Monthly Archives: October 2012

IT@School Program in India

There are many ways that ICTs can play a role in making education more effective and efficient. However, as our examination of One Laptop Per Child policies a few weeks ago demonstrated, simply distributing technology to classrooms or children in the developing country is not sufficient. Instead, a more nuanced and holistic approach is necessary. In India, the IT@School program addresses some of these concerns.

The IT@School program was begun in 2001 by the government of Kerala, India. It is intended to foster ICT-enabled education in the state. The program is multifaceted and includes a focus on: e-governance, content development, field level mechanisms, capacity building, FOSS initiatives, and impact studies as a means of evaluation. Some of the specific projects of IT@School include: a centralized textbook indent system, e-textbooks, a centralized resource website for students, an animation movie making initiative called Animation Training Program for Students (ANTS), ICT training for teachers, and online registration forms.

This project addresses many of the topics we have discussed in class– like open source and open content (e.g. FOSS) and training needs (via ICT teacher training). It also has a strong monitoring and evaluation component, which is key to any successful development initiative. It focuses on sustainability of its technology through “Hardware Clinics” where the computers and other equipment are repaired right in the schools. IT@School also addresses infrastructure needs by creating a unique scheme for electrification of classrooms and providing broadband internet connectivity for teachers and students. It incorporates an evolving constructionist vision of education– with school wikis for collaborative learning and student driven learning via projects like ANTS. This is a large-scale project– reaching over 12,000 schools– and seems to have thought through many of the common pitfalls of ICT-based education projects in the developing world.This unique and holistic approach to ICT-based education focuses on using ICTs to enable learning, not just the learning of ICT skills but learning as a whole, and may serve as a model for other ICT4education projects.

Smartphones in Post-Sandy Manhattan

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which affected my and well as many of my classmates families, I have become overwhelmed with reports of damage and destruction in my home town. Among the many articles I discovered in my search for aftermath information was this article from the Tech section of Huff Post, “After Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers Struggle With ‘Obselete’ Smartphones.”

According to the article, Lower Manhattan is completely without power and twenty five percent of cell towers were wiped out. As a result, New York City residents have found themselves without cell phone service. In a world where we depend on cell phones so much, this has become a major problem for New Yorkers. I have been having trouble contacting my family since the storm hit, and I can only imagine the millions of other people having the same problem.

Interestingly, the article discusses how people are now having to rely more on older forms of  technology that have been over-looked for so long. These technologies include basic flashlights, which have recently become replaced by flashlight applications on smartphones. In a disaster when people have little or no battery life on their phones, these applications cannot be used and they must resort to regular flashlights. Additionally, New Yorkers have been lining up to use payphones! Payphones, which just a week ago so many New Yorkers just walked past almost forgetting their existence, are now a hot commodity in the city. The article also states how recently, New York City proposed plans to convert pay phone locations into WiFi hotspots, so they would actually be useful spaces. While on a normal day in New York City I’m sure many would be in favor of this, in the post-hurricane state, I am sure many are thankful to have them.

This has given me a real life example of many of the things we have discussed in class. Firstly, it makes me think about the reliance on cellphones. We talk about the positive impact mobile phones have been able to have in many areas of the developing world, and how many societies have started using mobiles as their main form of communication technology (especially those that have leapfrogged over land lines). However, if something like this disaster were to happen, clearly mobile phones would not be useful. It also makes me realize just how difficult disaster response efforts can be. While we have learned about the difficulties of disaster management in class, it wasn’t until I had this event occur and affect me so personally that I really understood the gravity of the situation.

It is amazing to think that no matter how advanced our technology gets, set backs like Hurricane Sandy will still challenge our progress. Smartphones, rightfully earning their name, are capable of incredible things for communication and development. However, we walk a fine line between relying on our mobile phones for useful applications, and completely depending on them. If we become too dependent, we may find ourselves in difficult situations just like Lower Manhattan is experiencing now.

Hurricane Sandy- Vulnerability of the Power Grid

As we all know, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the east coast this week, leaving over 7.5 million without power in 15 states. In her blog post, “The case for a distributed, smarter, cleaner power grid post Hurricane Sandy,” posted on GigaOM, Katie Fehrenbacher argues that we need to make changes to the setup of America’s power grids in order to make them less vulnerable during disasters.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared on Tuesday that restoring power to the city will be one of the “biggest challenges” in the aftermath of the storm. Fehrenbacher says,  “The stark contrasts between the resiliency of our data communication networks and our power grid in these situations is unnerving. The power grid is highly vulnerable — it’s still largely a centralized system, with little energy storage capacity at the edges of the network, and it still lacks a lot of the intelligence that Internet architecture has that can deliver self-healing and re-route around damaged systems. And that’s a problem.”

Just how vulnerable is the power grid? Nicholas Abi-Samra, chair of the IEEE Power & Energy Society’s San Diego chapter, explained that protecting the power grid from extreme flooding, winds, rain, downed trees, and flying debris is nearly impossible. In many areas, even the process of identifying outages is difficult – with only partly automated systems, some utilities companies still need phone calls from customers to identify power outages! For example, the Long Island Power Authority is working on installing a new automatic outage detection computer system, but it will not be up and running until next year…too little, too late in this case.

Fehrenbacher suggests moving toward a more distributed and decentralized power grid in order to improve resiliency. Investments should be made in power generation, transmission, distribution, smart grid software, and energy storage. She says,  “It’s not as weird as it sounds to move to a more distributed power grid. Large companies in India are so used to rolling blackouts there that many of the largest have their own storage and backup systems and the biggest weren’t effected by the massive blackouts in India earlier this year.” Yet, this move won’t be possible until distributed power systems and energy storage units become less expensive. In addition, Fehrenbacher warns that Hurricane Sandy is a prime example of unusual and extreme weather patterns emerging as a result of climate change. As such, it is important that we try to reduce carbon emissions by employing next-generation energy technologies that reduce energy consumption and provide clean power.

It will be interesting to follow the challenges and successes of restoring power to millions of people on the east coast in the coming days. Maybe Hurricane Sandy will attract attention to the vulnerability of our current power grids and inspire new investments in improving the technology? What do you think?

BRIDGEit in Tanzania

Bridgeit is an ICT initiative (specifically mEducation), which aims to, increase the quality of education specifically mathematics, science, and life skills in primary school though the use of mobile phones and television. Teachers are provided with access to a digital catalogue of short educational videos. They are also provided with a Nokia mobile phone, which they use to download these videos (via a server). The mobile phone is connected to a television in the classroom, so that the videos can be broadcasted for the class to view. Additionally, the videos come with interactive lesson plans for the teachers to follow, which address key concepts/ideas that the video introduces (erumi). Some of the schools were focused on just mathematics and science, while others were focused on mathematics, science, and life skills.

What is interesting to note about this project is that the education aspect of it does not focus on the mobile phone like those in the past; the mobile phone is just the medium in which the educational video is downloaded through. The main aspect of technology here is the television where the students watch the educational video.

Another interesting part of this program is that its implementers worked in collaboration with the Tanzanian government, as well as community organizations. By involving respected community members in the research process of the initiative, this project adhered to the human centered design toolkit’s phase “hear.” Additionally, because of government involvement this is a more dynamic approach to the legitimate implementation and sustainability ICT’s in Tanzania’s education sector, which was a main goal of their ICT policy.

An Evaluation was done for the first year. Overall, test scores of students in BridgeIT and BridgeIT + Life Skills in both math and science increased. Some other results that came back from the attitude questionnaires indicated that teachers received a lot of support from various outlets. Although the above results came back positive, there also were negative results: the teachers had decreased satisfaction with their jobs, and the students initially thought the video content was boring. But when students became more accustomed to the video learning, they found that the videos increased their understanding of math and science (Enge &Kjell).

Although I believe a proper evaluation was conducted, it did not mention anything about infrastructure in terms of electricity with this program (main problem in Tanzania), which was a main component of it. Additionally, it did not mention anything about what happened when the mobile phones were broken, or if there was a problem with theft.

#Sandy- ICTs Role in Hurricane Sandy

For the sector project this past week, our group presented on ICTs in Disasters and Humanitarian Aid. We described that ICTs can be used for disaster preparedness, disaster response and disaster recovery as a way to warn individuals, mobilize aid, coordinate stakeholders, and locate individuals- just to name a few. With Hurricane Sandy hitting the Northeastern United States this past week, ICTs played a key role in the preparedness and recovery processes. This blog outlines some of the key ICTs that were used during and after the storm to increase efficiency and minimize damage.

–          Twitter: Recommended by FEMA as one of the best ways to communicate and receive data. The Washington Post even ran a story on how to use twitter when you lose internet due to the high volume of users and capability for information dissemination. Also, Twitter s “promoted tweets” were donated to organizations such as the Red Cross so their vital information could be disseminated to twitter feeds across the country

–          Apps such as “Public Stuff” are donating their back-end resources to local governments to use for relief aid.

–          Tracking Apps- Apps such as the Red Cross were used to track the storm to enable individuals to be as prepared as possible for when the storm hit.

–          OpenStreetMaps: program utilized by New York City to allow residents to identify evacuation zones for certain areas to avoid confusion.

–          Maps/Tools: Google offered these services for disaster responders to coordinate need, location and resources.

–          Webcams: webcams were used to get live footage of areas to keep people updated on loved ones and to dissuade people from going outside and “checking”.

–          Open Content: News organizations such as the New York Times took down their paywalls during the storm and post-disaster which allows individuals to access these news sites for free and keep up to date without needing a subscription.

–          Text: Text services were opened up by FEMA to allow citizens to text a number to locate their nearest shelter.

Clearly, ICTs were heavily used in the past few days as the storm hit and in the immediate response. However, I think we will truly see these resources come into play as cities begin to rebuild and and the recovery process is managed and evaluated.

Dr. Vandana Shiva, the WTO, and GMOs in India

During our class discussion of the future of rural and agricultural development, the idea of GMOs as a future means of alleviation of poverty and hunger was advanced. Although a contentious issue, it is an empirical fact that genetically modified crops offer increased food security through drought resistant and higher-yield crop varieties. However, we should not let the promise of the technology blind us to the trade policies of some of the largest GMO producers and pushers. One of the chief problems that has arisen is the patenting of life. Large multinational corporations like Monsanto enter a country, extract the seeds and strains they consider of value, and patent them. They can then claim sole rights over the seeds and sell them back to the community they were taken from, at a premium. Given that multinational corporations have the backing of the WTO, smallholder farmers are unable to export any patented crops unless they pay a licensing fee that cuts deeper into the razor-thin profit margins of the millions of smallholder farmers in India alone. So far in India at least, the result is a surge in bankruptcy and suicide among smallholder farmers, fueled by an acutely increased sensitivity to price fluctuations and poor harvests due to the increased cost of farming for those least able to afford it.

Several developing and developed countries are actively fighting the WTO agreement that patented life (TRIPS Article 273B) and/or the rise of GMOs in general. One of the breakout stars of the resistance movement is Dr. Vandana Shiva, who succinctly and I believe convincingly argues against the WTOs IP legislation in the video embedded below. How we look at agricultural rights has important implications for discussions of globalization and human rights, which I believe makes everyone a stakeholder in the fight for agricultural sovereignty.

I have included several other resources below for learning more about the current seed-war, as well as a link to the website for Navdanya, Vandana Shiva’s organization:

Automated Texting Services for Low-Resource Languages

Following our class period with Robert Munro, I found myself browsing through his Twitter and found an article describing his PhD topic in an August 9th Tweet. Within the article, he elaborates on some of the concepts discussed in class; as he explains, so many of the 5,000+ languages of the world are being written for the first time ever with the proliferation of mobile telephony, but the technology to process these languages cannot keep up. Compounding the problem, these phone users are of varied literacy levels, making for spelling inconsistencies among users. However, he concludes that automated information systems can pull out words that are least likely to vary in spelling (ie people, places, organizations) and examine subword variation by identifying affixes within words as well as accounting for phonological or orthographic variation (ie recognize vs. recognise). The article goes on to provide more technical prescriptions for automated text response services, and he even links to another article in a separate Tweet, which describes Powerset, a natural language search system that ultimately failed, but utilized a few valuable processes.

Ultimately, Dr. Munro implies that the capacity for automated text services in “low-resource languages” is well within reach, particularly because the messages are generally just one to two sentences. Because spelling variations are predictable, they can be modeled, and hopefully reliably answered by automated systems. However, the use of these systems will not be realized until they become more reliable and efficient than human responders, which, as he explained in class, can be extremely effective.