Thank Africa’s lousy internet for Facebook’s improved Android app

In Rabat, waiting for acebook to load.
In Rabat, waiting for acebook to load.
Image: Reuters/Adam Tanner
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In the past year, Facebook’s app has shrunk how much space it takes up on Android devices by 65%. Its data consumption is half what it was, as is the load time when you start up the app. And Africa is at the reason for that improvement.

Last year, a team of Facebook engineers and product designers flew to Africa (they didn’t specify which country or countries) and bought several Android phones locally to see how Facebook worked there. Not very well, it turned out: “The combination of an intermittent, low-bandwidth network connection and a lack of memory space on the devices resulted in slow load times and constant crashes. We even burned through our monthly data plans in 40 minutes,” Alex Sourov, a Facebook engineer, writes in a post on Facebook’s engineering blog.

The team returned to their offices in California, Seattle and London, and worked on improving the app for everyone. “We realized that data is extremely expensive in emerging markets, and purchasing more data is often a laborious process. Thus, there needed to be a concerted effort to reduce data consumption within the Facebook app,” writes Sourov. The team changed the format it uses for photos, stopped loading full images unless asked to, and tweaked other fiddly bits to cut data use by 50%. The team also cut the number of image-load failures by 90%.

Quartz has written before about the importance of “small data,” or cutting down data use where possible to make it easier for people in poor countries or those on expensive pre-paid plans to be able to fully enjoy the rich media on the internet. One way to do this is by crunching the data before it gets to the phone, something Facebook has invested in and other companies also do. But a better, more long-term way is to change the way your app works—and indeed to change the way you think.

There are some Silicon Valley firms, such as the Facebook-acquired WhatsApp, that are sensitive to the needs of the billions of internet users who don’t enjoy fast connections on brand-new phones. Others seem to think they understand the developing world, but fall for rich-world biases nonetheless. Facebook is generally part of the former group. Indeed, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is known for encouraging product managers to travel to emerging markets “to see how people who are getting on the Internet use it.”

That’s good for new users with cheaper phones on unreliable networks in poor countries. It is also good for everybody else. And it is good for business.