Do the world's poor need technology?

As many questions as answers came out of the conference, sponsored by MIT's (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Laboratory, the Centre for International Development at Harvard University and the Berkman Centre for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. Speakers discussed the rewards and pitfalls of bringing information technology to marginalised communities.

''Since the last year, the words 'digital divide' have become quite thrown around just about everywhere," said Akhtar Badshah, executive director of Digital Partners Institute, a nonprofit organisation working to help poor people through technology. "I mean, just about everyone is on the bandwagon for the digital divide."

Industry leaders, including some who attended the MIT conference, met earlier in the week in Seattle for the Digital Dividends conference, covering much the same ground as the event here. According to the Web site of the World Research Institute, which sponsored the Seattle conference, about 80 per cent of the world's population lives on $US5 a day or less and has never made a phone call, let alone used the Internet. Both conferences focused on using technology like computers, mobile phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) to help poor people worldwide. How the digital economy can empower the world's poor, for instance, was the subject of a panel discussion at the MIT conference.

"One of the things that became very clear ... was that there would be a number of different parallel strategies that would be unleashed to address this issue," Badshah said. Right at the centre are "those that are trying to create this technology and those that are in the centre of profiting from or utilising this technology. And they're both entrepreneurs. One [group] are IT entrepreneurs and the other are social entrepreneurs."

Strategies for dealing with the so-called 'digital divide' were outlined by spokespeople from groups as diverse as Geekcorps, a nonprofit organisation that sends IT specialists to developing nations and various agencies such as the United Nations and the World Bank.

"In terms of empowering the poor with digital technologies, what you need to do is take a segmented approach," said Toyin omo Adelakum, a spokesman from Afrodigital, a new ISP in Africa. Adelakum's company primarily serves businesses.

"There are three different levels of exposure you can give, and what people need to do is to target which segment of that economy that they're willing to address -- the businesses, the techies, or the ordinary consumers," he said.

The latest stock quote from Wall Street is not valuable to a fisherman off the coast of India, who needs weather reports from global weather tracking satellites and the prices of tuna in port cities where he sells his catch, Badshah said.

"Is a child going to log on and visit a pornographic site? Is that useful? Or is he going to log on and come into MIT's library? Is that useful? Or is he going to log on and get some information that is useful for them," he said.

"We get so caught up in our enthusiasm about what new things are possible now, that we often don't stop to ask what are the things that these poor communities most need, and what tools would most effectively provide them with the information they need," said Kerry McNamara from the World Bank. "It's simply not interesting to wire the world so everyone can get the Disney Channel."

Holding a laptop computer over his head, a conference attendee asked what good computer access will do for a village with no electricity. "This needs electricity ... and once you bring electricity, we might want to ask, what is the point of bringing this if they're dying of water pollution or starving to death?"

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