by Marco Figueiredo
Director, Loyola's Center for Community Informatics (CCI)
For more than a decade I have been actively engaged in the search for models of insertion of modern information and communication technologies in the lives of the poor to help alleviate poverty in the world. The rationale is simple, if people have access to knowledge through the Internet, they will have a better chance at driving themselves out of oppression, injustice and poverty. As a NASA researcher and technology entrepreneur I am familiar with the process of technology creation, but it has taken me about a decade to learn what many sociologists told me at first: It’s about the people, not the tools!
I started my quest by conversing with the experts in poverty alleviation such as the World Bank, Inter -American Development Bank, United Nations, and several other international development agencies in Washington DC . Eventually I figured I needed to go grassroots and moved to one of the poorest rural areas of Brazil to try and learn directly from the poor. Three years later I came back to the US carrying the non-profit Gems of the Earth and helped create the Center for Community Informatics at Loyola University Maryland.
Throughout my journey, I soon figured out that the modern ICTs weren’t ready for widespread adoption. The personal computer (PC) isn’t so personal but more of a business automation tool. Trying to engage the digital illiterate, my college educated mother included, has been an incredible struggle as I refused to accept the sociologists’ adage. In the other hand, trying to convince folks to invest in the improvement of the technologies to serve the poor has been even harder as “the poor can’t pay for new technologies”; they should just wait for it to trickle down as the rich pay for their development.
My solution was to focus in the shared access model as the way to reduce costs with technology insertion and facilitate peer to peer learning. I went as far as suggesting the Brazilian government in 2002 to create a network of 100,000 community telecenters to become the first country to guarantee broadband access to its 180 million inhabitants. President Lula actually included the idea in the 2010 National Broadband Plan to complete the network before the 2014 World Soccer Cup. The plan was later abandoned by the succeeding president Dilma.
But the shared access model required a few technology adjustments to succeed. The first proposal was to facilitate the PC user interface by creating a layered graphical interface. Novice users would see less options starting with applications that would give them a direct benefit. As they became more familiar and satisfied they could uncover deeper layers of complexity. One of the first applications would be voice and video communications to allow them to talk and see distant relatives for little to no cost, and get quickly addicted to keep coming back for more.
Another of the first applications the novice user would see would be a fun learning tool to handle the mouse. All applications would be simplified to allow click of a mouse navigation and minimum to no keyboard use (that dreadfully complex tool that scares those who can’t read or write). I even suggested to hide the keyboard under the table.
Another improvement would be in the management of the technology. I proposed a cloud based approach where the operating system running in the telecenter computer got its configuration from a central server somewhere on the Internet. The user could request the installation of a new application, but configuration control stayed at the central server, which could also push an operating system update. The user could keep its data in the cloud or in memory cards. The light PC architecture would use no moving parts and would be cheap enough to be replaced in its entirety when defective. It doesn’t sound as breakthrough an idea today as it was when I first prototyped it for a commercial telecenter franchise venture.
Key to the success of my model was the use of open source software. Proprietary software is too expensive to serve the poor. Its price would have to come down by an order of magnitude to start making sense. Governments aside, the technology breakthrough I was looking for came from the marketplace. It was Steve Jobs who once again integrated a set of new technologies and used Apple’s buying power to bring affordable touch screen computers to the marketplace. By getting rid of the mouse he made famous and hiding the keyboard, Steve’s Apple brought us to the age of the real personal computer. Let’s call it the Symbiotic Computer, SC for short, for its symbiosis with humans. If you ever took your smartphone to bed you know what I mean. Ok sociologists, I admit it now. It is about the people, not the tools. But what if the tool is embedded in the people, can we make a distinction? At this point, I say it is emotionally embedded. Eventually it may be physically too.
While Apple unveiled the new technology, it was Google who steered it towards the open source model, quickly grabbing market share with the Android platform while delivering free to low cost applications in a server based technology management solution. It is said that the spreadsheet was the killer app that made PCs useful. It makes sense if you see PCs for what they are: business automation tools. The killer app in the SC world is the phone, first called the iPhone. The phone app existed long before the SC came about and it fast became one more among hundreds of thousands of really personal applications. The SC is everything the digital illiterate, the 80% of the world population, needs to enter the digital age. It is the ultimate digital inclusion tool. And if the smartphone SC screen is too small, there is the tablet SC, or the television SC, or the car SC (think navigation). The Symbiotic Computer attaches to every aspect of our lives, not just professional aspects like the Personal Computer has in most cases.
There is thus a new innovative technology paving the way to poverty eradication in the world. There are still challenges. We will be watching, suggesting, researching, developing, creating and reporting on these. Is the shared access model dead? Not so quick. The best and most useful SCs are still out of financial reach of the poor and this is actually creating a deeper digital divide as the poor are being offered ineffective solutions. It is just that the shared access model needs to be updated to leverage on the realization of the Symbiotic Computer model. Digital inclusion now can be viewed in two distinct stages: digital literacy and professional capacity building; the first to be accomplished with the help of the Symbiotic Computer, the second with the Personal Computer. The shared access model needs to be adjusted to serve as a bridge between the two as it is still the best way to reduce costs and accelerate technology insertion for the sake of poverty alleviation. Telecenters will continue to serve their communities as an information and communication technology hub where peer to peer learning enhances the community’s ability to forge a socially just and progressive path towards environmentally sustainable development and better standards of living for all.