Monday, 26 April 2010

Can the internet help the poor?

A 50 year old father from Harare, Zimbabwe sent us an email, brimming with enthusiasm. Distressed by seeing women in his community suffer as they peel tough, sun-dried peanuts with their hands, teeth and stones, he turned to the internet, and found the Universal Nut Sheller, documented on the Appropedia wiki.

A Kenyan potato farmer turned to Google to find help when his crop was dying. He found the answer, harvested a bumper crop, connected with the Kenya Potato Growers' Association, and found a customer.

The maker of a home biogas system in the Philippines. He got help putting his design online, on the Appropedia wiki, and as a result got much more exposure, and received emails from around the world, with thank yous and suggestions for improvements (some of which he incorporated in his updated design). This is one of my favorite stories, because it shows that people in less developed countries are not only consumers of knowledge, but creators and sharers.

Appropedia is an open wiki project, focused on technologies and practices for overcoming poverty and creating a just and sustainable world. I've been involved since early days in 2006, working on it, telling people and helping to build partnerships. But when we tell people, a reaction we sometimes get is:

What use is an internet site to help the poor, when the poor have no internet access?

But... why the assumption that they're completely disconnected? Travel in less developed countries and you'll see internet cafes in cities and villages. A home internet connection may be too expensive for local incomes, but saving up money to connect from an internet cafe is within reach of many.

Mobile phones are widespread. Text messages and phone calls are surprisingly cheap in some countries - on one occasion a 10 minute off-peak call from my mobile phone in Jakarta cost me less than 3 cents. This matters because of the many applications for mobile phones that support development, and because there are many more phones than computers. A story was told at BarCampAfrica in 2008, by a Google employee who had been in Africa and asked a local "Have you heard of Google?" the local replied "Yes, of course." But when asked "Have you searched with Google from a mobile phone?" the local was confused. "Of course - how else can you search with Google?" In Africa especially, users are skipping land connections, and cell phones are getting smart quickly.

You only need one phone in the village with this capability to significantly increase people's ability to find information, and to allow new ideas to arrive and spread. A farmer with a dying crop now has an alternative to just watching the crop die. The compassionate Zimbabwean can find an answer to the suffering of women in the local community. The local inventor or designer can spread the word about their latest idea. And a teacher can find answers and teaching resources for their class. This is real progress.

Still not sure how this affects those who don't log on themselves? Consider our potato farmer, above. Understandably enthusiastic about how technology has helped him, he is now connecting the global with the local, enabling knowledge from the net to be shared in his community:

In my rural community, it is about making use of simple wooden notice boards, with print outs of text messages, e-mails, photos illustrations and articles, all talking of local issues.

This is clearly a world where tech helps the poor. The question is no longer whether the poor can benefit from wikis, but how good the information will be when they find it?

These issues face all wiki communities, especially those concerned with human progress at a global level. There is more we can do to make wikis more accessible, through improving the interface and making offline versions available. More on that in a later post.

Relevant wiki pages:

1 comment:

  1. Internet can help a lot if used correctly and wisely. If not, it can be a source for exploitation.