Jun 09 2009

A Little Tech Goes A Long Way

by at 11:56 am under Uncategorized

About six months ago I attended a forum on the use of technology in the developing world here at Georgetown. The buzz word of the afternoon was “sustainable technology.” Since I currently work for Georgetown’s IT department, I took these words to heart. Technology without a sustainable framework is as useless as building power plants in developing countries without industries in place to purchase electricity (as Jane Jacobs describes in “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”).

The example given at this forum was a sustainable information line in rural India. Farmers would travel to a central “node” in their network, pay a fee (somewhat considerable for their income), and receive an answer to any agricultural question. If the answer could be found in a database, they received it immediately. If experts were required to deliberate, they received it in a few hours. The entire operation is run through telephone lines (with computers on the other end) to avoid user interface issues and illiteracy problems.

The genius of this program is three-fold: first, it is continually funded by the fees charged to the farmers; the farmers must actively seek this information and are therefore much more likely to use it and value it; and the program allows for increased efficiency of crop yields without abrupt technological change that can lead to displaced workers.

I appreciate this telephone system so much that I wonder if it could be expanded beyond the most basic of economic outputs–agriculture. Why not setup businesses in one country that give advice and technical support to a slightly less developed country? Instead of rich Indian cities answering phones lines for US companies, Indian companies can provide assistance to third-world with their problems related to manufacturing and networking. Sustainability comes from keeping these phone trees within the same level of economic development, but with enough differences in specific manufacturing or technical fields for one country to assist another.

Just as development cannot be bought through constructions of roads and electrical grids, neither can technological advancements be bought through networks without sustainable uses. And even as the rates of illiteracy are falling throughout the world, the jump to computers may be too much for many of the world’s poor. Telephones operating over VoIP (Voice Over IP) can provide the cheapest form of communication on already existing networks. Through Skype the information age may reach those who have been left behind and finally allow them to equate capital with information for modern economic development.

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