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May 04 2010

Pakistan: Internet and the challenge of language

By Ivan Sigal

Pakistan today would seem primed for rapid growth in internet use. The country has had explosive growth of FM radio, satellite and cable TV set in motion by regulatory changes that allow non-state ownership of mass media. Cell phone use has also skyrocketed, with over 90 million subscribers. With a growing middle class that numbers some 30-40 million in a country of some 180 million people, Internet use should also see similar growth.

However, there are several constraints that mitigate that expansion, both structural, as in chronic electricity shortages, and social, particularly focused on language. Literacy hovers at around 50% in Pakistan, but while most people understand Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, less that 10% of the population speaks and writes it as a native. Provincial languages such as Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto, and Balochi, as well regional languages such as Seraiki and Kashmiri are native languages for the majority of the population, and English is the official language of governance.

This language fragmentation has consequences for internet use. No one Pakistani language effectively serves both the reading and content creation needs of Pakistan’s netizens. As a consequence, English remains the popular choice online. In an interview, Adnan Rehmat of Intermedia Pakistan says that English is an “aspirational” language, a marker for education and access to resources, and because English provides access to a global linguistic community. Additionally, several regional Pakistani languages such as Punjabi are primarily oral languages, without strong literary cultures.

Fouad Bajwa, writing on Internet’s Governance, describes the problem further:

A key pressing issue with relevance to both the local Internet and Mobile Technology scenario in Pakistan has been availability of local content and making the local content widely accessible to the community at large across Pakistan and the entire world using a variety of currently available technology platforms.

There have been few concerted efforts to create Unicode fonts for Pakistani language scripts. Nastaliq, the popular font for Urdu, is not yet widely adapted in Unicode. Online writing in the main either uses an Arabic font, as with the relatively popular BBC and Google fonts, or it uses image files pasted into text.

There is not yet a broadly accepted font in use for either mass media of citizen media production. Many mainstream media still use image files, which requires that the text be composed on another platform, and discourages hyperlinking, as with a recent issue of the Daily Jang online.

Screenshot of Daily Jang ePaper, May 2010

The Pakistani government has provided little policy guidance for language use. In an interview Ahmad Shahzad of Bytes for All notes that the National Language Authority of Pakistan lacks resources, knowledge of digital issues, and a sense of urgency or policy priorities for Pakistani language expansion online.

There are a number of projects that have been working to fix this problem over the past decade. Perhaps the most comprehensive comes out of the Centre for Research in Urdu Language Processing, at Lahore’s National University of Computer & Emerging Sciences (CRULP). The Centre’s director, Professor Sarmad Hussain, has been working to support Nastaliq in Unicode since 2002. They describe their objective to ”conduct research for the evolution of computational models of Urdu and Pakistan’s other regional languages.” Their projects develop standard character sets, localize popular software and online applications, such as Microsoft Word, Firefox, and Open Office, and script processing for fonts that can support all Pakistani languages.

They are also working on optical character recognition and speech processing  tools such as screen readers for the illiterate and blind users, and language processing tools such as spell checkers and machine translation. CMS platforms in Nastaliq, as well as mobile scripts.

Additionally, CRULP’s PAN Localization project is working to develop local language computing capacity in a dozen Asian languages, including Urdu, Pastho, and Bangla. The project seeks to develop tools to facilitate the use localization of advanced applications.

These scripts and their wider promotion, as well as the availability of content management systems in Urdu and language processing tools, has gone some way to making Urdu a functional language of content creation.

Other tools now available facilitate the shift from English to Urdu, including Google’s Urdu transliteration tool and the Dynamic Language Tools Bookmarklet, which supports transliteration of Urdu to both English and Hindi. Syed Ghulam Akbar, the bookmarklet’s creator, describes his motivation in a post on the Pakistani science blog STEP:

The main inspiration behind this tool development was not actually Urdu writing. In fact, there are many existing tools and applications which let users type Urdu either using a special keyboard layout or by using roman script transliteration. What actually inspired me to develop this tool was to provide a way to easily convert the roman content on all the existing web-pages to Urdu script so that it is more readable.

Together, the advancement of scripts, applications, and platforms in Urdu will go some way to advancing a culture of online production in Urdu. The relative lag in their availability does, however, highlight the general sense that English will continue to be the language of choice for many in Pakistan’s online world.

This lag can be addressed in several ways, including wide promotion of available tools and their application, support for both mass media and citizen media communities to discover, learn about, and implement creative use of these tools, and support to build bridges and networks among communities. For this reason, Fouad Bajwa is seeking to build an Online Urdu Encyclopedia:

It will create a converged environment overtime for presenting updated knowledge that is usable through reading, listening and visuals for both social and economic awareness, education, knowledge application in various fields, higher education, competitive exams, expert resources and endless Urdu language options.

At present there is no Urdu Wikipedia community, and few Urdu-language blog aggregators, such as http://urdublogs.co.cc/, capacity among mainstream media to produce searchable-text, Unicode-based online media, and a lack of mobile telephony platforms and applications for Urdu.

April 29 2010

East Timor: Connecting Civil Society

By Sara Moreira

Creative broadcasting systems at the top of coconut trees (photo used with permission)

Creative broadcasting systems at the top of coconut trees (photo from FONGTIL IT Division)

Providing internet access to civil society has been a key priority of the few information and communication technology (ICT) initiatives in East Timor (Timor Leste). High prices, poor infrastructure, and a telecoms monopoly has meant that there is still a long way to go before digital techologies can have a more widespread positive impact for access to knowledge, employment and economic development.

A new regulatory environment

A Global Voices article from February last year presented a timeline with a look on the deep digital gap occurring in East Timor: “9 Years of Internet, still one ISP and a huge Digital Gap“. The story began:

East Timor has lived through long periods of occupation and has had to fight tragically for independence. The post referendum violence devastated social and communication infrastructures. When the country became the first new nation of the 21st century, it had almost no technological environment.

World Bank Internet access numbers from 2008 in East Timor (taken from Abel Pires da Silva paper)

World Bank Internet access numbers from 2008 in East Timor (taken from Abel Pires da Silva paper)

One year later, the ICT sector has slowly but positively evolved.
What appeared to represent one of the biggest hindrances, leading to very high prices of telecommunication services, is now expected to be softened. Tempo Semanal reports that a Timor Telecom monopoly agreement is finished:

In a meeting of the Council of Ministers last month (March) the monopoly in the TL telecommunications market was also ended just 8 years after the first government gave a 15 year exclusive right to Portugal Telecom and its friends. “This Wednesday (31/03) we approved a national telecommunications policy. This policy forsees the liberalisation of telecommunications. It also create conditions for us to prepare the law to accept companies that want to enter TL,” says Vice Prime Minister José Luis Guterres…

In a paper presented at a Transforming Timor Leste conference back in July 2009, Abel Pires da Silva, President of East Timor ICT Association (ICT TL), described the situation in East Timor as an “embryonic information society”, mainly due to what he claims to be a “limited understanding and recognition of how ICT can contribute to development shared amongst decision makers, regulators and public in general.”

A few East Timor initiatives highlighted below show the real possibilities of ICT for Development to add value, effectiveness and meaning.

ICT access for civil society

While the ICT landscape is still limited by the high prices of access to the internet, a few organisations have been working to assist with internet connections for non-profit organisations (NGOs).

Making Internet accessible for NGO Blind Union (photo used with permission)

FONGTIL IT Division: Making Internet accessible for NGO Blind Union

The East Timor NGO Forum (FONGTIL) is responsible for monitoring, coordination and training of more than 300 national NGOs in East Timor.

The IT division promotes capacity building by training NGO members around the country in use of computers and the internet. It has launched five IT centres for local NGOs in Oecusse, Same, Baucau, Viqueque and Dili.

Besides training and mainstream technical support, Fongtil's IT division also strives to provide affordable and alternative wifi internet access for civil society organizations in Dili as stated in the IT NGO Blog [id]:

Alternatif Antena Wireless NGO ETBU dengan Wajan Pemasak

Koneksi internet di Negara baru ini merupakan barang mewah, dimana untuk bisa akses internet di warnet saja dipatok satu jam pemakaian $2.00 USD. Ini merupakan harga rata-rata untuk warnet yang dapat kita temukan di kota Dili. Sedangkan koneksi internet di tempat-tempat penginapan dan Hotel rata-rata mematok harga $3-$6 per jam.

Untuk Civil Society
NGO di Timor-Leste sangat sulit untuk bisa membayar akses internet dengan harga yang telah disebutkan. Untuk itu NGO FORUM sebagai payung bagi NGO di Timor-Leste merasa perlu untuk membantu para NGO untuk bisa koneksi ke Internet. Saat ini FONGTIL sendiri terkoneksi ke Internet melalui INET under ISP Timor-Telecom sebuah perusahaan Sub ISP yang dimilik oleh orang Australia.(…)

Sedangkan NGO dan organisasi sosial di Timor-Leste tidak mampu untuk bisa membayar harga internet diatas, untuk itu FONGTIL melalui divisi IT berusaha untuk bisa membantu member NGOnya dengan cara mendirikan sebuah Base Station Sangat Sederhana di Kaikoli dengan alat apa adanya untuk bisa melayani Internet wireless ke member Fongtil yang ada di kota Dili.

Alternative Wireless Antenna NGOETBU with cooking Wok
Internet connections in this new country are a luxury, when internet access in a cafe is pegged at USD$2.00 for just one hour. This is the average price in the cafes in the city of Dili while internet connections in rented accommodation and hotels can cost an average of $3,00-$6,00 per hour.For NGOs in Timor-Leste it is very difficult to pay for internet access at the prices mentioned. Thus NGO Forum, as an umbrella for NGOs in Timor-Leste, feels it is necessary to help NGOs connect to the Internet. Currently FONGTIL itself is connected to the Internet via ISP INET Timor under a sub-Telecom company ISP held by Australians. (…)

While NGOs and social organizations in Timor-Leste can not afford to pay the prices above, FONGTIL through the IT division seeks to help member NGOs by establishing a very simple base station in Kaikoli with whatever tools that enable providing wireless Internet to FONGTIL members in the city of Dili.

Besides the enthusiasm, Guilherme Soares, who is responsible for the IT division of FONGTIL, says that there are still many problems with speed and strength of the signal for distribution and reports that the government could overcome the problem of the internet in the country, so that “hopefully NGOs can get a fair price for the internet”.

Technology.tl - The Info Timor enterprise has been developed to improve access to information technology in East Timor.

Technology.tl - The Info Timor enterprise has been developed to improve access to information technology in East Timor.

Info Timor is another not-for-profit social enterprise that focuses on using information communication technology to deliver skills development, education and employment while assisting in the reconstruction of the country. The project currently employs 20 people who work with a team of volunteers divided between two ICT resource centres in the district. Their work consists mainly of distribution of refurbished computers to schools, community centres, orphanages and government departments as well as training in ICT skills.

Looking towards the future, in May 2010 Kopernik, “an on-line store of innovative technologies designed for the developing world” will host an Appropriate Tech Fair in East Timor, hopefully opening the door for further awareness on technological solutions that may improve people's lives. For the moment, as long as internet costs are so prohibitive, it will be a while before ICT for development initiatives will become more widespread.

April 25 2010

ICT for Development in Francophone Africa

Although there is undoubtedly a strong push to grow information and communication technology (ICT) initiatives for development in francophone Africa, the region is still somewhat lagging behind their English-speaking neighbors. The recognition of this lag is discussed by many Francophone bloggers and aggregated at the Franco Techno Gap blog.

The cause of the lag is unclear  but a few reasons are often proposed: 1) broadband internet was made available by governments of English speaking nations such as (South Africa, Mauritius, Egypt) first (fr). Consequently, cost of internet access is on average higher as further explained on l'atelier des medias (RFI) (fr). 2) Related to the previous reason: “English speaking countries seem to be doing better than the French speaking countries” as Miquel points out 3) The English language is still the default language globally when one discusses ICT.

In this post, current grass roots development projects in francophone Africa with an important ICT component will be discussed in further details:

Agriculture

The community blog of the Union des Femmes Rurales Ouest Africaines et du Tchad (UFROAT) ( Union of Rural Women in West Africa and Chad) describes the objectives of the association as follows (fr):

-Promouvoir les échanges entre femmes rurales au niveau national et sous régional,
-Promouvoir la participation et la représentation des femmes rurales dans les instances de décision,
- Promouvoir la commercialisation des produits des femmes rurales

-Promote the exchange between women in rural areas at the national and regional levels.
-Promote women participation and representation in the decision making process
-Promote the commercialization of products generated by rural women.

In the following video, Agnegue Enyo from Togo explains that thanks to a recent workshop on ICT, she learned how to create, format and submit activity reports about her project. She says she used to have to pay someone to scan all the paperwork, archive and send reports for her. Not anymore.

A similar project in Madagascar, Bekoto Paysans, aims to protect the rights of Malagasy farmers, highlights their daily activities and challenges (fr). It is spear headed by renown Malagasy singer Bekoto, a member of the folk group Mahaleo. Bekoto describes why Malagasy bees and the honey they produce have unique properties and in danger of becoming extinct (fr):

L'abeille Malgache possède sa propre spécificité . C'est une espèce endémique considérée comme ” laborieuse et pacifique “. Il fut une époque où Madagascar exportait son miel en Europe et des “tonnes avaient été envoyés à l'extérieur de 1920 à 1940 [..] Depuis les symptômes du Varroa qui frappèrent l'apiculture dans la région d'Analamanga en 2007 , les mêmes signes de maladie avaient été aussi signalés sur la côte Est : ‘ Les essaims s'effondrèrent …les abeilles ne volaient plus et les ruches se vidaient mais des abeilles sauvages résistent

Malagasy bees possess unique properties. It is an endemic species that is described as ” hard working and peaceful”. Madagascar use to export tons of honey to Europe from the 1920's to the 40s [..] Since then, signs that Varroa disease have plagued the region of Analamanga in 2007, and then on the East coast. Swarms are disappearing, bees were not seen as much anymore and hives are empty except for wild bees.

Education

Djénéba Traoré develops the challenges of integrating ICT with education in sub Saharan Africa in five countries (Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali and Senegal). He argues the following (fr):

il ne s'agit plus aujourd'hui de prouver que l'intégration des` TIC peut contribuer à l'amélioration de la qualité de l'éducation en Afrique mais de déterminer les voies et moyens pouvant pérenniser l'utilisation pédagogique des TIC à l'école, à toutes les écoles. Elle (l'etude) a aussi confirmé que la formation des enseignants aux nouvelles technologies n’est une priorité ni de l’école ni du gouvernement
et que l’utilisation pédagogique des TIC tant par les enseignants que par les élèves reste
faible en Afrique de l'Ouest et du Centre.

It is not about proving that integrating ICT into the school curriculum contributes to better quality of education in Africa anymore but to identify the means and ways to sustain the use of ICT at school, every schools. It ( the study) also confirms that training teachers in new media is not a priority for either schools or governments and that the use of ICT at school remains minimal in west and central Africa.

Camedevelop further details Traoré' s assessment in the case of Cameroon. He points to the fact that l'école Normale supérieure de Yaoundé has stil not completed the training of experts in this field resulting in lack of teachers, lack of electricity in rural areas and the cumbersome process to get computers into schools as the main causes for the delay in adopting ICT at school (fr).

Boukary Konaté offers more optimistic news on ICT and education in Mali. Konaté attended a workshop on ICT in Bamako (Mali) dedicated to school teachers . The following video shows the substantial interest shown for mastering information technology (fr):

Konaté also describes how young college graduates learned more about magnetic dipoles using a simple Google search (fr). The students also mentioned an additional advantage of adopting ICT tools was the ability to share information with all classmates at once and organizing group meetings easily, thus reducing the costs of calling each other.

The effort by French speaking countries to integrate ICT into development projects  is undeniable and not limited to the themes discussed above. However, ICT development faces the same issue as  other development themes when it comes to scaling up the promising first steps. Sustainability and homogeneous development are hard to achieve when infrastructure are still so unequally distributed, especially between urban and rural areas.

February 04 2010

Who writes about ICT4D online?

Over the past months Global Voices has been engaged in researching and writing about ICT for development supported by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The challenge was to find out what was being said about ICT4D in global blogs and citizen media. We wanted to see what was being said beyond the halls of science, by practitioners in their own words.

We've collected our findings on a Future of ICT for Development special coverage page.

So what's being said?

After several months of dedicated analysis and writing about how ICT for development is covered on the web, here are some thoughts about the online availability of information about ICT4D – from academic articles, to conversation, commentary, and citizen media reflections on what works, what’s difficult and what is worth sharing.

It has been six years since the IDRC and Harvard held their first groundbreaking forum on ICTs and poverty. Since then there have been a great many zeros and ones spilled about practice and scholarship of ICT4D online. Much of this takes the form of research papers, books, and presentations produced by scholars or practitioners affiliated with institutions and nonprofit organizations.

It is, however, relatively more difficult to find blogs and citizen media content from unaffiliated individuals, and from those who experience the benefits, and sometimes challenges of internet technologies in developing-world contexts. While there are scattered discussions and commentaries, sustained, community-driven dialogue is not easy to find. This is perhaps not surprising, given the often complex and technical nature of the field.

Phone charging station in Uganda in 2008, by Ken Banks - kiwanja.net

Phone charging station in Uganda, 2008, by Ken Banks - kiwanja.net

There has been tremendous improvements in internet access and  explosive growth of cell phones in developing world, as Matthew Smith outlines in his essay for IDRC/Harvard’s latest conference, Communication and Human Development: The Freedom Connection? in September 2009.

However, GV’s research (led by Aparna Ray and John Liebhardt) has found ambiguous evidence of online discussion of these themes that advances beyond well-worn anecdotes of fishermen with mobile phones. Those discussions surely exist, if not online; a look at the Manthan Awards in South Asia, for example, gives us a window into communities of practitioners in this field, and the focus of their work.

In general, we observed that there are several categories of people writing online about ICT4D:

  1. People who both understand grassroots development needs and are proficient in ICT. A very small percentage of online writers fall in this category. These people have the skills to develop tools/ techniques, speak the language of ICT4D, and are able to get exposure for their projects.
  2. Academics who are interested in the field. They are able to develop concepts in ICT4D, and mostly run small research projects to prove/ disprove their hypotheses, build concepts, and make predictions. There is a lot of energy here - perhaps why we saw so many research papers in our web searches. These people explore and predict trends, but are not often in contact with grassroots folks, and rarely implement projects.
  3. Everyone else either comes from the ICT community, and open to designing tools for development/ social projects, or people working in the  development sector who need ICT solutions but have relatively low/ no knowledge of ICT. These two sets of people do not usually speak the same language.

Broadly speaking, many development experts seem hesitant to learn technical skills and languages. They may want a ICT solutions, but there are numerous obstacles to engagement, including expertise, time, resources, and organizational culture. Hence ICT experts sense that development practitioners are rarely clear about helpful solutions.

Likewise, ICT tool developers may not involve development communities in the need analysis/ development phase, producing many solutions that are top-down, and without user support.

Solutions and strategies:

ICT4D is a vibrant theme, but also quite complex, and with little awareness outside of specialist communities. Our first months of coverage have captured some of the best of existing citizen media writing. A next step would be to fill the gaps in coverage and language that we found. Some approaches:

Continued engagement: Much more can be written, with a focus on clarifying who the audiences are for content.

Popularizing complex ideas: much of the content of the GV posts is news for those who are not in the ICT space; for ICT experts, it has less to offer. How stories are reported is key. Strategies include:

  • Conducting interviews with experts and practitioners to simplify language and concepts for target audiences.
  • Finding a common language and platform for dialogue among people both in grassroots development and in ICT technology development.
  • Including writers from different perspectives and parts of the world.
  • Highlighting the work of interesting ICT projects.
  • Focusing on user experience and feedback.
John Liebhardt and Aparna Ray contributed to the observations and conclusions in this post.

December 14 2009

ICT4D: Past mistakes, future wisdom

While there has been great excitement and buzz around various ICT4D projects in recent years, it is also true that many projects started with a bang and later died with a whimper. In short, they have not been scalable or sustainable in the long run.

What makes an ICT4D project fizzle? What are the common mistakes that donors, planners and implementers make when trying to run an ICT4D project?

The problems of a top-down approach to ICT4D

In a 2004 paper, “Using ICT to place Indigenous Knowledge Systems at the heart of Education for Sustainable Development” [pdf] Arvind Ranganathan from Center for Education and Environment in India argued that:

Much as the definition of ICT has grown to be more inclusive of ‘low-tech’ devices, existing implementations of ICT are still largely top-down in their structure of information. They are based on the assumption that flow of information must be predominantly one way: that the developing world needs information of and from the developed world to reduce poverty and to improve its standard of living. There is acknowledgement of the importance of local knowledge and the need to tailor information to be culturally sensitive and context-specific. However, in this scheme, local knowledge is to be incorporated, implying that the mainstream information will be that which flows from the developed world.

According to Ranganathan this top-down approach is a recipe for failure. Instead, he suggests building “circles of knowledge” through a bottom-up approach based on the model of community sharing.

Likewise, in a post on South African website, Tech Leader in August, Kirstin Krauss pointed out that when an outsider tries to impose ICT based solutions on a community, it is more likely to fail than succeed. The recipe for avoiding disaster - according to him - lies in ‘identifying cultural interpreters and community champions' and making them an integral part of the process.

Prof. Pradoshnath from the National Institute of Science Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS) in New Delhi, recently gave a presentation at Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore on ICT, transaction cost and development: The flip side. His main observation is that connectivity matters only if it connects the right way. If connectivity is not used to enable economic and social gains, he says a marginalized population can run the risk of falling prey to new dynamics of exploitation.

A public chat between ICT4D critics and enthusiasts

In an interesting, free-wheeling Twitter Chat [#failday] that was facilitated by Inveneo's @ICT_works on December 11, participants associated with the field of ICT4D discussed common mistakes pertaining to ICT4D, their probable underlying causes, and learnings for the future. Some of the learnings shared at this highly participative chat session were as follows:

@ ICT_Works: I see gadget lust taking people in the wrong directions: I want to use shiny, flashy hammer so find me a nail…

@downeym: I think too many ICT4D design a big, complex system, without understanding actual needs - then it gets tossed out the window. :)

@theresac: flip-side: too many people heedless of failure execute poorly thought out ideas, at enormous cost

@HannaHellquist: Lack of ICT competency on donor side might lead to investments in systems that do not meet actual needs

@ ICT_Works: I also see under-funding of technology: costs $1000? Then here's $500 and get volunteers instead of full investment

@partners4cd: Techno-flash design un-buttressed by social feasibility and sustainability.

@joncamfield: Don't forget buzzword compliance pushing new tech instead of reliable, tested tech (e.g. cloud computing??)

@giantpandinha: … biggest mistake is not providing space for mistakes –> innovation. (Institutional donors not helping.)

@ithorpe: Moving onto the next project without taking a little time to reflect on what we learned from the current one

@communicc8: in general, lack of transparency causes failure: when people can't ask/answer simple Q, “WHY are we using this?”

@mobileactive: end users and techies are not speaking the same language and need time and trust to understand each other

@mobileactive: Open source is critical but also not easy. Tech is messy, social development is messy, together failure is high. Understand that.

@africastrategy: We tend to look at the technology not the objective. Often solution is more simple and closer to home than we think

What is the way forward then? There are several answers hidden in the observations above. Here are some additional suggestions that the #failday chat participants had for future ICT4D projects.

@sanng: creating a platform for non-dev world AND dev world ICT4D folks to collaborate (is must engage dev world in these discussions)

@joncamfield: Publishing donor-friendly best practice reports with data from a variety of ICT4D projects will help to push back on bad requests

@mobileactive: nobody has talked here yet about agile design practices in ICT4D. Essential to at least reduce likelihood of failure.

@joncamfield: Also, taking risks with new disruptive ideas is important to break out of molds.

@downeym: Open-sourcing a “failed” project turns it into a success - or at least helps others' chances at being one.

partners4cd: We need core Monitoring & Evaluation standards to heighten donor confidence in tech-assisted solutions to socio-economic development issues

You can read the entire transcript of the [#failday] Twitter Chat here.

December 07 2009

ICT4D for Women: Opportunities and Risks

As digital technologies open up new spaces and possibilities, there is a lot of optimism about empowerment of women, and alleviation of gender disparity. According to the ITU, the UN agency for ICT issues:

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be used to close the gender gap by creating new jobs for impoverished women. Women, for example, have been at the forefront of the village phone movement, selling airtime to rural people too poor to own their own phones. ICTs can also be used to promote basic literacy and education for women and girls, provide job training and prepare women for careers in the ICT sector as well as to ensure health and safety.

As far as women’s empowerment at the bottom of the pyramid goes, the buzz has been more centered on mobile phones than computer-related ICTs.

This video about women and ICT by Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) gives us some insights into the probable reasons why.

In an article for the IDRC, “Women’s use of information and communication technologies in Mozambique: a tool for empowerment?” Gertrudes Macueve, Judite Mandlate, Lucia Ginger, Polly Gaster and Esselina Macome point out other important reasons why the mobile phone has been relatively more gender responsive than the computer-related ICTs.

We find that women have already started appropriating the mobile phone, finding their own ways to overcome difficulties of literacy, language and costs, working together and using it as a tool for expanding their assets and capabilities with no need for technical training or back-up. Perhaps this is the best example of self-empowerment through utilizing new ICTs…

… If computer-related ICTs were providing a real solution to rural women’s immediate problems, they would have appropriated them and used them to strengthen their ability to solve problems, make decisions and choices, and take desired actions.

Strategic uses of ICTs are being made in other key areas of empowerment, such as combating violence among women. A recent Stanford University Study report by Dayoung Lee indicates [pdf] that mobile phones lower a woman’s tolerance of domestic violence significantly by giving them greater connectivity and access.

Lee writes:

Phones may empower women by giving them better access to social services. Given the privacy of talking on the phone, women can more easily report domestic violence or consult family planning agencies

However, that is not to say that ICTs are a panacea for gender discrimination. The world of ICT and gender remains a complex one. Where we have seen positive strides towards gender equality, we have also seen ICTs provide another space for the further marginalisation of women, and scope for exerting greater control, power and perpetrating violence against them.

Lee writes that though the benefits of a mobile phone was indisputable, they depended ultimately on having access to a mobile phone in the first place. According to her:

Household ownership of mobile phones does not indicate that women have access to them, or that women own them. Because mobile phones can be carried around, husbands may have more complete control over them than over landline phones. If they take the mobile phone to work, for example, women have no means of taking advantage of it.

In their GenderIT.org paper “Violence against Women and Information Communication Technologies: Uganda Country Report: Strengthening women’s strategic use of ICT to combat violence against women and girls”, the authors Aramanzan Madanda, Berna Ngolobe and Goretti Zavuga Amuriat highlight the tenuous relation between ICT and violence against women.

Privacy invasion through SMS stalking and monitoring and control by spouses is growing. Men control women’s use of mobile phones and give or withhold permission to their wives to use them, when and how. The link between mobile phones and killing of women are not incidents in isolation. Some women have acquired two SIM cards to forestall domestic violence. This is a sign of women’s empowerment as telephones provide a means through which to break male control by opening contacts to the outside world. Women use mobiles to contact police officers in the event of domestic violence. Women’s organisations use the internet in combination with TV, radio, newspapers and other print media to highlight violence against women.

The Blank Noise Project is one such initiative we have seen in the recent times – to raise awareness and voices against street sexual harassment of women. Examples of other initiatives are a) a Bangladesh national campaign for strategic use of ICT to end violence against women from 2008 and b) Texting for Social Action in Africa organised by the Gender Based Violence Prevention Network in collaboration with Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET).

Berna Twanza in this blog post, wonders if ICTs can further marginalize women in society. Berna writes:

Women’s lower levels of literacy and education relative to men as well as negative attitudes towards girls’ achievement in science and mathematics, largely contribute to the gender dimensions of digital divide. Women’s lower degree of economic security than men and gender-related constraints on their time and mobility also limit their access, use and participation in shaping the course of ICTs compared to their male counterparts.

This calls for deliberate efforts to enable women benefit from ICTs, these include creating awareness about the benefits and opportunities offered by ICTs among women, building women/girls’ capacity in ICT use, setting up projects or initiatives aimed at increasing women’s access and use of ICTs, encouraging girls to take up science and IT courses as well as eliminating gender stereotypes and factors that prevent women taking up ICT opportunities.

In this video below, Kutoma Wakunuma from Sheffield Hallam University (UK) talks about mobile phones in Africa and their impact on gender relations. The interview was filmed at MobileActive08. Kutoma talks about how control over the ubiquitous mobile phone has become symbol of control and power in traditional families of the developing world such as Zambia.

In her 2008 case study on “Mobile Cell Phones and Poverty Reduction: Technology Spending Patterns and Poverty Level Change among Households in Uganda”, Kathleen Diga from the IDRC noted :

Certain household members rarely made use of the mobile phone while the household head maintained possession of the tool. Women, for example, have calls completed on their behalf as partners fear the overuse of their airtime. The fear may also develop from a perception of breakdown in head authority within households of this conservative community. These negative perceptions appear to re-enforced asset control particularly with the mobile phone within the household.

In a highly informative post on MobileActive.org, “Deconstructing Mobiles: Myths & Realities about Women and Mobile Phones”, Anneryan Heatwole highlights some positive impacts of mobile phones and gender-neutral programs.

Of course, there are documented positive impacts of mobiles; programs such as Text To Change, BridgeIT and Souktel, while gender-neutral, offer great opportunities to women – from anonymous sexual and reproductive health information, to the reinforcement of positive professional female role models, to fair access to job opportunities. And indeed, mobile phones have been shown to be a successful source of personal and professional growth for women in many instances. In Steven Klonner and Patrick Nolen’s 2008 case study “Does ICT Benefit the Poor? Evidence from South Africa,” the authors show that mobile phones can have a distinctly positive economic effect on female users

(But) this is a key issue in the debate: are the women who most need access to mobile phones getting it? In the poorest areas, cell phones are scarcer than in richer areas, and cost and literacy improve greater barriers to women who tend to be poorer and more likely to be illiterate than men. While we lack any kind of reliable data on access to phones by sex globally, women who are most at risk for domestic abuse or isolation are often the ones who are most likely to be unable to access mobile phones. Similarly, it is often the poorest, most rural women who could most use information about market prices, civil rights, and female health care.

In fact, Lee’s study recommends that the government consider offering mobile phones at subsidized costs to women to enhance their access.

There is a growing voice among activists and bloggers to pressurize policymakers into integrating gender in ICT policy processes. In this context, Anita Gurumurthy writes in the UN GAID [Global Alliance for ICT and Development] blog:

The issues for gender and development are not only about women in the IT sector, but about the global economy itself and what ICTs have done to alter for instance the social contract between labour and capital… Discussions for what is good for gender justice in the information society are thus relevant to women's rights and citizenship in multiple spheres – in geographically situated communities, within nation states and in a global, transnational space…

Berna argues that we need to consciously include gender in ICT policy, if we want to tap into the benefits of ICT in the area of bridging the gender divide. She writes:

Available evidence indicates that without explicit articulation of gender in policies, gender issues and concerns are not likely to be considered during implementation. Moreover, policy making in technological fields had been noted to ignore the needs, requirements and aspirations of women unless gender analysis is included. As such, without specific attention and action, there would be no equitable distribution of benefits for men and women, with women often disadvantaged.

However, even if these policies would be put in place in the near future, how will we be able to evaluate the progress made in this arena? Well, APC WNSP’s GEM is an “evaluation methodology that integrates a gender analysis into evaluations of initiatives that use ICTs for social change. It is an evaluation tool for determining whether ICTs are really improving or worsening women’s lives and gender relations, as well as for promoting positive change at the individual, institutional, community and broader social levels.”

Are women passively waiting for policymakers to decide their fate with respect to access to ICTs? “No” says Helen Hambly Odame, Associate Professor at the School of Environmental Design & Rural Development at the University of Guelph in Canada. She writes, “Women are not ‘waiting’ for access to ICTs, but rather using ICTs when they are available to get around the constraints they face in politics, society and economy.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, one can only hope the desire for a safer, better quality of life will ensure that more and more women will come forward for ICT4D initiatives.

December 03 2009

M-banking: Going where no bank has gone before

Millions and millions of low-income, unbanked people stand to benefit (and maybe prosper?) from the development of mobile financial services in the next years. Many people already transfer payments and remittances through mobile phones, and even store and save money on them as a virtual bank. And the number of people across Africa, Latin America and Asia, without a bank account but with a mobile phone, is set to to grow to 1.7 billion by 2012, according to a recent study by CGAP (Consultative Group to Assist the Poor) and the GSM Association (GSMA).

There have been several success stories in African and Asian markets, and many efforts to expand, replicate or launch similar services, but stiff opposition from bankers and regulators has slowed development in many instances. In India, for example, the Reserve Bank of India has opposed allowing mobile-based financial services (via non-bank led model) saying it would be difficult to control the creation of credit outside the banking system. The Indian Home Ministry additionally expressed concerns regarding misuse and the possible security implications.

It is doubtful whether such obstacles can delay the progress of m-banking services for long, but meanwhile there are several technological, logistical, and security challenges that must be ironed out to make these alternative financial services more inclusive for the unbanked sector. Furthermore, another CGAP study from February of two of the fastest growing mobile banking networks serving poor people - M-PESA in Kenya and GCash in the Philippines - revealed that despite their rapid growth, the providers continue to face difficulties turning a profit as well as paying sustainable fees to the small shops and agents that earn commissions on transactions.

M-PESA in Kenya

One of the most quoted success stories of m-banking for the unbanked has been Safaricom's M-PESA in Kenya.

Since M-PESA launched in 2007, the service has impacted the lives of many East Africans, a significant number of whom, until then, had been unserved by the traditional banking system. By March 2009, M-PESA already had 6.8 million registered users in Kenya and that number is growing by the day.

In the video below, John, a Nairobi taxi driver and an M-PESA customer talks to Paul Lieshman and Seema Desai about his use of the service and what impact it has had on his life.

The “early adopters” of M-PESA were most likely migrant workers in need of an economical yet reliable channel to send money “back home”. However, the benefits of the service soon drew others, who were otherwise neglected by the traditional banking system. This innovative financial service was a convenient, easily accessible and more economical channel, than the ‘distant’, traditional banking systems that had failed to include them in their ambit.

Exploring future options for the unbanked

Using Philippines as a case in point, the CGAP-GSMA Mobile Money Market Sizing Study offers further insight into the various needs among this unbanked segment. It states:

People who use mobile money users are not all alike. One third of mobile money users do no remittances at all, bucking the prevailing perception of the service. A significant group use mobile money quite intensively: more than 4 times per month, with more than half of their transactions going to something other than sending/receiving money – e.g. airtime top-up or cashless purchases in stores. Surprisingly, 12 percent of low-income mobile money users do not own their phone. These represent sub-segments of the population worth exploring further.

Operators should explore services beyond remittances and airtime top-up. Savings holds particular promise as a highly demanded service. When asked what additional services they would be likely to try over mobile money, low-income users enthusiastically said savings (65%). One in ten unbanked mobile money users is already storing an average of $31 in their mobile wallet, or about one-quarter of their household savings.

In their October 2009 paper “Scenarios for Branchless Banking in 2020”, Mark Pickens, David Porteous, and Sarah Rotman indicate the forces that will shape the future of branchless banking include demographic changes, activist governments, security concerns, internet browsing capabilities, and the global financial crisis. According to their report, wiring the electronic retail payment infrastructure is an important goal, but it is not sufficient on its own to alleviate poverty.

Katrin Verclas, the co-founder and editor of MobileActive.org. - a citizen media source that tracks developments in this area, feels that we still have a long way to go before moving money on mobiles through m-banking can truly benefit the poorest of the poor. In a a blog post from 2008, she said:

Mobile financial transactions do reach the poorest of the poor in two areas right now: 1. Micro-finance, where mobile financial services are being explored as a way to facilitate instant transfer of loans and repayments via mobile, and 2. Cash aid (mobile cash payments) by donor countries and humanitarian organizations who provide relief in famine or post-conflict areas.

The future is indeed bright for moving money on mobiles in many developing and middle-income countries but extending the benefits to the poorest of the poor are still elusive. Recent studies, most notably from the World Bank’s InfoDev and the British development agency DFID, indicate that there is little evidence that m-banking services as they exist today have been “transformational”…

As far as the future success of the ‘m-banking for the unbanked' is concerned, Katrin's observations are as follows:

In short, questions around consumer adoption and the illdefined and complex regulations hinder this market and the potentially transformational idea of m-banking to date, requiring thoughtful approaches on both fronts and enabling environment where mobile banking can thrive.

Disaster Management and the role of ICTs (Part 2)

In the first post of this series, we saw how various citizen-coordinated initiatives came into play during natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the Indian Ocean Tsunami, to help in the response and recovery and even function as disaster management systems.

In this post, we will examine some more ICT based tools and applications in the arena of early warning systems to help reduce damage to life and property in natural disasters across the globe.

Esther Nakkazi, writes in her Ugandan ScieGirl blog:

Research done with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has proven that an investment of [every] $1 in ICTs used for disaster management through monitoring and response could save $14- $22 for rehabilitation after the disaster.

Some of the key challenges in the path of early disaster prediction and warning are that of data collection, analysis and dissemination. Remote sensing and GIS capabilities through seismographic networks, deep ocean sensors, and satellite based systems, are being focused on by governments to meet these challenges and develop effective early warning systems as in the case of the various Tsunami Warning Systems across the globe.

Wilbur K. Ottichilo writes in Agritech Kenya about Africa's use of satellite based technology in the area of disaster warning:

In the last six years, RCMRD (Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development) has been at the forefront of promoting remote sensing and GIS in Africa, collaborating with NASA to establish a satellite-based disaster early warning system known as SERVIR for Africa. SERVIR provides real-time information on many disasters, including droughts. The information is made freely available on the Internet.

Many other organisations and institutions in Africa are now also providing satellite data and information for drought and disaster management, including the InterGovernmental Authority on Development’s Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAC), in East Africa, the Southern African Development Community, and AGRIMET in West Africa.

Chanuka Wattegama writes in an e-primer for the United Nations Development Programme “ICT and disaster management” [pdf]:

The first important steps towards reducing disaster impact are to correctly analyse the potential risk and identify measures that can prevent, mitigate or prepare for emergencies. ICT can play a significant role in highlighting risk areas, vulnerabilities and potentially affected populations by producing geographically referenced analysis through, for example, a geographic information system (GIS). The importance of timely disaster warning in mitigating negative impacts can never be underestimated.

Navigation and mapping tools such as GPS, Google Earth, and Google Maps are therefore increasingly becoming indispensable in designing effective Disaster Management Systems. According to John Hanke, the Director of Google Earth and Maps, these applications proved their mettle during the days of Hurricane Katrina:

Over several long nights, the teams from Google Earth and Google Maps created satellite imagery overlays of the devastation in the affected region, which showed more accurately the scope of the disaster. Soon after, we were told that rescue workers and the U.S. Air Force were using Google Earth to find people who were stranded.

Given the high penetration of mobile phones across the globe, use of mobile alerts through bulk SMS cell broadcasting, to send out early warnings to the communities at risk, is increasingly becoming a mainstay of an effective disaster management system. Growing importance of open-source applications such as FrontlineSMS, RapidSMS is likely in the near future.

Governments of various countries too are now including mobile alerts in their kitty of early public warning systems. For example, the Bangladeshi authorities are currently trialling a text message disaster alert service which will enable them to warn the public (mobile phone subscribers) of impending natural disasters, such as floods and cyclones. SMS based services are also coming in handy for aid organisations in the arena of disaster response and/or mitigation. For example, post-tsunami, the Sri Lankan government used SMS services to inform people of locations from where aid was being distributed.

In her article “Mobile Cell Broadcasting for Commercial Use and Public Warning in the Maldives” Natasha Udu-Gama explains the benefits of cell broadcasting in the context of the disaster-prone Maldives [pdf]:

The use of cell broadcasting for public warning in the Maldives has gained more attention, since the unique characteristics of the country appear to complement this technology. An island nation composed of groups of 26 atolls of about 1,192 islets of which 250 islands are inhabited, it is crucial that a public warning system be able to reach all of the inhabited islands scattered within the Maldives.

In the following video by MobileActive08, Robert Kirkpatrick of inSTEDD.org, Erik Hersman of Ushahidi, and Christopher Fabian of UNICEF discuss the role of mobile media in crisis and disaster relief.

“Can Telecenters become Disaster Early Warning Centers?” asks Sameera Wijerathna, an ICT4D Activist in Sri Lanka, in this post. Her answer - both yes and no.

Yes, it can be. Telecentre is a place rich with ICT.
No, it is too much to expect from a Telecentre.
Most of the telecentres are located in rural areas; most of those areas are prone to disasters, natural or man-maid. Telecentres located in those areas but still with ICT facilities telephone, internet, fax, etc. can receive a message from a central disaster early warning centre. So if we have a simple mechanism to disseminate that information, maybe using megaphones we can convert a Telecentre to Early Warning Centre in the village. Even after the disaster occurred, that Telecentre can continue a play a role of coordinating the relief work, impact assessment, finding missing people

Updates on Social Networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter can also act as warning systems. Twitter has already proved its utility in the arena of breaking news, including early information on natural disasters. Yet, there are some concerns regarding the reliability of tweets as a formal early warning system by government authorities.

Mark Prutsalis at Living Prepared Blog in New York expresses his concern over government agencies using Twitter as an emergency notification service.

No government agency should be using Twitter as an emergency notification service. That would be irresponsible… Twitter is not reliable enough for any government agency to use as an “emergency notification service” (or for an individual to use the sole means to be notified). Those government agencies who choose to tweet emergency event information should only be doing so in addition to a formal alert & warning system that they control the infrastructure for – or is under the control of a commercial company who has been contracted to provide such services with a guaranteed service level agreement in place.

On Conflict Early Warning and Early Response, Patrick Meier discusses an ecosystem based approach to effective early disaster warning and response that will allow for self-organized “P2P capacity building”. Moving on to a global perspective of this very ecosystem, he wonders about the possibilities of connecting the various early warning platforms and information sources available today to form a super-system GSS (Global System of Systems) as depicted below:

Global System of Systems (GSS)

Global System of Systems (GSS)

Could this indeed be the future path for global early warning systems? Meier offers some food for thought:

What if we connected these various organisms to catalyze a super organism? A Global System of Systems (GSS)? Would the whole—a global system of systems for crisis mapping and early warning—be greater than the sum of its parts?
[…]
Can such a global Info Web be catalyzed? The question hinges on several factors the most important of which are probably awareness and impact. The more these individual organisms know about each other, the better picture they will have of the potential synergies between their efforts and then find incentives to collaborate.

November 26 2009

India's tryst with e-health: A healthier future for its rural millions?

About 700 km away from Bangalore, across a couple of remote villages in the Bidar district, a quiet revolution has been going on. No, not a political one, but a remarkable pilot project in telemedicine.

Local pediatricians are using the iPhone to connect with experts in Bangalore for screening and diagnosis of a potentially blinding condition in newly born infants, ROP (retinopathy of prematurity), so they can be treated within 48 hours. Already 1600 infants have been screened and 160 have been treated successfully.

Cut across to North-East India's Tripura Vision Centre project which is effectively utilizing ICTs to reach rural masses with quality eye care services through tele-ophthalmology.

e-Health and more specifically telemedicine, promises to revolutionize rural health care in India soon. It is a welcome development, given the inadequacies of health care in rural areas.

The ambitious aim of India’s first National Health Policy [NHP], framed in 1983, was to achieve the goal of Health for All, by 2000 AD, through the provision of comprehensive primary health care services. Yet, given the country’s vast geographical spread, huge population, inadequate rural infrastructure and paucity of health care personnel, trying to make health care accessible to all has presented seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Consider these daunting statistics:

  • Over 72%  (that would be over 620 million) of India’s population lives in its 638,588 villages.
  • Government spending on health care is a mere 0.9% of GDP (2006 data) while the WHO recommended figure is around 5%. Of this, very little reaches the rural millions.
  • India has about 5.97 physicians and 7.9 nurses per 10,000 population while the global norm is 22.5. Of these, 75% of medical specialists live and work in urban areas. There is a huge shortfall of medical personnel in rural areas.
  • The number of hospital beds in rural areas is only about 0.19 per 1000 patients (Urban India=2.2, World average = 3.96, and developed countries =7.2)
  • 66% of rural Indians do not have access to critical medicine

In an article in PLos Medicine, Sanjit Bagchi, a medical practitioner and medical journalist based in Calcutta, India, writes:

The poor infrastructure of rural health centers makes it impossible to retain doctors in villages, who feel that they become professionally isolated and outdated if stationed in remote areas.

In addition, poor Indian villagers spend most of their out-of-pocket health expenses on travel to the specialty hospitals in the city and for staying in the city along with their escorts. A recent study conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Opinion found that 89% of rural Indian patients have to travel about 8 km to access basic medical treatment, and the rest have to travel even farther.

Keenly aware of the problem at hand, the GOI, in partnership with both public sector as well as private sector organizations, has been trying to promote and implement telemedicine and e-health projects across various states since 1999.

The basic telemedicine model as described by DIT's K.K.Ghosh in his presentation “Telemedicine: DIT intiative” [ppt] is as follows:

KK Ghosh-1

India saw telemedicine in action on a large-scale for the first time in 2001 after the earthquake in Gujarat, when the Ahmadabad-based Online Telemedicine Research Institute established a communication system from Bhuj, one of the worst hit places and hence pretty inaccessible. Soon they had a disaster management system up and running that allowed for the electronic transfer of medical needs, data etc., and enabled medical specialists to provide consultations from far away places through video-conferencing.

Other government and private players in the telemedicine space in India, especially in connection with the semi-urban, rural poor/ isolated communities and tribes can be found in this 2008 report from ehealth-connection.org. They include:

Sanjit Bagchi points out:

The efficacy of telemedicine has already been shown through the network established by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which has connected 22 super-specialty hospitals with 78 rural and remote hospitals across the country through its geo-stationary satellites. This network has enabled thousands of patients in remote places such as Jammu and Kashmir, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Lakshadweep Islands, and tribal areas of the central and northeastern regions of India to gain access to consultations with experts in super-specialty medical institutions. ISRO has also provided connectivity for mobile telemedicine units in villages, particularly in the areas of community health and ophthalmology

In the following video, Mr. Chaturvedi, Director of The National Rural Health Mission in India, speaks about the ‘over-arching' program, launched in 2005.

On why telemedicine is good for India, Dr. K. Ganapathy, President of the Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation had this to say:

The distribution of specialists in India is indeed lopsided. There are more neurologists and neurosurgeons in Chennai, than in all the states of North eastern India put together… The increasing availability of excellent telecommunications, infrastructure and video conferencing equipment will help provide a physician where there was none before.

(…)

This also ensures maximal utilisation of suburban hospitals. The general practitioner in the rural/suburban area often feels that he would loose his patient to the city consultant. With Telemedicine the community doctor continues to primarily treat the patient under a specialist’s umbrella. With modern software/ hardware at either end 90% of the normal interaction can be accomplished through Telemedicine.

The journey of telemedicine in India is however, not without challenges. Sanjit Bagchi writes:

“There are inevitable difficulties associated with the introduction of new systems and technologies,” according to Sathyamurthy (Programme Director, Telemedicine, ISRO). “There are some who needlessly fear that they will lose their jobs. Although the systems are user-friendly, there are others who are affected by the fear of the unknown in handling computers and other equipment. There is a feeling that the initial investment is high and hence financially not viable.” In addition, there may be technical hitches, such as low bandwidth and lack of interoperability standards for software.

Sanjay Prakash Sood of the Centre for Electronics Design & Technology of India mentions some other challenges on the road to e-health such as lack of health infrastructure and services, shortage of computer-savvy health care personnel, and poor quality of communication services in many of the cities.

Toms K. Thomas, Senior Manager at ESAF India in his presentation“ICT & Rural Healthcare: Tele-Clinics in Chhatarpurin Madhya Pradesh (India)” points out that:

There is a need for public sector to be an enabler who invests in infrastructure –Living condition of the poor, Power, Road , Transport -ENABLING ICT TO OPERATE

He also talks about the basic infrastructure required for a model ICT enabled District Public Health System (DPHS)

Model ICT

The Indian government slogan “Health for all by 2000AD” may in the end have been an over-ambitious dream that has fallen by the wayside. It still remains to be seen, whether or not today's promise of health care delivery to India's rural millions via ICT will succeed in transforming tomorrow's reality.

November 24 2009

Can ICTs aid small-scale farmers?

There are many reasons small-scale farmers in developing countries need special attention. They grow a good portion of the planet’s food while suffering potential environmental and economic catastrophe. They also provide a large amount of jobs. Farmers and their families are often located far from population centers, making trips to the market, the school or the hospital difficult.

With so many local, regional and international development organizations working with farmers, the possibilities for information and communication technologies (ICTs), are great. Still, the question remains: Can these technologies live up to the hype and actually help raise human development levels?

One point of optimism lies at the heart of Web 2.0 technologies or “the participatory web” according to a 2008 report by Annemarie Matthess and Christian Kreutz for the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, called “Participatory Web - New Potentials of ICT in Rural Areas” [PDF]. They write:

The participatory web offers new ways to translate and bridge language domains. Users publish themselves and can engage in a dialogue. One such result is that knowledge becomes more explicit – bridges are built between the local and global knowledge. Worldwide agriculture research cooperation has a long experience in this field and results show how difficult it is to translate global scientific knowledge to the local context.

For all the great potential of ICTs in rural areas, Tanzanian-based journalist Emmanuel Onyangoin in his blog Knowledge Matters warns the challenges facing technologies in rural areas remain high:

Studies shows that, rural farmers do not have direct access to the internet in rural areas pending on a number of factors. The basic ones being the increased computer illiteracy among users and an unreliable infrastructure such as electricity.

Wikis and scientific information

One popular method to increase farmer productivity is through wikis, the often plain-vanilla collaborative websites that provide easy editing features, made popular by sites like Wikipedia.

Wikis are an easy way to exchange ideas over the web, allowing people in different locations to write, edit and disseminate documents on low-bandwidth sites. Wikis can be used with other platforms, such as maps or photographs, not only to collect data but also enabling users to participate in vetting the information.

Sharing Knowledge Tag Cloud

One such wiki is the Knowledge Sharing Toolkit of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which allows people in laboratories and those working in the field to disseminate a wide-range of information that can be constantly updated, amended and assessed.

The Communication Initiative Network explains that the Knowledge Sharing toolkit has three main pieces:

1. A library of tools, meaning web-based software (e.g., blogs, wikis, instant messengers, podcasting) and offline physical tools that can be used with a variety of methods.
2. A library of methods, meaning group processes that people can use to interact with each other, online or offline (e.g., appreciative inquiry, storytelling, knowledge fairs).
3. A set of perspectives and guidance that can help users choose tools and methods for their needs and contexts. Some examples: How can I organise meetings differently? How can I plan, monitor, and evaluate my activities/projects? How can I improve relationships and collaboration between regional offices and the headquarters?

The Knowledge Sharing Toolkit began as a means to keep up with the explosion in scientific knowledge, which has been facilitated by the expansion of the internet and peoples’ increasing access to information. The libraries are not written for scientists, however. Rather, generalists can update their basic skills so they can better communicate with scientists, funders, partners in the field or immediately leverage new ideas in their communities.

Maps and food security

It’s been argued that one of the major components of food security is getting produce to market. Bad roads and poor transportation infrastructure are often the culprits. To solve some of these issues at the local level is iMMAP, which began using GIS technology more than a decade ago to locate landmines. They’ve moved on to help guide crisis responders in a number of different countries.

From the ICT-KM blog at Cgiar, a new project is explained.

Throughout most of the developing world, there is a real and urgent need for roads data. Road location and attribute information can play a vital role in long term development applications and also help humanitarian agencies with short term emergency and logistical planning. Despite this dire need, though, popular web mapping service applications have not explored the roads less travelled in much of the developing world. No tourists, no maps!

From that blog post, a question and answer session took place with Olivier Cottray, who spoke about gRoads, an Ethiopian-based project mapping roads with GPS-enabled PDA devices and how it will support local farmers.

The rationale of the project in the context of farming is that the better roads data will help agencies and organizations that are supporting farmers to look at accessibility to markets. Location information is also being collected for infrastructure of importance to small holder farmers such as irrigation equipment; water reservoirs; community grain storage or fertilizer warehouses; and agricultural extension offices.

Video and overcoming low literacy

Some practitioners argue that video blogging is one way to overcome a few of the hurdles facing ICT technologies in rural areas. By posting video or audio files, bloggers immediately overcome literacy issues. Also, they can speak directly by using local languages that may not be common on the internet.

Brenda Zulu, in her blog, ICT Journalist, investigates how video blogging works in Ghana with an interview with Prince Deh, the Assistant Country Director of Ghana Information Network for Knowledge Sharing (GINKS).

Vlogging major challenges were listed as connectivity or access and getting people to share Information and Knowledge and cost of equipment.
From my his own view, Deh said Web 2.0 tools were important and even more important because of the deeper impact the tools would have on marginalized societies, even if these impact are not immediately felt.
He observed that many more rural communities have stories to share with the larger public and voices to amplify and saw Web 2.0 tools as perfect applications to project the voices of the rural poor in the future.

“How do we solve the problem of rural connectivity in order to extend the benefits of Web2.0 tools much wider beyond the scope of the cities?” he asked.
He pointed out that it was important to have knowledge of video editing and innovativeness in order to create story telling videos.

Deh says the images increase the popularity of video blogs because they make them engaging. After filming a video, they can be embedded into a blog, so people can comment on them.

Development groups like them because they are cheap to make and disseminate. One popular video from GINKS explained to farmers (in a local language) how to use their mobile phone to get market information.

Lessons Learned

Throughout much of this Future of ICT for Development series on Global Voices, I have strived to put forth a well rounded debate on the positives and negatives of these technologies. Mostly I have tried to answer whether ICTs can raise human development.

One drawback has been that it is hard for me to find those who are skeptical or cynical regarding the potential of ICTs. I'd like to include these next three comments solely for the purpose of debate. They happen to be a response to a 2007 Web2forDev blog post regarding the participatory web and development. What makes them interesting is that these comments provide healthy skepticism (if not criticism) of ICTs affecting development levels in rural areas. I add these comments not as a critique on the above projects; rather, I think ICTs as tools of development need to be debated in the open.

The commenters pose a few questions: Are the stories presented in these blog posts or series like this the norm or just an aberrations? What role, if any, will ICTs play in raising living standards?

From Pankaj Gupta:

I think a lot is made of how ICTs can help in development and poverty reduction. I live in India, have worked extensively in participatory digital video and sustainability research, and travel a lot to the ‘poorest’ districts of the country (that makes up nearly most of the country!) and can say with the confidence that comes from first hand observation that the poor are far far away from using the web. The examples are merely examples: rare exceptions that voluble techno-freaks amplify, only to mislead a lot of us into thinking that information technologies can do any good to the poor. If probed deeply, any of these examples would not pass the test of affordability or sustainability once the artificial support on which an experiment is flaunted is removed. People caught up in day-to-day survival have no inclination or energy or access to link up with the web and profit from it.

From Andrea:

I have been working extensively in Africa and I quite agree with you. I have seen very few villages with electricity, less with PCs and even less or none with internet connection but I think that this is also one of the thing we should still work on it.
On the other hand I still see a huge potential for web 2.0 in Aid. Web 2.0 has a strong potential for collaborative work and I think that international organisation should start using it as soon as possible.

From Ignatia/Inge de Waard

I agree with both Andrea, Pankaj and [post writer]Holly that only a minority of people are connected in developing areas. But just like Andrea I believe in web2.0 as a strengthening evolution. Because of the participatory strength of web2.0, I believe that even if only a minority will use the participatory web, this will make a huge difference on developing areas. If any change can be done, change must be stimulated by those target people. Only by their knowledge essential changes will take effect.

November 17 2009

Impact of ICT on Indigenous Cultures: Rejuvenation or Colonization?

The 2003, the Geneva Declaration of the Global Forum of Indigenous Peoples and the Information Society stated that

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) should be used to support and encourage cultural diversity and to preserve and promote the language, distinct identities and traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples, nations and tribes in a manner which they determine best advances these goals. The evolution of the information and communication societies must be founded on the respect and promotion of the rights of Indigenous peoples, nations and tribes and our distinctive and diverse cultures, as outlined in international conventions. We have fundamental and collective rights to protect, preserve and strengthen our own languages, cultures and identities.

But can ICT truly preserve and protect distinct identities and culture? Does ICT by its very intervention introduce an element of westernization amidst the indigenous culture that it purports to preserve and protect? What is the optimum balance between preserving traditional knowledge and embracing remix culture? The cultural debate surrounding deployment of ICT in the field of indigenous/ knowledge and culture simply refuses to die down.

According to Mark Oppenneer, “the implementation of ICTs in service to indigenous peoples in development settings is a double-edged sword”, as both the critics and proponents of ICT4D have seemingly irreconcilable perspectives.

Questioning the cultural neutrality of the ICT medium, Charles Ess, in his paper “Questioning the Obvious? Ethical and Cultural Dimensions of CMC and ICTs” states that

[..]. Far from serving as value-free or morally-neutral tools, CMC (Computer mediated Communication) technologies themselves appear to embed and foster the cultural values and communicative preferences of their Western designers. As a first example: South Africa has attempted to establish Learning Centres intended to empower indigenous peoples by helping them take advantage of the multiple potentials and capacities of ICTs. A series of observers have noted, however, that these Centres repeatedly fail – in part, because of basic cultural conflicts. Briefly, the Centres reflect their designer’s Western emphasis on individual and silent learning – in contrast with indigenous preferences for learning in collaborative and often noisy, performative ways (Postma 2001). This conflict is also captured in Edward T. Hall’s distinction between high and low context cultures (1976). In this schema, contemporary societies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Germanic countries show a preference for literate (i.e., textual), high content (but low context) information transfer – while societies such as Arabic cultures, indigenous peoples, and many Asian cultures prefer instead more oral, low content (but high context) modes of communication.

[…] Similarly, Western Group Support Systems (GSS) that favor anonymity as a feature intended to encourage open and direct communication proved disastrous in the Confucian cultures of South Asia, as this indeed succeeded in encouraging subordinates to make comments that were culturally interpreted – and condemned – as attacks on one’s “face” (Abdat and Pervan 2000). These and multiple other examples make clear that CMC technologies carry and further a specific set of cultural values and communicative preferences - ones that, far from being universally shared, are indeed limited to specific cultural domains.

Secondly, because these technologies thus clearly embed and foster specific cultural values and communicative preferences - the initial enthusiasm for these technologies inadvertently but powerfully only aids and abets a form of “computer-mediated colonization” that threatens to override diverse cultural values and communicative preferences with those defining the dominant economic and political powers of the West.

While Ess, worried about the medium defeating the intended purpose of preservation, calls for a more culturally-aware framework, others have pointed out that such concerns are not entirely correct.

In response to a query by David Sasaki, director of Global Voices' Rising Voices section, as to whether or not helping under-represented communities join the online global conversation inevitably leads to their westernization/Americanization,  Álvaro Ramírez and Diego Gomez, co-founders of the HiperBarrio project, spoke of the community adapting Western culture to their own needs, infusion of new knowledge and broadening horizons.

Citing the example of hip-hop music, Alvaro pointed out that for the community, while there was definitely some US influence, the issue was not so much Americanization as adapting something western to their own needs. So it was not only about getting influenced but exerting influence as well, giving birth to something new, new knowledge or culture. Diego noted that the project had also opened up other doors of communication beyond westernization.

I think that in this project especially they have been influenced not just by Americans they now begin to think about India, Dubai, and other cultures that they didn't know existed before. Or they didn't have much reference.

Projects such as the E-Bario project in Malaysia, Community project of the indigenous Ngalia and Badimaya people of Western Australia, the Alan - Gluban project in Taiwan are a few cases in point.

In the final analysis, as Mark Oppenneer points out

…the critics are right: misguided ICT4D implementation that doesn’t take into consideration a wide range of cultural factors and explicitly or implicitly imposes Western processes or structures upon indigenous recipients does constitute a new form of computer-mediated colonialism. And yes, the proponents of ICT4D are right: ICTs, when implemented thoughtfully and respectfully – keeping the needs of the recipients at the fore – can be powerful agents of change in the fight to reduce poverty and improve the lives of marginalized peoples in developing nations.

In his 2008 presentation, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples - The Role of ICTs, Jesse Fidler listed various possibilities for ICT to actively engage the indigenous communities and realize their visions.

And as far as preserving the pristine, isolated local culture is concerned, Professor Amartya Sen perhaps summed it up best in his talk at the 3rd IDRC/ Harvard Forum on the future of information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) when he said that there is “no such thing as ‘unaided culture”, or ”culture that exists in isolation”.

November 09 2009

Uganda & Kenya: In Search of e-Governance

Good governance is a slightly abstract concept that describes the process of nondiscriminatory government policies, checks and balances to political power, respect for human rights and effective civil society. This process that has become an important ingredient economists point to leading a country to high economic growth. Development experts also claim good governance is responsible for creating higher levels of human development.

Governments have heard this. Pushed on in no small parts by grants, corporate and development programs, many countries began leveraging new technologies to increase access to government services. They’ve tried various methods to simplify procedures for citizens, expand transparency and make information available to everyone.

The blog Abugidan Info from Ethiopia draws the parallel between increasing peoples’ access to information and a more healthy political culture.

…the importance of the undeterred flow of information in the sphere of politics and governance and in improving socio-political life can hardly be exaggerated. Let us look at it this way. As in the marketplace, the impact of its lack is catastrophic, especially to the development of democracy and strengthening of respect for human dignity. In today’s society, that deficit is characterized by exclusion, inequality, the arrogance of power and problems pertaining to peace and security, stereotyping as political strategy, poor economic growth and uneven development and subjugation that eventually gives way to societal polarization and conflicts. With Internet today’s reality of our world, IF ONLY governments get their cues from a longstanding Syms’ ad, “An educated customer is our best customer”, the world would have been a much better place!

Governments' use of information and communications technologies can only go so far, says Tanya Gupta, a blogger at Governance Matters from the World Bank. She argues that many e-government programs concentrate on providing better services to citizens while they should consider issues relating to political culture.

The first is increasing participation.

Large sections of most developing countries -typically the lowest income populations- are disenfranchised, lacking political participation and voice. In fact, studies have found that greater economic inequality yields greater political inequality, thus creating a vicious cycle where the poor cannot use the political system to improve their economic situation…

This suggests that e-government can strengthen democracy by contributing to increase political participation among the poor.Unfortunately this is where we get stuck. Empirical data shows that participation is not typically an important part of e-government programs in poorer countries even though they are the ones who most needed it.

Next, she outlines the importance of openness and transparency.

In spite of many good examples of open government/ transparency, the fundamental change in mind-set that is required for a truly open government has not really taken place anywhere. In order for this to happen, each civil servant will need to relate in a very different way to data that he/she produces.

…In this process, as much data as possible should be released, withholding only confidential and personal information. To achieve this, more investment would be needed in building a better search engine and modifying social networking apps for government.

Finally, she identifies collaborating amongst diverse groups and accountability:

Although closely linked, transparency/openness and collaboration alone will not bring about accountability. Holding public servants and politicians accountable for their actions requires a robust civil society, strong judiciary and legal framework, a free and active press among other factors. However citizen watchdogs, human rights organizations, non-profits and others that track governance related actions and data can certainly use technology to demand accountability.

Case study: Uganda

Uganda’s government began working earnestly with ICTs in 2006, when the Ministry of ICT began overseeing e-government programs across state-run institutions. The country’s private sector took off some years ago, but the government is still implementing a framework to drive e-Government infrastructure initiatives, like creating communication networks and file sharing amongst all 28 ministries. The government’s strategy also includes providing access to communications, which it hopes to accomplish through school-based training.

If I had to generalize, I’d say the Ugandan blogosphere is largely unimpressed with the government’s efforts in the ICT realm. (If you have anything to say on Uganda’s effort, please reply below.)

Kato Mivoule, from Uganda, writes Mivule Tech-Africa and blames the political culture of the government.

Despite the IT infrastructure, Uganda is still reeling back and forth from forces of corruption that are in no doubt hampering the would be robust ICT industry in East Africa

…from nepotism, favoritism, power fights, mismanagement, greed, ICT in Uganda is yet to deliver, especially when it comes to helping the poor in Africa alleviate poverty,diseases, and illiteracy… Current ICT Leadership in Uganda’s ICT ministry are so full of themselves that all they are concerned with are contracts for themselves and bogus middleman IT companies that would rake in profits to their bank accounts… The people of Uganda benefiting from ICT is still a dream…

This post is admittedly a little old (from November 2008) but the issues remain relevant. It comes from Lilian, who writes From Uganda To You:

A presentation from the Ministry of ICT just confirmed my fears about their ignorance or complacency about IG issues. The presenter was just limited to the role of governments in IG yet what we wanted to hear what the Ugandan government has done as far as Internet governance is concerned. To make it even worse, he could hardly even talk about the three main bills (e-signatures, cyber crime and e-transactions). He simply put it that they were being tabled in parliament for “approval” and knowing the way in which our parliament operates, this may take forever to be finalised!

She points out that Uganda has an internet penetration rates of less than five percent, but the number of people accessing online through web-enabled phones is quickly increasing. “Looking at these figures, I’m not exactly hearing what the government is/has done to make IG a success in Uganda.,” she writes.

Right now, I’m seated in an Internet cafe and I’m wondering how safe it is for me to work from here! That is in terms of protection of my information. All I know is that the Cyber crime bill is is waiting Parliament’s approval. So between now and then, I do not know what happens in case someone hacked into say my email account (just in case I forgot to logout) and used my private data for their own use.

[The bills remain under consideration.]

A comment from BSK argues.

That is pretty serious; i hope those people do really show some seriousness soon. Otherwise, such things as growth of ‘e’ and ‘m’ commerce (particularly given that we soon will have functional mobile money transfer systems in the region) are going to be affected big time, and the expected surge in use in the next few years could be fertile ground for all sorts of scam and fraudsters. I agree, we probably be seeing more of the mobile web, especially in the next 2 years with expected falls in bandwidth costs, and uptake of wimax and 3G.

Test Case: Kenya

E-government services on the Government of Kenya’s webpages are easy to access and, it seems, to use. Kenyans may search jobs online, track the status of their national ID and passports. Students can locate exam results and follow up on their higher education loans. Business people can submit tax returns online and apply for specific permits and reports online. Finally, anyone can log a corruption complaint through an anonymous feedbox.

Many of the services provided, the government claims, can be done online or through SMS messaging.

The blog from Jellyfish Cool Man reports that the government is even expanding its efforts, including publishing ministry procurement details and digitizing health records. What makes this task easier is that most middle-class Kenyans are already online.

…all [these] developments indicate a country intent on modernizing it’s activities. The desire for this is driven by the need for efficiency, eradication of corruption, need for socialization and most importantly a voracious need for information which will greatly boost literacy levels and hopefully lead to innovation and a more civil society. Kenyans need to have a positive attitude, realize that they have a beautiful country, intelligent people and sufficient natural resources which they can utilize to provide a high quality of life equivalent to any advanced nation on Earth.

Kenya offers an interesting case study because some of the most interesting political watchdogs don’t come from the government. Rather, the country’s robust civil society has begun using technologies to keep watch on issues like corruption and government procurement, not very different from United Kingdom-based groups trying to hold those in power accountable.

Kenya’s governments have long tried to shake off corruption allegations. The group Transparency International currently ranks the country 147 out of 180 in its index tallying the perception of corruption, sharing space with Russia, Syria and Bangladesh. (Uganda is 126.)

Recently US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an audience in Kenya although the government in Nairobi is slow to act, people should not give up complaining about corruption via social marketing sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The group Mars Group Kenya has exposed a number of high-priced and high-priced scandals on its “Leadership, Governance and Accountability” portal during the last few years. The group began in December 2006 to help publicize its reports on government corruption, hoping its website and forum would become a place to debate and publicize the importance of governance issues.

Recently it has found itself the target of claims it is trying to destabilize the government and Parliament proceedings regarding espionage charges.

Nonetheless, the group has friends in Kenya’s blogosphere. A Nairobian’s Perspective calls the group Kenya’s online ombudsman.

…True to its adage “watching out for you” Mars Group Org has been relentless in ensuring it watches out for Kenyan Civil Liberties and freedom.The website frequently publishes reports on corruption such as Ndungu Land Commission Report, Kroll Report, extracts from Wiki leaks,Githongo's Dossier on Anglo Leasing etc…The blog also has an interactive column where members of the public air their opinion, media clips are uploaded,a cartoon column gives corruption a human face, and of course subscribers get regurlar email updates.Mars group is right on -on its spotlight on corruption. While very little is known/atleast available online with regards to Mwalimu Mati [the group’s director] one thing is certain ;he is a true defender of public interest Kudos to him!

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