~ Archive for ICTs ~

The creaky adaptation of international development to technological change

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Thanks to a recent post by Tomas Krag, one of the most creative, inventive and intense people I have met in the ICT for Development space, I stumbled across the “i4d: information for development” site, whose masthead and contributors’ list name a number of people I either know or respect.  Tomas’ and Sebastian
Biittrich’s (who in the past have cheerfully and willingly been
invaluable resources,
along with Michael Best, for me in clarifying the capabilities of
diffent wireless technologies and in offering blunt criticism)
involvement makes me believe that this journalistic endeavor merits
further attention. 

What Michael Best, Tomas and Sebastian (and many others too many to
mention here) bring to the international development
community is something that lamentably is still underappreciated even
today, which is deep and serious knowledge of how technologies
(wireless, computational, community-oriented and other) work. 
After a number of years of serious consideration of how IT
can transform development, the field still remains dominated by
bureaucrats, well-meaning economists and others who really do not
understand the technology, and
who hold at arm’s length a lot of very talented individuals with very
advanced technology skills who are looking for ways to help the
world. 

The esprit de corps of a global brigade of geeks has been institutionalized and scrappily pushed forth by my colleague Ethan Zuckerman,
but unfortunately, international development as a profession remains a dinosaur with little room for true entrepreneurship and
risk-taking with the exploration of new technologies.  In a
limited way, the field continues to creakily adapt to the realities of
technological change, but unfortunately, the structure and culture of
the global aid institutions are anathema to the acceptance of
fast-moving, technological saavy crusaders.

There remains a lot of room in the international development space for
a major institution to emerge to lead with money, creativity,
technological savviness and connections that will sweep clean much of
the aged detritus of bureaucracy and inertia that dominate what should
be the most important and impacting sector in the world.

The Software Behind the Headlines

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In a recent conversation with a friend who is a public health expert in sexually transmitted diseases and antibiotic resistance, her eyes lit up about Berkeley Madonna, the software program that she uses to calculate transmission rates and disease vectors. In her work, which focuses on AIDS and gonorrhea transmission among professional sex workers in the Phillippines, the software has made the task of modeling and analyzing dynamic systems much faster and easier.

Differential equations have existed long before computers, but thanks to fast processors and clever software, never before has it been so easy to quickly crank through tough math problems. In the area of public health, this has been particularly important as interventions can be planned more rapidly and more efficiently.

In the current SARS epidemic (which apparently is for real and not just a bunch of hype) it is mathematical modeling of transmission rates that has led to the WHO warning about Toronto, Singapore, China and elsewhere.

It was just an important reminder of the many ways in which ICTs have changed our collective ability to deal with certain global crises, and the software behind the headlines.

Is the “New Economy” about IT jobs or jobs that use IT?

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An interesting seminar today with Dr. Sanjaasuren Oyun, a progressive parliamentarian from Mongolia, got me thinking again about one of the major questions about ICTs and development — are we trying to jumpstart an ICT industry or are we trying to help out existing industries through the use of ICTs?

I have only dabbled in research into Mongolia, and much of it stems from 5+ years ago, but the short answer about ICTs and Mongolia’s post-Soviet and isolated problems seems to be to continue to nurture the nascent yet thriving ICT industry (software, offshore information processing…) but also look to apply ICTs to Mongolia’s existing strengths. There isn’t much going on in Mongolia except copper mining and cashmere, and mining doesn’t offer much in the way of diversifying and bettering the country’s competitive/comparative advantage. But the cashmere industry suggests something else – since most cashmere is sold to China, Japan, Europe and the US to make into high-end garments sold by fancy fashion houses, why shouldn’t Mongolia reap the rewards of nice sweaters, peacoats and suits instead of raw cashmere wool?

Textiles are one of the most competitive, ICT-intensive industries out there today. Every top-of-the-line garment assembly outfit has state-of-the-art, just-in-time information systems that gives it the latest order from whichever designer needs an order within 72 hours. Mongolia, with its stranglehold on cashmere, one of the highest-end natural resources that makes value-added clothes anywhere in the world, needs to ramp up its textiles industry.

By now it is a no-brainer (in spite of the ridiculous claims to the contrary about how Iraq’s oil will take care of everything and the current state of Venezuela with its oil “riches”) that natural resources alone don’t cut it in today’s globalized, competitive economy. So Mongolia, with all of its land-lockedness, post-Soviet problems and issues of the rural people flocking to Ulan Bator, needs to figure out how to create value-added industries that will give it some leg up. But Mongolia by no means is the only game in town.

There are certainly lots of stories out there. There are countries that are trying to recreate Silicon Valley from scratch. There are countries that are trying to develop an offshore programming industry like Bangalore. There are countries that want to beat out Mauritius, Sri Lanka and the Dominican Republic to win just-in-time textile contracts with European, Japanese and US fashion houses. And many many reasons why everyone wants computers and the Internet.

But what is the answer?

The answer is that every country is different, and that there is no one solution in today’s globalized and competitive economy. Every country needs to examine how ICTs might help existing industries, but also create new ones.

This is a terrible answer, and so insufficient, to one of the most common questions.

But the answer is true. Each country has terrible problems and fantastic assets. ICTs do not represent the cure nor the help for everything. But it is possible for every country to recognize the areas where technology will help.

It is harder to recognize where technology will not help — this is the reason for so many wasted funds and projects. Again and again, it is not just the technology, but everything else that matters.

I hope that Mongolia figures it out – it is by all accounts a beautiful country with wonderful people, fly-fishing, mountain climbing, horseback riding and hospitality galore. High-end tourism would not be a terrible industry to specialize in…and technology doesn’t hurt there either…

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