This blog praises technology and innovation. It’s not just that I am in love with technology: I have grown to understand that technology improves lives, and so it can be a goal, not just a means. The problem, our problem, is to ensure that technology improves the lives of everyone and not just that of those who can access and afford it. As Chris Anderson puts it: “The power of technology can bring nations relief, if only bureaucrats allow it to.”
Technology then and now by iLoveButter.
Think of all the latest technological breakthroughs we’ve been exposed to in the last couple of months – Telepresence, the iPhone, Wii, HDTV. Now imagine taking the smarts behind those breakthroughs and applying it to the far more basic technology needs of the extremely poor. It may sound strange, unattractive even, but that notion is already changing.
Developing new products for “the other 90%”, as they are defined in an amazing exhibit by the same name, is a great challenge. Items like the StarSight utility pole, which draws energy from solar panels to provide lighting, wireless internet access and more, or the much-hyped “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC), which may serve as an educational tool to bring learning, information and communication to every child in the world, are exciting and promising.
OLPC production prototype. Source: Wikipedia.
But I believe that harnessing existing technologies like the ones I often praise in this blog, technologies that deal with information and communication (known as ICT) and which can improve the lives of those 90%, is an even greater challenge. And as these technologies are already out there, existing and proven, the impact can be not just great but also immediate.
Pro Poor ICT
ProPoor-ICT, a wonderful wealth of resources about “making ICT work for the poor”, mentions “universal access and effective use of ICT” as one of the key targets in the struggle to empower the poor and dramatically narrow the differences between the privileged 10% and the other 90%.
Many poor areas remain outside the reach of ICT, as no communication infrastructure is expected there in the foreseeable future. For instance, ITU estimates that 800,000 villages, 30% of all villages worldwide, still lack basic telephony services (PDF). But all this can change if proper funds and proper technology initiatives are routed in that direction.
A successful case study about such a project, which can be found on the ProPoor-ICT website (PDF), is performed by the government of the state of Kerala in India. The Akshaya project motto is “Gateway to Opportunities”, and it proves how ICT truly improves the lives of millions who live in a rural area, under-served and socially backward.
Source: Akshaya project website.
The online services that the many “ICT centers” available via the Akshaya project in Kerala are actually providing gateways to the world that were out of reach for many:
- Hands-on Courses – basic computer literacy, with the objective of certifying at least “one computer-literate person per family”; spoken English and other relevant topics that offer new opportunities for graduates.
- “Internet for all” – a campaign to tutor citizens to use the internet for education, information gathering and communication purposes.
- eGovernment – Government-Citizen Interactions (G2C) offer citizens the ability to interact with the Chief Minister of the state via video conferencing, to make payments and get entitlements, to get or provide information, and more. eGovernment programs now also offer telemedicine, including tele-counseling programs.
- Connectivity for all – as centers offer high bandwidth, voice and video-enabled on-demand network connections, they can offer citizens VoIP calls, enabling families in different districts to communicate with relatives working abroad, which is common practice in the area.
Technology – A Gift that Keeps on Giving
Telemedicine, eLearning, VoIP, eGovernment, Video Conferencing – these technologies and services that we sometimes regard as alternatives and may be reluctant to use, since we have other, sometimes easier possibilities, may be the only option for others. If projects like VRS have taught me anything, it’s that technologies that some sectors regard as “nice to have” are improving and enabling the lives of others, who are quite lost without them. They are providing a way for those less privileged to enjoy life with a quality similar to others.
Communication and information are vital for every human being. Communication and information technologies can improve our lives, at work and at home, but they can make a dramatic difference to those living on the margins of society, bridging geographical and social distances.
A world without significant distances, without significant social imparities, with equal opportunity for everyone, everywhere – this is something that only technology can realize. And it is something we, as the privileged 10%, should consider a top priority.