Steve Song is an international development professional residing in Cape Town, South Africa and specializing in communication infrastructure in Africa. He is the founder of Village Telco, “a social enterprise that builds low-cost WiFi mesh VoIP technologies to deliver affordable voice and Internet in underserviced areas” (Many Possibilities). His previous work includes a fellowship with the Shuttleworth Foundation to work on telecommunications access in South Africa. The Shuttleworth Foundation provides funding for those it deems as on the forefront of social change. Additionally, Song spent 10 years at the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa. The center “supports research in developing countries to promote growth and development” (IDRC). Song’s research there dealt primarily with ICT4D in Africa.
One of Song’s main achievements is the creation of the Mesh Potato through Village Telco. The Mesh Potato (pictured below) combines voice and internet services in a low-cost, open software and hardware device.
Openness is a common theme in Song’s work. He believes that open hardware and software are crucial to successful ICT4D. By designing hardware that is easily discernable more power is put into the hands of the user. Communication technologies are no longer a foreign product, but rather they are something that can be tinkered with and improved upon by the consumer. In a blog post titled “In Praise of Taking Things Apart” Song argues that the ability to create is ultimately what creates wealth, and thus development. A device like the Mesh Potato, which can be taken apart and analyzed, presents and opportunity for innovation where previously there were only indiscernible products. In the long run, this functions to open up the telecom industry to entrepreneurship, increasing competition, and bringing down prices for all.
Steve Song’s Twitter
In my research of Steve Song for the short paper, I was introduced to the idea of open source hardware. Many of us are familiar with open source software, which puts code into the hands of the public to play around with, make alterations, and possibly improve upon. Turns out the same concept can be applied to hardware, and can have a significant impact on development. By making hardware that can be taken apart and tinkered with, one can educate a population on how a technology works and allow for innovation and change to emerge. Consider an old PC vs. an iPhone. When we were young, some of the more curious and eager kids began taking apart the PC’s their family (hopefully) was not using anymore. They found out what was inside, learned what different parts did, and tried to put it back together. 5-10 years later, these kids are building their own computers from raw components and studying computer engineering. Now we look at the iPhone or a Macbook, a kid today could not open up these devices and decipher much if anything. They are sleek and efficient, but they offer no opportunity for innovation and learning.
Now we apply this idea to development. Put simple, understandable technologies into the hands of the public, and watch as the next generation yields tech innovators and entrepreneurs. Economic growth is derived from people’s ability to make things, and open source hardware enables this. I connect this concept to crowdsourcing because it distributes the task of innovation to the masses rather than a few telecom giants. In the long run, this type of crowdsourcing increases competition in the telecom industry and brings prices down to levels affordable to more people.
For this post I will be outlining and highlighting the main points of Plan International’s ICT report on Senegal. I will be going to Senegal in the fall, so I thought it would be apt. The report can be found on pages 63-65 of the Plan article read for class.
ICT penetration is Senegal is above average for the region across the board. The rate of telephone connections and mobile phone users is about twice as high as the regional average. A similar trend holds for internet usage. Telephone and Internet providers exist within the ICT4$ realm in Senegal, with 3 main telephone companies and 6 primary ISPs. The government is making efforts to increase ICT access in rural areas by establishing community multimedia centers with help from UNESCO. National ICT policy in Senegal is a rough balance between several stakeholders, but the objectives include “harnessing ICTs to reduce unemployment and poverty, increase literacy and access to the healthcare, improve competitiveness and efficiency in government and private sector institutions” (PLAN 64).
There is a specific focus on ICTs in education, mostly spearheaded by NGO’s. The projects outlined in the report focus on computer and internet training in schools or after-school programs as well as programs targeted at women.
In 2001, an earthquake struck the state of Gujarat, India. A case study by SEWA, the Self Employed Women’s Association, describes how ICT’s were used following the disaster, and what could have been done differently.
Communication is imperative after a disaster in order to coordinate the relief effort effectively. At this time, mobile phones were uncommon in Indian villages and mobile service did not return until 5 days after the earthquake. In response, the Disaster Mitigation Institute disseminated satellite phones and mobile phones to affected villages and established constant communication with areas in need of relief. The report asserts that “timely access to and proper use of Information Technology, enabled SEWA to mobilise the needed relief material and make relief effective.”
During the rehabilitation stage, the communication afforded by the ICTs allowed the affected communities to be involved in every step of their recovery and the process of rebuilding. The report states, “Twice a week, talk-back sessions of Satcom are held, where the villagers from the affected blocks participated at the village and block level in interactive dialogue with Panel of Engineers, Planners, Architects and Government officials based at Ahmedabad.” SEWA was able to collaborate and accept feedback from villages without sacrificing the speed and efficiency of recovery.
The report ends by acknowledging that access to communication technologies at the local level is vital to successful disaster recovery.
As we have learned in class, technology is often used by those in developing areas in unexpected ways. An article in the Inter Press Service tells the story of women in rural Zimbabwe using their mobile phones for financial transactions. Surely aid agencies did not predict this utilization of ICT by women in rural Africa seeing as it is hardly utilized in the most developed countries.
Here is how it works: people without bank accounts can register for mobile phone banking with their service provider and are given a mobile “e-wallet” that is linked to their phone number. The women in the article are now using this service to pay dues for their co-op, which provides a social safety net in times of disaster, economic crisis, or drought.
The benefit of this service to human development is twofold. One, it gives these women some financial independence, allowing them to make transactions without relying on a husbands bank account or long journeys. Two, it allows separated families to more easily transfer small sums of money to members in need.
There has been a significant effort to put modern technology in the hands of students in the developing effort. Projects such as One Laptop Per Child aim to catalyze the learning process with internet capable laptops. However, there has been trouble in using the internet as a substantive learning tool and not just for information gathering. A school in California believes it is making the transition. Using resources such as KhanAcademy, an online collection of video lectures and learning tools, the school is seeing marked improvement in students learning and comprehension. The online lectures allow students to learn at their own pace while the classroom teacher is able to devote more time to helping students one on one.
The system of using online lectures and tools in the classroom is still in experimental stages, and has its detractors. Even so, the potential for its application in development is exciting. For the teachers with overcrowded classrooms, video lectures provide an opportunity to reach every student at their own level while freeing up time to aid struggling students. For students with irregular schedules or obligations to family that impede regular attendance, the lectures and tools provide a means to keep up with the class.
There is, of course, the limiting factor of access. The One Lap Top Per Child project has made headway, but this resource is far from ubiquitous. Other considerations include those in ssimon1’s post, such as the lack of content in some languages and the need for quality teachers regardless of technology. All in all, if this resource is applied meaningfully it could potentially decrease the educational gap between students around the world.