Access vs. content development

The World Wide Web is full of drivel, unless you know where to find what you seek, have the necessary research capacity to ascertain the quality of search results and able to understand the language the majority of websites are on the web – English.

So why would something so difficult to use be something that is seen as the ultimate goal for connectivity?

For sure, the web is a powerful tool. In the right hands. However, connecting villages for instance to the web using cybercafes is often taken to be a panacea that heralds a new renaissance of information beneficial to the lives of villagers.

Never mind that cost of access is often not talked about – more so after the donor funding dries up.

Never mind that villagers, say in Sri Lanka, don’t speak or understand English and vernacular content is unavailable.

Never mind that PC’s – designed in and for clean environments, aren’t robust devices for the dust, grime, humidity, power fluctuations and the occasional tea spill.

Never mind all this. The web is good. And connecting villages to the web is good.

Sri Lanka is no exception to this dementia. A recent news report I read was interesting in only one respect – the idea of using mesh networking to connect villagers together through nodes that were resilient to connection outages. The report started:

Sri Lanka plans to test the limits of smart digital mesh boxes to connect 30 rural homes onto the World Wide Web, officials said.

I’ve earlier written on the applicability of Mesh Networking for online dispute resolution systems (10 ideas for Microsoft’s Humanitarian Systems Group) – enabling demand driven systems that are adaptive and resilient to constantly changing network and ground conditions. The rest of the newsarticle goes on to describe in detail the value of mesh networking in Sri Lanka.

The problem is however, as with news of other access technologies and projects in the past, I’ve yet to read anything on the content that is going to be made available and developed for such systems. It’s almost as if the technology itself is looked upon as a subservise force that is then seen to automatically empower communities who have access to it. However, without the necessary emphasis on content development – esp. in the vernacular (interfaces to the web, local knowledge mapping, resources in Sinhala and Tamil, feedback mechanisms operational in standards based vernacular language input, multimedia content responsive to developmental needs of the community, ways through which the community can use the technology to establish dialogue within themselves for endogenous problem solving approaches etc) technology alone, however pervasive and sophisticated, will not empower communities.

This is a strangely difficult idea for the implementing agencies of such projects to understand – time and again I’ve written about and spoken of the need to develop, in parallel to the vital access infrastructure, the content necessary to really empower local communities. This content, in large part, may well be that which they already know and needs to be preserved – such as traditional mediation techniques, medicines and herbs, oral histories of village elders and the demands placed on inter-ethnic and culturally sensitive dialogues between communities.

What I’ve emphasised is, indeed, the very opposite of connecting communities to the web – as the news article mentioned above suggets. Connecting them to their own ways of working through problems, and helping develop a rights based approach to development is pivotal to the use of access technologies to build communities that are better able to transform conflict, are I believe more useful ways through which mesh technologies can be used for community empowerment, peacebuilding and development.

Unfortunately, this remains the stuff of fiction for those in charge of such projects – seen as fringe concerns and not really linked to the central thrust of the project, the need for content development, esp. in light of Sri Lanka’s on-going conflict and the need for peace, is ignored as an idea that can take root at a later stage.

Everyone, including Sri Lanka’s ICT Agency, who promotes access over content, sow the seeds for conflict in the future. And that alone is enough warning to stop, listen and develop technologies such as mesh networking with content that address the most vital part of any ICT4D or ICT4Peace initiative.

The people on the ground.

5 thoughts on “Access vs. content development

  1. I get the feeling here in SL that the authorities rather like the fact that ICT empowerment is still not fully implemented – One reason is that if the villagers had the freedom to source their own info they may well develop an opinion of their own which may not reflect that of the majority government. What really needs to be addressed is the sheer lack of independent websites in Sinhala / Tamil script, could some clever web designers here do an unbiased regularly updated translation of independent websites in Sinhala / Tamil unicode or even make Moju and Kottu news sources available in unicode ??

  2. To add to my above comment maybe a combined daily digest of several independent sites on one or two html pages translated and updated daily.

  3. Is that an excuse for not doing anything ? If text rendering is an issue then do it as .jpg files that way compatability shouldn’t be a problem. Why must we be compliant to standards we can set our own by doing it first !!
    Think outside the box – This isn’t about technology it’s about empowerment of the majority to gain access to forge their own ideas and not those they are fed by “donkey politicians” – including the eminent “El Buffalo”

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