Digital Divide

Posted by sepoy on February 15, 2005 · 6 mins read

The best, ok only but the adjective will stand, panel I attended was Trends in Computing for Human Development. The panel primarily consisted of Berkeley CS grad students who were working on, and had been involved with, developing sustainable techonolgies for India and Brazil. First of all, the fact that they were CS made them insanely attractive as panel presenters. No indexicality there, folks. Secondly, they were all about powerpoint. Which I hate, usually, but in this case was loving it. Had this whole idea of doing my paper as powerpoint too. Then reminded myself that the Pentagon is the #1 creator of powerpoint. So, that cured it for a while. Still, it gave me a few ideas about the ways in which I might tackle the next phase of my career - post diss., post first book.

Let me give you a rundown of the papers before my thoughts:

  • Sergiu Nedevschi and Rabin Patra talked about Akshaya Project. This path-breaking project for e-literacy carried out in the Malappuram district in Kerala is a pilot project to bring govt. subsidized e-literacy to the masses in Kerala. I was surprised to learn that it started at the initiative of the local panchayat but that the IT minister got envolved. The goals of the project, to have an locally owned internet hub within 3km of every house, were ambitious and the results are mixed. While a 1/3 have profited, most are struggling or shut down. In Akshaya's case, the issue is to create a sustaining relationship between services and trained communities of users. Entertainment?
  • Rodrigo Fronseca and Joyojeet Pal talked about the similar programs of Simputer and Computador Popular. The two projects are usually compared as they were both govt. funded and subsidized to create a cheap option. The failure of both seems to be that the cheapness part got lost in translation. The CP never ever made it to market after the subsidies dried up and the Simputer is out in the general market competing with PDAs. Joyojeet Pal made an excellent point that the Simputer had no applications to drive its sales. What comes first? User Base or Merchandise? He offered the critique that the Simputer was dreamed up by Academics. And followed it up by asking for ethnographical surveys of rural users. I had a chuckle about that. But the point is valid. My interest in this portion was more on the OS bit but the audience seemed a bit too general for asking such rude questions. Sadly, I did not get to hang with Joyojeet and Rodrigo who seemed quite fun.
  • Richa Kumar concluded with a great presentation on the efforts of an NGO Drishtee - led by Satyan Mishra, no less - to create e-governance kiosks in Madhya Pradesh. The idea was that people can get some basic services done online - insofar as they can request them [with a very long paper tail]. The reality was that bureaucracy itself was unwieldy and crushed venues that sought to circumvent it. So, either we fix the bureaucracy [yes, you should be laughing now] or make the kiosks more than e-governance.

As I see it, the central issue in all three presentation was not simply the efforts to create and offer low-cost computing to the masses but to introduce and sustain new technologies within the knowledge-systems of local societies. The barriers to a successful implementation to such measures are numerous and significant - cost, training, market, bureaucracy etc. Conversely, the innate desires of societies willing to open up to these technologies makes the task that much more easier.
There is little doubt that the "idea" of computation and the digital universe has deep penetration in most segments of the South Asian society by now. The literate or market upper classes have already moved into the modular application phases but the task is to create the same concepts of utility in the lower and illiterate classes. Entertainment and Recurring Government Services are the two obvious choices. Both models teach you basic usage and give you familiarity with a set of applications. Both attract the user based on their needs. Both can be introduced pretty easily.

My sense is that for these measures to succeed we have to have the internets involved. Wired or wireless service so that the introduction and training of computation seamlessly blends in with online experience. Secondly, I think that entrepreneurs may be the best source for creating and expanding this market but in a more targeted fashion. Right now the services are geared to attract anyone and everyone. Same with entertainment. What is missing is what actually does drive the internet around: Information. Think back to the portal wars of 1996-8. I think that business ventures that target specific knowledge based communities will have a massive hook to train and utilize new segments and drive services.

Obviously the technical aspects are still daunting. Manufacturing a low-cost PC is no easy task. Making it locally could help. Licensing software is not cheap. Creating new software a more daunting task - as one can see in the Simputer exercise. That is why exercises such as the joint governmental efforts to build a Linux distro are so crucial.

Anyways. I have lots more to say about the notions of knowledge-systems but even on my own blog, it would be impolite. More tigers tomorrow.


The Acorn | February 18, 2005

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