CES Session on Technology and Emerging Countries
CES Session on Technology and Emerging Countries
CES Session on Technology and Emerging Countries

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    On January 9, CES hosted its first session on technology and emerging countries, a four hour, multi-speaker series on how technology can benefit the developing world. Nicholas Negroponte delivered the keynote address on the One Laptop Per Child project. Following this, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda spoke on a few technology initiatives that were taking place in his country, including an integrated health care information system. Paul Jacobs, CEO of Qualcomm, then discussed his company's efforts in developing countries. These two were then joined for a panel discussion alongside Paul Meyer of Voxvia, the company providing the Rwandan health information service. The session also included a brief showcase of various technologies and their practical uses in the developing world. The session ended with a panel featuring representatives from Microsoft, AMD, Intel, and Cisco who led projects that brought information and communications technology to the developing world.

    A few major themes stood out in the session after the keynote.

    First, President Kagame and others all noted that there isn't a linear progression of technological progress—that developing countries should “leapfrog” where appropriate. For instance, mobile phone adoption in developing nations far outstrips landline growth. This fits well with rural areas where wiring may be expensive and where copper wiring may also be prone to damage or theft. Not confining our conceptions of progress to the past timelines of developed nations also means we can learn from mistake made in the developed world, bypassing methods that are now a technical or political morass due to legacy systems. Meyer, for example, boasted that Rwanda now features a more robust national medicine-tracking and patient-reporting system than the US.

    A corollary to this is the idea that bringing technology to developing nations shouldn't necessarily be viewed as second-tier aid. Too often, people ask whether money spent on technology might better be applied to clean water, food, or medicine. Kagame noted that the problems and solutions operate in parallel. For instance, medical treatment for HIV is more efficient and effective due to better information flows. So technological infrastructure can support other efforts at development and wealth-building. Of course, as panelists noted later on in the day, development projects do have to take into account that their methods mesh well with the more basic and immediate needs of a community. For instance, if a computer broke down, a school district spending money on repairs would be displacing funds that could pay a teacher's salary. So while investment in technology is certainly hand-in-hand with providing more basic needs, those basic needs should be accounted for in the implementation as well.

    Second, most of the industry speakers noted that providing technology to the developing world should not be viewed as an act of charity donation, but as a means of investment. In fact, that is referenced in the very way that they referred to the tech recipients—as “emerging markets” rather than as “developing countries.” While this may seem like mere self-interest—after all, without a technological infrastructure in a community, that community won't buy Cisco routers, or Intel-powered laptops running Windows—it also ensures that the technical support is wanted and sustainable. Not only are communities often reluctant to accept what is seen as a handout, but providing a price on a service allows both the users and the supporting companies to measure how the new services are valued. For example, the Life Lines project in India allows rural farmers to phone in to a central clearinghouse for information on relevant topics like pesticides, product quality, and market prices. The service costs the farmers 12 rupees per call (about 5 US cents). The fact that a fee is charged indicates that the service is actually worth something.

    Third, such projects need to be sustainable. They should act as catalysts for change that will continue long after the multinational partners have left the site. Going back to the Life Lines project, the fee charges means that it can become a business model for others to compete with or supplement. Having a sustainable project also means that the technology involved must stand the test of time. That doesn't just mean making durable hardware, as in the One Laptop project. It also means making sure that the technology is suited to the existing infrastructure or lack thereof, and that maintenance costs are kept affordable. There clearly isn't any one magic bullet for this, because in some cases it might mean adapting or creating new types of hardware. In other cases, it actually means using as much off-the-shelf technology as possible. For example, take the case of a broken keyboard. A standard laptop would require complicated repair, including labor costs, while a modular desktop could have its keyboard replaced cheaply. Other solutions are to have more modular laptop systems (the OLPC, for instance, is made to be repaired by children with more modular structures like replaceable backlighting in the monitor), or making the object easy to ship to repair centers.

    Keeping a project sustainable also means ensuring that local efforts will keep it running. A key aspect was using what was already on the ground. Programs like Voxvia's system in Rwanda make use of a network already built in the country by a South African firm. The people involved are also important—ensuring that local government, organizations, and the community itself are involved means that the direct beneficiaries of the system have a vested interest in seeing it continue, since they can see directly how new technology had concrete benefits. AMD's projects have included a focus on erecting new buildings as well as installing new hardware, and the community directly helps to raise the structures.

    In the educational context, teachers need to know not just how to use the computers, but also be convinced of what the computers can do for their students. One Qualcomm project in Guatemala, for instance, required teachers to take three weeks of their vacation time for training on the new systems.

    However, there were clearly some different philosophies on how best to prepare the ground for new technologies. Negroponte said he avoided using the term “teacher training,” saying he preferred to “prepare” teachers instead. To him, the difference was that teachers should not be given a series of specific commands to use, but should become more immersed in the technology capabilities. In a project in Argentina, teachers were reserved at first, but after gaining familiarity with the systems, they became much more invested in using the laptops in new ways, designing their own curriculum to fit the needs of local students. Too many early efforts, it seems, resulted in very young students being taught the Office suite, which has limited use for first graders, and won't directly benefit the community. Yet all too often, this was simply what the educators were able to teach the students about the computer, so that's what happened. Negroponte was also interested in the laptops being learning tools in and of themselves—hence the idea of kid-run “laptop hospitals.” The idea is that the students can learn by opening up and repairing the systems themselves, learning not just computer use, but some engineering as well. Negroponte joked about a warranty seal that, contrary to the norm, would state that a warranty was not valid until the seal had been broken.

    Another major point, and one that was tied in strongly to sustainability, was relevance. Another nightmare scenario was one where a development partner asks about local computing infrastructure and is shown a locked closet in a school full of donated computers. In the eyes of many of the panelists, preventing this scenario meant going in to a project with a well-defined goal. Often, the communities themselves are very clear on what they want technology to do for them, such as Quechua cacao farmers who knew they wanted a more efficient commercialization of their crop. One of the featured companies, Manobi, presented its efforts by first finding a concrete problem to be solved, such as farmers unable to fairly negotiate with resellers because they lacked current market price information. By providing an SMS price-reporting service to the farmers' mobile phones, the project allowed one farmer to improve his negotiating power and double his revenue. Even the resellers, on the other side of the negotiation, benefited from the system since they can access the same data to find the most profitable markets for resale.

    In some of the later discussion, there appeared to be a jab or two at the OLPC project. James Utzschneider of Microsoft noted that he saw a school in Guatemala much like the one Negroponte had featured in his presentation, with laptops and a satellite dish for Internet access. However, the dish was not in use, since, after the first five years of donated connectivity, the connection expired and had never been renewed. This was cited as an example of a solution in search of a problem. Since the village hadn't come in to the project with a known need or desire for connectivity, they weren't able to justify the cost of renewing the connection.

    This tension need not e an irreconcilable one, though. In some ways it simply illustrates the difference between a project focused on wealth-building and one focused on education. While education may well lead to advances in industry, that would seem to be a much longer-term goal. Not all communities will realize immediately the benefits that might accrue from technology, and basic education as to how technology works should allow communities to better define what they might later want the technology, or outgrowths of it, to do.

    One audience question asked about restrictive information policies in many developing nations. Here, it seemed, the local focus helped. In dealing directly with communities and local government, and having specific solutions to practical, largely non-political problems, problems with national information policies could be avoided, and perhaps the introduction of communications technology might alter the national attitudes.

    Another question, from an IT professional from Uganda, questioned the motives of companies in their development work. Weren't they, after all, simply trying to expand their brand identity and their market? The panelists all agreed that they weren't simply after low-hanging fruit, or trying to make a quick buck. However, all of them still emphasized the idea of long-term relationships and investment. To me, this suggests that many efforts are intimately tied in with an eventual bottom line, even though that may be somewhat speculative. After all, as William Swope of Intel pointed out, hiring a third-grade teacher with Intel funds isn't exactly going to promote loyalty to Intel products among those third graders.

    But there clearly was a question of eventual investment. Many of the panelists were talking about wiring the “next billion,” and marveling at the size of the market (about 2 billion of the world's 3 billion mobile phones are in developing countries). Yet so long as these efforts end with a net benefit for the communities, the motives of the companies involved, to me, seem relevant perhaps only in light of public relations or tax status. Development is development, after all, and so long as the solutions don't hinder further growth through technological or contractual lock-ins, it's hard to see a downside to well-thought-out technology development programs.