In 2004, the City of New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits faced a problem. The task of processing hundreds of permit applications was becoming overwhelming. With many inspectors by necessity out on the field, often at inopportune times, there were long waits at the office to see a permit officer or inspector. In addition, people would often turn up without the necessary documentation to receive the permits they were requesting. As a result, city officials were having to turn them away, despite the hours of waiting time, causing everyone frustration.
As an attempt to alleviate the problem, the city chose 5point, a supplier of interactive self-service kiosks and embedded software, to provide kiosks that would walk applicants through the permit application process, ensuring that they had all of the documentation. In addition, they included a check-in system, which allowed them to use analytics software to determine peak times, allowing city inspectors to be in the office during those hours and on the field when the demand for their time in the office was relatively low.
The kiosks allowed the department to reduce turnaround and wait times, and provide a more consistent service experience. The program has since been expanded, with multiple kiosks at locations around the city. There are, however, some distributional and awareness problems; not many people are aware the kiosks exist, or where to find them, and the city’s website is vague on the functions that can be performed, and has no information at all about where to find them. While they have become tools for specialized uses, the lack of information has prevented the growth of their use by people trying to interact with the government and benefit from their services.
I’m extremely interested in technology. I really like working with it. As of a few months ago, however, I was convinced trying to use technology to solve the world’s problems was not only ineffective and foolish, it was a dangerous idea. The massive amounts of time and effort spent on ICT initiatives could (and, I feel, should) go somewhere else, somewhere where it would actually do some real, tangible good. There’s an opportunity cost to every project, and I invariably saw the costs as being far too great. The way I saw it, the development community was handing starving men, women, and children cellphones and laptops.
I’m still not entirely convinced that technology can solve many of the problems we like to think, but I’ve come to see that technology can be an effective tool when it is used carefully and with due regard for the true cost. It’s a catalyst, it allows for people to improve their lives. It is absolutely vital to tailor solutions to individual problems, and to recognize when an ICT-based solution simply isn’t appropriate. However, I’ve come to realize that there are some instances in which ICT4D works brilliantly, and that it should not be discounted. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve gained from the course is that shift in perspective.
The Economist recently published an article on the rise of open standards in web technology, and how they can solve the problem rich content has created for web designers. To deal with all of the content websites have on them, browsers now have to have all sorts of plugins, protocols, and codecs that are necessary to make functions work, which makes them slow and overwhelmingly complicated. The first attempt to bridge the various kinds of rich web content was Adobe Flash, which has enjoyed massive success, being installed on nearly 99% of web-connected computers, but which has recently been discontinued for mobile devices because it demands too much processing power. The latest version of the HTML standard, HTML5, seeks to correct those deficiencies by building in new tags for rich web content into the base code that websites use to organize information, allowing for rich content to be presented on simpler, less powerful devices, provided they’re compatible with the new standard.
There are many barriers to the adoption of ICT in developing countries. Despite their many benefits, there are often instances where the infrastructure necessary to support it may not be in place or the technology is simply too expensive. Marketwatch recently posted an interesting article about the role of taxation in mobile device adoption.
A recent study by the GSMA shows that consumers are paying higher taxes for the use of their mobile devices, creating yet another barrier for the adoption of technology. Of particular worry is the practice that many developing countries have adopted of heavily taxing airtime on mobile devices, which increases the cost and slows down the adoption of technology, with potentially far-reaching implications for long-term economic growth.
The introduction of India’s domestically-manufactured Aakash tablet has been big news in the ICT community, and in the tech world at large. The 7-inch tablet, which runs Google’s Android OS and which will be provided to students for $35, has been hailed as a massive step forward in bridging the digital divide, an issue which plagues India to a much greater extent than many of its neighbors.
There are, however, some crucial flaws in the infrastructure necessary to support it. The Aakash is a WiFi only device. Publicly accessible WiFi connections are nearly nonexistent outside of the major urban centers. The ability to bridge that gap with access to 3G networks is limited; in a country where the per capita income is still only about $1100, a $200 per year smartphone connection is a privilege few can afford.
The Aakash helps provide the people of India with access to a reasonably sophisticated computing device at an accessible price. But without the necessary infrastructure, it’s likely to fall by the wayside.
The Economist recently had a really great article about how women in northern Ghana have started using barcodes that can be read by cellphones, combined with enterprise resource planning technology from SAP, to keep track of payments for the shea nuts (the type shea butter comes from) that they collect, dry, and sell for additional income. They’ve also started receiving education, through their mobile phones, on how to produce better quality nuts and formed an union named the Star Shea Network. The system has allowed them to gain more influence in the market, and allows to leverage microfinance institutions in order to sell the shea nuts later on in the season, which earns them significantly higher prices.
A recently released UN report points to cell phones and computers applications as catalysts for changes in healthcare delivery in some countries. One program, Cell-Life, uses text messages to remind mothers in South Africa to give children with HIV antiretrovirals, and informs them about what to expect and how to manage the side effects. Another program, D-Tree, helps aid workers properly treat malnourished children, an important consideration in a country where fully six percent of children are malnourished. These solutions have, the report suggests, the potential to save the lives of thousands of mothers and children worldwide.
Taking a more abstract and critical look at ICT4D, the article titled “Can Technology End Poverty?” from The Boston Review considers why ICT4D projects have become so popular in recent years. It looks at many of the benefits and costs, including the opportunity costs for both organizations and to the targeted people who benefit from the ICT4D initiatives and projects. Although implementing technologically-based strategies to help end long-term poverty reduction has been proven on small-scale projects, the article also considers how the success of implementing ICTs is dependent on the people handling the projects (administrators, supporters, stakeholders) and understanding the target users. In order for technology to alleviate the lives of those in poverty, the beneficiaries of ICTs must have the human competence to effectively use them.