Archive for the ‘digital divide’ Category

Technologies that help

June 2, 2008

It’s been a while since i read this article (HE) about two young Israeli entrepreneurs who participated in developing GPS software that would be friendly for the visually impaired people. If you ever used a GPS, you would know that many (most?) of them are capable of providing voice directions. However, it is not good enough if you cannot see properly. The program that they developed makes more use of voice. For example when you select destinations or want to find out where you are at the moment and what is there in your surroundings. One interesting feature of the program is its adjustment for the use of public transportation – it will tell you what bus stop you are at and when you should get off. The main downside of the program at the moment is its price.

Recently I also read this news update about a free email service, RoboBraille, that translates text into audio or Braille. According to this article, it takes the program “can return a simple text in Braille in under a minute while taking as long as 10 hours to provide an audio recording of a book”, which i think is still very impressive (provided that the final quality of the output is good). They report to work on about 500 documents a day and have translated a quarter million texts so far. My only unanswered question here is how a visually impaired, probably blind person is supposed to send that email. That would probably require some more expansive hardware and software, which still maintains a barrier.

Even though I still have some questions, I am really excited when the information technology is used to solve real, substantial problems. If you have more examples, please share!

Innovation and confusion

May 20, 2008

XO-2 Laptop AI read some exciting news today. OLPC project revealed its plans for the next generation of the “$100 laptop.” It looks really neat and i think has a number of really innovative ideas. For example, the double touch screen one part of which can also be used as a keyboard, sound really fascinating. Reading about it makes me really wanting one.

Then, as i continued reading, i got confused, particularly by looking at the feedback provided by people who own the current version of XO (read the comments here for example). It seems like while concentrating on technical innovation, the OLPC crew neglected mundane things such as production, service, and implementation. Although XO-1has been deployed, it seems too soon to conclude this phase as successful. Particularly with the recent changes iXO-2 Laptop Bn the project’s leadership and the ongoing debate about the identity of OLPC as a technological vs. educational project, there are still a lot of question marks. One of the more obvious ones is whether or not it will be relevant by the target date of 2010 with the recent exposure of low-cost laptops.

So, at the end of the day, i think the ideas in XO team are rather brilliant (looks like they can also design in an Apple style!) and i truly hope they will be also capable of translating this innovation into substantive change.

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…

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.)

More on Digital Divide in US election

February 26, 2008

Following on my previous post about Obama’s talk at Google, here is a very interesting post from Andy Carvin shedding more light on the candidates’ rhetoric about social role of information technology, digital divide, and the related education. Having read a lot about the discourse surrounding these issues, it is striking me again and again how little change there was in this domain. They are still talking about technology in rather technocratic and deterministic terms, framing it mainly as an economic factor.

It is also interesting how the political discourse reacting to academic research and market forces. Only about a decade ago, the discourse focused primarily on issues of physical access. This view gained a lot of criticism from the academic community and research (like this) showed that skills play a very significant role in what we label as the digital divide. Simultaneously, it seems like the markets for infrastructure neared certain levels of saturation (i don’t have exact data on that, but my own observations). The combination of the two created another domain to public discourse about digital divide – skills. We can see both components in Andy’s post or in fact in any other political speech/document on the subject.

Of course i am simplifying a very complex story, but i hope that I manage to clarify the basic idea. Now it will be interesting to see what happens next. The academic community moved further with conceptualizing the digital divide in terms of inequalities and viewing it as a more complex social construct. What is going to be an associated market change and how will it impact the public discourse?

Just some thoughts triggered by reading blogs…

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.

My Yiddishe Mama post, or “I told you so”

December 17, 2007

A couple of years ago I participated in a conference titled “Telecoms in Transition”. It was a gathering of (primarily European) telecom industry leaders who were discussing the question of the future of their industry. My talk focused on the “digital divide” and the main point was that the next big wave of users is going to come from the developing world. It seems like this idea is catching up and here is a post on “Information Policy” blog with a link to an article analyzing where the next billion of internet users will come from based on the last Internet Governance Forum.

And no, i am not claiming the authorship, but I think it is important to stress this point once again. I believe that we are at the beginning of a trend in the rhetoric (and probably action) of the telecom industry and it is nice to say “I told you so” :)

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.

Even more on XO as an eBook

November 25, 2007

I feel like I should start apologizing for the amount of posts dealing with this issue :)

However, just today the OLPC-news blog posted a video of the Internet Archive project endorsing XO as an eBook reader.  I don’t think the timing of their post is random, but it definitely helps to clarify the point I was trying to make in the last two posts.