Archive for the ‘England’ Category

Commonwealth ICT Summit: Uganda’s ICT Minister

Tuesday, October 7th, 2003

Michael Kafabusa Werikhe, Uganda's Communications MinisterMichael Kafabusa Werikhe, Uganda’s Communications Minister, spoke later in the afternoon. “E-government is not a substitute for good governance, but it is a useful step in the right direction,” he began. “In a nutshell, ther is no substitute for ICT if we truly want good governance.” The Minister’s comments echoed a video shown a few minutes earlier, showing the decripit state of record keeping in parts of the Commonwealth (for example, a shed in Ghana full of wet, moldy file folders holding records of national budget expenditures.) Computers were being introduce to allow governments to get an accurate account of their records — and thus be more accountable to their donors and to their citizens.
Governments like Uganda are under “extreme financial stress,” he said. E-government can help cut expenses, as well as cut the bureacracies that so often plague government. “Traditionally, governments provide an interface between information services and their citizens. Instead, ICTs should provide a direct interface between government and the citizenry.”
“The digital divide is not insurmountable,” he added. “We must quickly get on the bandwagon and even strive to play a leading role” in the information society.
“Access to better and more timely information can increase the earning potential of poor people,” he said. Uganda is setting up government portals that are accessible via telephone booths with video screens built into them. The Ugandan Communications Act of 1996 restructured and privitized national telecommunications, while creating an independent regulatory agency. there are now two competing wire-based phone companies and three mobile companies. Telephony access thus grew from the tens of thousands of subscribers before the Act to hundreds of thousands today, in just a few short years. Now, they’ve drafted a national ICT plan that embraces ICTs for development. He hopes it will be finalized and approved by early next year. They’re also establishing a Ugandan universal service fund to ensure access in villages with at least 5,000 residents. These villages will each have telephony wired to the community, plus at least one Internet point. He hopes this will help promote the idea that rural markets will be seen as potentially profitable to telecom companies.

Commonwealth ICT Summit: Uptown Panelist Slam

Tuesday, October 7th, 2003

During the first afternoon session of the conference, I chaired a panel that was ostensibly on the use of online networks to share best practices with each other. What ended up happening was a whole other matter.
Carl Wright, director of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, spoke about strategies that local governments were using to create e-government initiatives and capitalize on local civil society groups working on improve community ICT literacy. Carl was followed by Dr. Tim Hubbard, head of Human Genome Analysis at the Wellcome Trust/Sanger Institute. Hubbard talked about the strategy used during the work on the Human Genome Project. With scientists contributing to the project from all over the world, they created what was basically an open source network — all research would be shared publicly, remain in the public domain, and open to rigorous testing by fellow scientists. This openness created a system of checks and balances that ultimately speeded up the project by years.
Wrapping up the panel, Sarah Cripps of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, spoke about CUDOS, a massive online database and directory of university-related information, such as professors, courses offered, etc, at Commonwealth-affiliated universities around the world. (For example, you could do a search for physics professors at African universities with a student population of more than 10,000.) But Sarah also noted that the system is subscription driven – universities must pay 1000 pounds to access the database.
When I opened the session for audience questions, at first no one said a word for about 10 seconds. I had scribbled down a list of at least a dozen questions I’d ask if a circumstance such as this arose, but soon enough someone raised their hand. Their tone set the stage for the next hour of debate: So you’ve created this massive system for universities in the developing world, but you’re expecting them to pay a small fortune to access it?
Ms. Cripps was put on the defensive, noting that her group tried to explore several economic models but this was the only one that made any sense if they were going to get the project off the ground. But the audience was incredulous. Dr. Hubbard soon chimed in, saying that it’s vital for a network to be open if it’s going to achieve buy-in from the community. I asked him about the economic model for Public Library of Science, the new open-access science journal: rather than paying huge subscription fees, everyone gets free access to the research contained in the journal, while scientists who want to get published must pay a fee to be peer-reviewed, thus putting the economic burden on the producer’s side. This allows scientists from the developing world, as well as average citizens, to have full access to research that otherwise would cost thousands of dollars.
Hoping to take some of the pressure off Ms. Cripps, I asked if anyone had a question for Mr. Wright. Someone raised their hand, then promptly made another critical comment about the CUDOS system. I jumped back in and asked Mr. Wright to talk about the role of civil society in ICT literacy training at the local level, which fortunately spawned a couple followup questions from the audience. But the balance of the discussion remained wholly focused on open versus closed content. Several audience members passionately said that open content supporters shouldn’t be viewed as trying to overthrow the capitalist system or anything like that; rather, it should be possible to put forward a sound economic argument for making more content available freely. It was clear that this was an issue that struck a chord with this group of ICT leaders, even though this issue wasn’t a particular item on the agenda. Undoubtedly it would require further discussion and debate.

Commonwealth ICT Summit: Opening Session, Part 2

Tuesday, October 7th, 2003

Former Costa Rican president Jose Maria Figueres Olsen delivered a speech via video to the summit. He noted that we were only seven weeks away from the Commonwealth meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, and nine weeks away from WSIS. He said that heads of government should work to ensure their ICT initiatives are multi-stakeholder: “I hope we can instill in the heads of government the development of a national position [on ICT policy] that can work with civil society and the private sector.” He sees WSIS as an important opportunity to further the use of ICTs for development, and specifically for achieving the Millenium Development Goals, “because we’re already running behind…. In fact, it’s the only way we’ll be able to achieve the Goals.”
Peter ArmstrongPeter Armstrong of OneWorld International discussed the progress of OneWorld’s innovative Open Knowledge Network (OKN), which he sees as a practical example of digital opportunity in the form of local knowledge. OKN is a reaction to the trend of privatization of knowledge, conceived of at the DOTForce meeting in Cape Town. He uses the story of Pondicherry, India to demonstrate what OKN does in real communities. Local women go online to collect and exchange information on subjects of vital importance to their community: employment information, market prices, weather data for fisherman. OKN creates the capacity for local knowledge sharing in their local language – in this case, Tamil. Women create their content offline, avoiding expenses access charges, but the computers are later synched with the network. They utilize peer-to-peer technology to exchange knowledge directly between the knowledge workers in the community. OKN employs metadata standards for XML and open copyright licenses to allow for open, but accurate content sharing. In sum it makes for sustainable business models acceptable to particular local contexts.
Local communities share data via a common network, which can then be translated and used by other communities that are members of the network. In the case of Pondicherry, the sharing of data is literally life-saving: fisherman rely on the weather data to know when it’s no longer safe to fish. At another test site in Kenya, they’re utilizing text messaging via mobile phones to improve local AIDS awareness. Villagers with phones sign up for a health information contest in which they’re asked in Swahili a particular question related to AIDS awareness. (For example, true or false: can you get AIDS from holding hands with someone who’s infected?) Whoever text messages the correct answer first wins a prize. Whether or not you win the prize, you receive another text message with the correct answer.

Commonwealth ICT Summit: Opening Session, Part 1

Tuesday, October 7th, 2003

At the opening of the Commonwealth Network Society Summit in London on Monday, Steven Timms MP, Minister of State for Energy, e-Commerce and Postal Service opened the conference talking about the importance of the meeting in light of the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society. He noted the discord that erupted between governments and civil society participants at the recent Prepcom meeting in Geneva. Paraphrasing Desmond Morris, he said that we all actually agree on 95 percent of the ideas put forth for the Summit, but spend our time concentrating on the five percent on which we disagree. “We must not let this deter us,” he said. Without the participation of both civil society and the private sector, “all we have are words and ideas, not actions… There is so much to be gained from working with all of these actors to move forward and bridge the digital divide and economic divide.”
Richard Simpson of Industry Canada spoke of ICTs and the development challenge. He said that policymakers must work to “mainstream ICTs into the development process” — working closely with donors, international financial institutions, civil society — to support the UN’s Millenium Development Goals. He noted Goal 8, target 18: in coorperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies, especially ICTs.
Deekand Jeeha, the ICT minister of Mauritius, gave an inspiring talk about his island nation’s ICT policy goals. Historically, the Mauritius economy was based on sugar plantations, with textiles and tourism also added to the mix. Essentially the nation has access to very few natural resources, but it also happens to have a 98% literacy rate — Mr. Jeeha sees this as a huge opportunity for Mauritius to embrace ICTs as the newest major sector of their economy. The government is working to bring broadband to all public institutions, including govt agencies and schools, by 2005. They plan to create the first cybercity in the southern hemisphere, akin to what’s happened in places like Malaysia and Dubai. This ICT industrial complex would create 20,000 new jobs alone.
However, Jeeha doesn’t want Mauritius to be seen as a source of “cheap ICT labor.” Instead, he hopes the workforce will be valued because it is embracing lifelong learning. So even though their population, at 1.2 million, is a fraction of the size of most countries, they hope to create a critical mass of ICT workers within the population. “As a government we don’t have many other choices,” he said, reiterating the lack of natural resources.
In terms of e-government, Mauritius is aiming to provide most government services online, with public access set up in schools, post offices, universities. For institutions dedicated to certain populations, like schools, they’ll serve as telecentres after school, open to the public. They’re striving to make sure that all citizens will benefit from e-government – the govt will also make soft loans available to citizens so they can purchase Internet PCs. They also plan to build a public wi-fi network for the entire country.
“Government can’t do everything,’ he said. “In some cases it can be the biggest stumbling block. You need a mixture of policymakers and the private sector; civil society can then tell you what the public needs, whereas the private sector can tell you how to do it.”
“Unless we change our mentality, nothing is going to happen,” he admonished, wagging his finger to the audience. He called on governments to support the creation of a global universal service fund. “In the US, they spend two dollars a day to feed cows,” he said. “More than most workers make in much of the developing world.” Getting the rest of the world online makes good business sense too, he said. “When the ‘cannot connect ones’ come online, the information haves will get a new market out of it, so it’s sound business sense.”
“Do we want a network society or a new epidemic of a network society divide? The choice is ours,” he said in his conclusion.

Free Day in London

Sunday, October 5th, 2003

Andy, Sissy and John at the Bangladeshi restaurant on Brick LaneArrived in London early afternoon Sunday and caught the express train from Heathrow into the city. After checking into the hotel near Picadilly I realized my phone wasn’t working, so I went downstairs to have it activated, and lo and behold my cousin John was there waiting for me – he was in the neighborhood and decided to swing by. We headed off for a walk down to the Embankment to rendezvous with his sister Sissy, who was visiting from Sydney for the weekend. We had a couple of pints on one of the big rusty boat-pubs floating along the Thames, then contemplated a ride in the Millenium Wheel before deciding it was too long a line (sorry– too long a queue). Instead we high-tailed it to Brick Lane and had a smashing Bangladeshi feast, randomly picking items off the menu without having the slightest idea what we were getting ourselves into (we decided to eschew the usual North Indian classics and go for the house specialties).
Actually, calling it a feast is an understatement — the food took a long time and Sissy and her boyfriend had to leave early to catch their train to Hastings, so John and I were left with a few extra entrees and sides to contend with on our own. With a healthy dose of cucumber raita to keep the chilis manageable, we pushed forward and somehow managed to clean off all the platters. A yummy evening all around.

Off to Londontown…

Saturday, October 4th, 2003

This evening I’m off to London for the Commonwealth Network Society Summit. I’ll be moderating a panel Monday afternoon on the digital divide and building communities of activists and practitioners to bridge it. Many IT ministers from across the British Commonwealth with take part in the event, so it should be a great opportunity to meet interesting people from all over the world.
I arrive in London early Sunday afternoon and will hopefully get together with my Aussie cousins John and Sissy (John lives in London, Sissy is visiting). I’ll then be at the summit all day Monday, then return to the US first thing Tuesday, just in time to have dinner with Susanne and the kitties before catching some shut-eye and heading up to NYC at the crack of dawn Wednesday for a meeting at the UN. Then back to work for a couple of days before repacking my bags for Dubai…. Yes, it’s gonna be a hectic week.
I’m trying to pack light for this trip, given the fact it’s only for two nights. But I’ll be sure to bring my new digital camera and a good book for the airplane — perhaps Albert Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples, which I’ve been meaning to re-read for a long time, especially with my Dubai trip coming up next week.
So, the next time you hear from me will probably be from the UK. Until then, hope you all have a good weekend…. -ac