September 24, 2003

Lawyers ask: Can IT Be Human?

- by Chris Preimesberger -
Part I in a three-part series on the new influences of IT in the developing world.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Lawyers usually want to talk about torts, settlements, judges, and other lawyers. At the International Bar Association convention here this week in the still-summerlike Bay Area, they added to their usual agenda by talking about how IT (mainly wireless) and the Internet might be keys to helping rescue under-developed nations from poverty and disease. And how open source can be one of the major players in this remarkable endeavor.

"The open source approach of creating, building, sharing, and benefiting from collective work is an important model for all to consider," said Tanya Accone, head of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Web unit. "We are certainly interested in this, for a lot of reasons." Accone was a presenter in a panel discussion/seminar entitled, "Can IT Be Human?"

For example, in several remote locations in Africa, UNICEF workers are using PalmPilots equipped with specialized software and hooked in to MySQL databases and Tomcat app servers to keep track of women and children as they are immunized for malaria, tuberculosis, measles, and polio. In the near future, this system will be used for tracking the spread of HIV/AIDS. As these people are physically charted at their villages each time they are given a vaccine or a physical checkup, it becomes easier to track them later for follow-ups. This is building much more accurate information to use in fighting the battle against dreaded diseases. Overdoses and underdoses are becoming fewer and farther between.

"We also built our own in-house software, originally called ChildInfo, now DevInfo, that we use to measure development indicators -- such as health and education -- among children in developing nations," Accone said. "It's designed to output data in multiple formats using XML/XSLT. We have released the application to several nations for their own use."

Cell phones a major breakthrough on the Dark Continent

Cell phones are making major-league headway on the African continent, where people often have to spend three years or longer on a waiting list to obtain a land phone line. Because cells themselves have become less expensive and satellite systems now cover nearly the entire world, impoverished people living on the edge in remote areas are starting their own cash businesses by simply owning a cell phone. Smart entrepreneurs in several outback areas chain the cell phone to a cement block in the center of the village, pull up a chair, and wait for customers to ask to use it. There are more and more takers all the time.

Educated but poor people in places such as Tanzania, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and other third-world nations are posting Web sites to sell homemade textiles, artwork, tourist items, and other wares. They even use eBay to auction off such items. They are well-versed in the use of selling wares via e-mail -- spamming.

"You can live in a tin-roof shack and still have a Web presence, and this is good for both business and self-esteem," said Tom Garvin, panel moderator and a Los Angeles-based intellectual property attorney. "Having a viable business of any kind does wonders for a person's self-worth and pride, and you can put no price on that."

As in any culture, there are the bad apples. Hardly anyone with an e-mail account hasn't received one of those "EXTREMELY IMPORTANT" e-mails from a so-called dying mother or businessman in one of several African nations who seeks a "partner" outside the country with which to trust enormous sums of money in a U.S. bank until some later date. They want your personal banking information so they can clean out the account. That get-rich-quick scheme is running rampant and has been for several years.

E-mail running becoming a hot pursuit

E-mail running is quickly becoming a burgeoning industry. A village's most educated person can earn good money by walking, running, or biking to the nearest computer terminal -- usually in a post office or other government building in the largest nearby city. Once there, the runner makes copies of personal e-mail messages from various accounts and brings them back to the village to read to his or her customers. There's not a lot of security involved here, that's for sure. But it's a needed service, and there are many customers who are getting more and more of their mail this way.

All are innovative ways to use IT.

"The information-rich countries continue to pull away from the information-poor countries, and the disparity in economics and living conditions gets wider every day," said panel member and presenter Dr. Manuel Castells, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley and author of "The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture". "Yes, IT is indeed delivering on its promises; it is bringing more creativity, mobility, and pervasive information to all its users. But there is increasing poverty in the world, and equality is increasing too slowly. Our institutional tools have been undermined by the lack of trust people have in their nations' leadership. And that is the case in all nations, not just in the developing world."

Castells said that people have to look beyond what their leaders do and say and make decisions on their own. As school systems and governments in general continue to break down, citizens can use their own personal communication methods to conduct business and continue important pursuits as distance learning and occupational training. IT is now affording this personal power to more people than ever, he said.

Next: Part II of this series will examine in detail some individual nations and the challenges they face in installing and operating workable IT and general communications systems.

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