Follow on to ‘IT Next to the Beneficiaries’

by Jon Thompson on September 30, 2008

This response is a follow-on to Jeff’s post which can be found below as well as some responses that were received to a cross post.  This is my take and hopefully Jeff (and others) will comment.  Thanks to Jeff for letting us know that once again we are still way behind in the solutions game.

What Jeff experienced is not new and is readily experienced by almost every aid worker that is deployed to the field today as well as those individuals we work with.  If you are in Nairobi or sequestered in a compound you are likely to reap the benefits of an over-sold but none the less fat pipe VSAT.  However, more often than not you are going to end up doing exactly what Jeff did in the Congo, what we did in Indo in 2007, and what our associates have done in every location around the world for the last 10-15 years – squeeze water from a rock.

This is not a new problem and yet it always manages to avoid a fix.  It is not so much an issue of how much bandwidth you have but rather how well you use that bandwidth.  These days many people believe that everyone needs enough bandwidth to be able to stream TV, watch endless YouTube videos, and download files in 2 seconds rather than 20.  Yet most of the world gets by just fine on a trickle of bandwidth, web mail and a chat client.  Given that fact (my fact) we should still focus on increasing bandwidth to emerging markets but also not ignore bandwidth conservation and the incredible impact it could have on accelerating the adoption of technology in the developing world.

Connectivity

Mobile networks will soon become the primary provider of Internet connectivity for most of the developing world.  Google’s investment in o3B (sort of) bears this out granted such a backhaul can also be used for WiFi/WiMAX, etc.  I still think that most people will be getting their mail on their phone or doing exactly what Jeff’s associate resorted to which was to plug his desktop into his phone and stick the antenna out the window.  Even if you do not have the connection you can still run a sneaker net just as they did.  And there is still good old dial-up.  Again, the connection is not the key issue here, the software is.

OS

My guess is that most people in emerging markets are running bootleg OS’s which, while functional, are total junk.  You can walk into any bootleg DVD store and while you are picking-up the latest movie that was poorly filmed by some kid with a camcorder you can also get a cracked version of just about any software out there.  The problem is aside from bootlegs being illegal in certain parts of the world it is also hazardous material.  Bootleg anti-virus packages often come pre-loaded with viruses as do most cracked OS offerings.  It is just not worth it and no it is not the only solution.  Personally, I think Ubuntu is the solution.

Ok, ok, I can already hear the moans but who the hell is going to buy a real OS?  No one.  Who really wants to use a junk cracked OS?  No one.  Who does more than check their web mail, chat with friends and some minor word processing and spreadsheets?  Almost no one.  Really, why not use a FREE and readily available OS that is almost devoid of viruses.  Right there you can solve most of the problems.  Most of Macedonia has adopted Ubuntu so why can’t the rest of the world?

Anti-virus

AVG FREE Personal Edition.  Enough said.  Don’t even waste your time on anything else.  This will take care of 90% of your problems.

Browser

I don’t care which browser you use as long as it does one thing: block adds.  Advertisements are the bane of the developing world.  Does someone in Nairobi really want to see a Flash animation ad or some gaudy banner ad when all they really want to do is check their mail?  No.  One of the best tools I think you can use is Adblock Plus which comes as a Firefox Add-On.  Therefore, use Firefox.  It is FREE and dramatically cuts back on a tremendous amount of bandwidth clogging imagery.

In the US, with our ridiculously cheap bandwidth (think oil until about 2008), we can afford to drool over insurance ads or truck ads but out there such a luxury is not an option.  Seriously, the mindset these days is that gobbling massive amounts of bandwidth is perfectly acceptable.  Does anyone realize how much it costs to power the backbone?

Web mail

Lastly, just go get a FREE Gmail account and stop struggling with all the rest of the services.  Use the Thunderbird client if you want to POP your mail but by stripping out the web junk you’ve already solved most of the issues.  However, if the line regularly drops out better to POP it.  Thunderbird integrates seamlessly with Gmail.  You can do a lot with Gmail that you cannot do with the other services.

Problem

How do you get the software to the beneficiaries?  Use the same delivery system that is already in place.  Rather than selling bootleg software why not provide the real thing?  Once they download one copy of FREE and available software they could either give away or sell a legit copy of something useful.  (I am not endorsing this option for every application as I am sure it violates a handful of EULA’s) .  But is it against the EULA to charge a ‘service fee’ to cover the vendors cost of downloading and copying the software but not for the actual software?  If folks out there can get a computer they can get an OS and in that case they could have a perfectly stable and efficient system for close to nothing.  What ever the case I am sure that all the vendors mentioned above would love to get their product into the hands of new customers.

Conclusion

What we see here is not a technology problem, it is an problem with education and advertising.  There are plenty of newspapers and billboards that are read/seen on a daily basis throughout the developing world and if Ubuntu can buy billboards in Silicon Valley along US 101 they certainly can cover the cost in select African locations like Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa which is their own backyard.  (Perhaps they already have an ad campaign in Africa – I have no idea.)  I am really not sure that we are the best choice for teaching people in the developing world how to conserve resources but bandwidth is our baby and if we invest a little up front and show them how to more efficiently use what we’re pushing their uptake will be greater than if we let them suffer with our clutter.  Ultimately, the ads will flow and the market will develop but we’re just not there yet.  Better to have smart users than none at all.

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