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We are told the Internet Economy is redefining business rules by empowering ordinary people. Let's take a closer look.
Talking about the Internet-led 'Network Economy' of mass collaboration covered in the best-selling, 'Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything', co-author Anthony Williams said in his keynote speech early last year at the 9th Annual Emerging Technologies Update Day, "Ordinary people now have access to technology, where they can create value and even collaborate and level the playing field with the world's mightiest enterprises."
In India and many developing countries, the Internet-defined playing field is itself not in sight, and is of far less relevance to the rural and semi-urban population, as well as the less celebrated among the urban population.
However, the landscape does seem to be shaping up quietly, through several intranets of collaboration that factor the immediate needs-based concerns of communities. By steady increments and intuitive inter-linkages, these emergent knowledge-based collaborations will have not only integrated into, but also expanded, the base of mass collaboration.
Literacy and local needs
Stripped of the hype, the whole stretch of ICT (information and communication technologies) infrastructure is, after all, only an enabler. The point of this infrastructure is usage and on the subject of latent enterprise, the potential additional value that may be created out of interaction and knowledge access through such infrastructure. So putting in place the IT infrastructure presumes a bedrock of literacy, credible standards of living (food security, access to electricity, health care) and policy making committed to empowering the people.
Till the time people on the fringes of the mainstream economy are able to discriminate signal from noise in the Internet's mountain of overwhelming information, maybe it's preferable that smaller, needs-based projects are driving an introduction to the Internet Economy. Though ITC's e-choupal network of kiosks across farms in Madhya Pradesh may be one of the first and better known projects in this space, there are numerous smaller-scale, collaborative, community-directed initiatives with disparate focus areas that are also worth knowing about.
ekgaon Technologies is a company that works on providing technological backing for rural enterprises. Its co-founder and CEO, Vijay Pratap Singh, has worked on projects that have taken him to villages around Madurai to Ahmedabad. He believes that the pageantry of ICT infrastructure has to tie in with the needs of the community: "It can't be technology for technology's sake; technology has to be tied up to a real rural need such as healthcare. In our field of work, we have found that people in the rural areas would rather pay for an assured standard of healthcare service rather than submit themselves to free but indifferent government healthcare arrangements. Also, take into account the trouble for the villager to travel long distances to reach a hospital just for a diagnosis. Village-based government or rural healthcare workers can be trained to operate a kind of mobile-kit that they could use to communicate with a nodal healthcare centre on details of the health condition of village patients, and whether they require to be hospitalised. ekgaon is working towards setting up a call centre of doctors to attend to rural healthcare needs." ekgaon has already successfully developed and deployed a mobile-enabled Microfinance Management System, a project which made it to the finals of the Stockholm Challenge Award 2008 [see box].
Re-purposing/extending existing hardware
If the measure of an area's Internet-readiness were its existing top-of-the-line digital framework, there would be little hope for villages to move to the Network Age. However, many projects have quickly picked up, so that much of the hardware and capabilities are already in place; they would only have to be re-purposed and, in some cases, combined with other devices. A common example is the use of the TV as a display device combined with a set-top box to receive network signals in a PC set-up.
Bridging language barriers, extracting content
Along with the issue of ICT infrastructure, language poses a significant challenge to information exchange. This challenge presents itself at the stages of input and access of information in text-form that would discourage users who are not able to read or write. Pratap Singh of ekgaon Technologies says that the ground reality of illiteracy needs to be addressed first through basic education and literacy exercises. Following this is the need for simplicity in the presentation of information that villagers will access. He says, "Till the time literacy can be taken for granted, there is a need to convert the relevant information to voice. So a villager who sits at a kiosk hoping to be informed about the current price of his crops, or weather forecast information, should not be denied such information because he is illiterate; an interactive voice menu would help. In association with other companies, ekgaon has already begun work on a weather alert system that will work through a voice-activated menu, that it hopes to deploy in Tamil Nadu."
Some initiatives towards bridging the language gap include:
- Indic computing project: Open source and free, the project works towards the development of standards, resources and technologies for Indian language computing. It has published a freely accessible handbook on aspects of Indian language computing.
Covering the rural territory
For now, not all rural areas come under the wings of schemes such as those mentioned above and those covered in previous issues, including the Akshaya Project or Intel's proposed Rural Connectivity Platform. Some other avenues for leveraging knowledge to produce value come by way of innovation foundations that address the rural population, such as the NABARD Rural Innovation Fund, National Innovation Foundation and the IDRC-Microsoft Rural Innovation Fund. Additionally, for savvy players in the centre of the urban dream who still need the right networks, there are initiatives like the NASSCOM India Innovation Fund, and Marico Innovation Foundation.
Collaboration is nothing new. Since the first human settlements, collaboration has been inevitable and compulsive, and has obeyed almost exactly the same honoured structures and hierarchies for centuries. The promise that Wikinomics holds out to much of India and other developing countries is: access to reliable and immediate knowledge. And it is especially empowering where it succeeds in bypassing vested barriers to knowledge.
Even at its most basic, the information-driven "Network Economy" is an invitation to enterprise.
A few Indian rural ICT Projects
Scaling Up The Mobile For The Rural User
ekgaon's CAM is a project to digitise paper-based records using a camera-equipped mobile phone as an image-capturing and data-entry device. It is aimed at self-help financing federations, banks, and NGOs, allowing them to access and retrieve recorded financial information whenever required. A 2008 Stockholm Challenge Award finalist, the CAM Microfinance Management System hopes to extend to providing real-time market information on agri-products and other commodities.