Archive for the ‘development’ Category

Optimisitic numbers

May 16, 2008

Even though I didn’t make it to Telecom Africa, I couldn’t escape the African motive. Recently, I came across some optimistic numbers about adoption of ICT in the region. The ITU report, cited here, suggests that (a) there is currently more technology in Africa and (b) it is more evenly spread across the continent (the more interesting observation in my view). At the same time, it suggests that people in Africa find mobile more useful, compared to the internet, which is not surprising provided the price of internet access (the cite states a figure of $50 and that is a lot!). In fact, the mobile market is showing impressive growth in other developing countries, which makes it supposedly an interesting aim for foreign investors.

I wonder though, what is the impact of adoption of these technologies on the lives of people? Do they make their lives easier? Happier? More prosperous? How do they use it? How different these ways are from what we are used for? What business and technological innovation is taking place in this process?

Quite fascinating…

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Innovating for conformity?

May 7, 2008

OLPCJust read a blog post about the new CEO of the OLPC project, who seem to envision the project in more technological and less educational terms. Then i read a response to that post written by Gaurav Chachra, who presents himself as “founder member of OLPC India Student Chapter“.

Gaurav is actually making a very good point about the (unrealized) potential of the OLPC project to impact the power balance between people and technology as a primarily commercially-driven institution. He asks a simple question about why would we want OLPC to run Windows XP in first place? I can think of potential answers such as Windows being the most commonly used platform and thus it is necessary to work with it in order to compete in the modern economy. At the same time, I wonder where does it put those, who are joining this competition race at this stage, in the technological hierarchy. It looks like if those who are joining now will have to catch up, while on the other hand there is knowledge in the system that could potentially allow them to leap-frog the catching up or just approach the entire situation from a different angle.

The latter point brings an even larger question about the “digital culture” and this is where the question of power relations. Naturally, Microsoft has an invested interest in making Windows XP the primary operating system for any vast technology-literacy project/movement in the developing world. If we learn that the world is flat, we will be hesitant to go and explore the ages. Similarly, if we learn that computers are Microsoft, we will be hesitant to explore the alternatives (even if there would be people who explain to us that the alternatives are better). The question of the OLPC’s ability to run Windows XP is a clear outcome of this path dependency and us being used to a specific kind of computer mediated experience. However, the point Faurav is making is that the vast populations of children in developing world have never been socialized in the ways we are using technology in the more privileged parts of the world. So, what not using this opportunity to re-examine the values underlying our efforts in the technology and development realm?

I wonder if taking the OLPC to the Windows-dominated reality would not constitute something that looks like innovation for conformity?

Quickly glancing at OLPC

April 29, 2008

Quite a while ago i read this post about the rise of cheap computing solutions. In light of the growing critique of the OLPC project, it got me thinking that perhaps, by focusing on the details of this specific project we are overlooking some of its most important contributions.

OLPCJust three or four years ago OLPC was the only project explicitly targeting the developing world and the market for low cost, simple computers. Today, we have over 7 competing models targeting this very market (potentially more). As long as this competition continues we can expect better machines and lower prices in this segment. Perhaps that is good, since industry is probably better in taking care of the technical aspects (even if sometimes it needs a push, such as the OLPC project), leaving space for the educators and activists focusing on developing a decent educational infrastructure to utilize this technology.

The main critique of OLPC from the very beginning was that it should be an educational and not a technological project. And I agree that the technological solution alone is meaningless and the true potential for change lies in appropriate adoption framework, particularly when we talk about education. At the same time, I think that its contribution to the technological push should not be underestimated. Does it make any sense?

On an unrelated note, now you can also use Skype on XO computers. I think this is really cool, even though Skype has been recently loosing its quality.

(Images taken from laptop.org, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5.)

On laptops and malnutrition

January 27, 2008

Here is a very interesting post from the OLPC news blog. It is written by a person working in Darfur and, as the publishing venue suggests, is addressing the One Laptop Per Child idea in the context of their work with refugees.

It reminded me of a a post i had a while ago about OLPC and the discussion that followed. Particularly it reminded me Nadia’s comment:

I don’t want to sound cynical, but IMHO kids in developing countries would benefit much more from improved health care than from laptops…

Nadia’s comment is not unique.  The common critique of the entire ICT4D idea is that there are basic needs, such as nutrition, health care, and literacy, to be addressed before the information technology can introduce any good.  Many times, I personally find it difficult to explain the importance of ICT in addressing these issues.  It is hard to talk about abstract concepts such as knowledge and human capital with an image of a hungry kid in the background.  I think this post provides some of the potential explanations in a better way that I could probably articulate:

This is not going to stop the fact that children are hungry, and if the extent of their malnutrition is such that they are developmentally challenged to the point that the XO is useless to them, then obviously alimentary relief is in order, but I would say that most of the malnutrition I have seen in my work in the Sahel comes from ignorance about balanced diet, and mismanagement of water resources (so you see toddlers eating only white rice, a water-hog of a crop grown in the desert). For this type of hunger and malnutrition to stop on a societal level it has to be learned and discovered, and shared throughout the community.

Coming from a person actually living this reality and working there, I think this observation has more authority than my academic debates.  Also I think the bottom line of the post captures the idea pretty well:

I think the XO, if distributed, deployed, and integrated properly into the educational and societal systems of developing countries, has a better shot than anything else I have seen to end hunger and poverty.

There are many “if”s in this statement, but I think it captures the essence.

Nigeria and OX

November 28, 2007

Just a small buzz from the blogosphere.  In the reader today i got two posts featuring both Nigeria and XO.

The first post, from OLPC-news, is telling a story of US-based Nigerian-owned company suing OLPC for supposedly patent infringement of their multilingual keyboard technology.  The other, from tech.blorge, is telling a story of a drastic change in attitude of Nigerian government to OLPC initiative (from intentions of buying a million laptops, to complete rejection of the basic idea of the program).

None of these is shocking news, but nevertheless i found the coincidence intriguing.

It’s your chance!

November 19, 2007

Yes, it is now your chance to get the “$100” laptop or XO! I think the sales in the US and Canada started a few days ago and will continue until Nov. 26. I wish i had an extra $400…

And if we are mentioning MIT (XO is their creation), check out this thread on Henry Jenkins blog.  He has a few posts exploring the educational potential of computer games.  Very interesting.

OPCPL

November 10, 2007

OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) seems to become OPCPL (One Potential Consumer Per Laptop).  I just read that EA are going to install a copy of SimCity on every laptop in OLPC project.  Since the original post didn’t have any references I re-checked and it looks like this is actually going to happen – EA are going to put the 1989 version of SimCity on OLPC machines.

The official rhetoric is that SimCity has educational aspect.  Frankly I tend to agree and, regardless, I think this was a good and fun game.  However I keep on wondering if this step is really motivated by educational aspirations, or this is “putting a foot in the door” in an attempt to capture potential future consumers at the very beginning?  Maybe both?

One laptop per child is changing its strategy?

September 24, 2007

“I have to some degree underestimated the difference between shaking the hand of a head of state and having a check written,” said Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the nonprofit project. “And yes, it has been a disappointment.”

This is quote from a NY Times article i bumped in following Samantha’s post on facebook. This is a bit sad and interesting at the same time. I don’t know if it was naive of Negraponte to believe that distribution through governments will work in the first place, but i don’t want to think that. I think we have to give credit to man and his vision. Maybe one has to go through the bureaucracy of working with governments before they can examine alternatives. Maybe this is a part of social structures governing our world? Or maybe i am reading too much Durkheim recently :)

So, OLPC are launching a Christmas sale where people in North America could by that laptop for four times the price ($400 instead of $100, but that is still rather cheap) and by doing that donate another one to a kid in developing country. Sounds interesting, but there was one thing that really annoyed me:

“Staff members of the laptop project were concerned that American children might try the pared-down machines and find them lacking compared to their Apple, Hewlett-Packard or Dell laptops.”

I think this indicates a bit of a hypocritical approach. On the one hand you promote development, but on the other you are doing this by offering people a second class tools? Is this how development should work? Something that is not good enough by my standards i will give to the other who in the first place has less? I don’t see why, particularly with such an innovative approach to technology and its potential role into development, this set of mind was characterizing OLCP’s team approach. I would expect them to think out of the box and actually provide that neat, cheap tool that not only wouldn’t be inferior, but would be an equal competitor to the existing, more expensive models. After all they put many years, brains, and money into developing it.

Gladly though, the studies they run among youth this summer showed that the laptops are actually perceived as cool, and i think this is the way it should have been in the first place. Originally the laptop should have been designed to be cool and good, to be a working machine.  Maybe it’s time we rethink the way we think about development in the first place.

Russian oil vs. Russian high-tech

July 11, 2007

One of the critical stream in developmental literature, namely dependency theory, suggests that one of the main reasons for the growing gaps between developing and the developed worlds are extractive institutions set up during the colonial times. Such institutions favor export of natural resources of a developing country to the developed world, while neglecting investment in local sustainable infrastructures needed for socioeconomic and political development. The idea is that those institutions are so deeply rooted and have entered a path that it will be very difficult to change.

Recently i read this article from Washington post about Russia neglecting development of high-tech industry in favor of natural resources industries. I couldn’t help myself but noticing a conflict. Russia is probably one of the largest developing countries today and has never actually been colonized. At the same time, here it is investing in the same extractive institutions, while it could invest in industries that would probably contribute to a more sustainable development in the long run, such as the MITs.

Why is it happening? Is it the global economic system that forces a country to sell it assets in order to survive? Or is it lack of vision of the leaders combined with personal ambition/greediness motivating instant gratifications?