that might stem increased infection rates (Adih and Alexander 1999; Bosompra 2001; Adu-Oppong et al. 2007).

Most of the work for the OSCVM takes place in the Kwame Nkrumah University Of Science And Technology (KNUST) and the South Suntreso Government Hospital. Suntreso has an STI clinic that does testing, fertility treatments, and manages care for thousands of patients in the region. Condom vending machines will be placed in a variety of locations throughout Kumasi including the STI clinic, gas stations, other hospitals, highway rest stops, bars, and hotels. The applicants are also in the process of establishing a working relationship with a “maker space” in Accra that is practiced in building working devices from used or outdated machine components.  We see this as a potentially fruitful working relationship that might expand our primary work to include Accra as well as Kumasi.

While much of the costs outlined in this proposal’s budget relate to international work in Kumasi, Ghana we consider the RPI campus itself to be a field site of sorts as well. This research, if it is to be generalizable beyond the coordination of international development work, must also compare its findings to domestic case studies as well. That is why the applicants will also be disseminating their critical making-based methods by applying them to a hyper-local case located in the host institution’s own city, Troy, New York. The way research is perceived and regarded as worthy of attention by administrative bodies, academic peers, and interlocutors is of major concern to this study. Specifically, we want to ascertain whether the same kind of participatory design will “work” when the field site is also the researcher’s home. We find this to be an indispensible part of developing this methodology, as we do not consider any method that we wouldn’t practice at home to be an ethical or moral one to implement anywhere else. The applicants will use the same style of reflective interview questions, design workshops, and collaborative documentation for both sites.

Developed by Ratto (2011) and expanded in a special issue of The Information Society (Volume 30, Issue 2), Critical Making utilizes “the shared acts of making” (2011, 253) to produce  “a common space for experimentation [that] encourages the development of a collective frame while allowing disciplinary and epistemic differences to be both highlighted and hopefully overcome” (2011, 253). Ratto, while focusing his own work on deepening conceptual understandings of complex sociotechnical problems also considers critical making to be a “possible venue for technical innovation” (2011, 259) and offers a promising avenue toward “new knowledge making communities and institutions” (Ratto, Wylie, and Jalbert 2014, 86). Present efforts in critical making however, have a “penchant for producing one-time tactical pieces or single products” and have a harder time producing “structural critiques or affecting [systematic] change” (Ratto, Wylie, and Jalbert 2014, 93).

This study seeks to develop those methodologies for long-term structural change by establishing translation strategies of mutual symbiosis between engineers and STS scholars. This will include (as described below) periodic interviews with all parties designed to collect data and elicit reflective conversations about the process of making; design workshops where the OSCVM is assessed and critiqued from the point of view of multiple “stakeholders”; and active collaboration through open source wiki software to develop easy to understand documentation for constructing, maintaining, and altering an OSCVM.

The full grant proposal is available upon request. More information here and here.