Book: You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones are Connecting the World’s Poor to the Global Economy

You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones are Connecting the World's Poor to the Global Economy

We have here talked about the subject of mobile phones for development several times. Positively, as a proven and effective tool to let poor people access the Information Society, when other more costly infrastructures are unexistent and/or cannot be provided — because of cost or because of technical difficulties (say, cost again, as almost every and each difficulty can be overridden with money). Negatively, as mobile phone in lesser developed countries usually relies on GSM networks, hence, low band networks that while providing access, it is a less quality access than broadband — fixed and mobile — networks provide in developed countries, thus widening the digital divide.

Nicholas P. Sullivan now provides us with another example on how can mobile telephones enhance both local development and Information Society fostering, by explaining the GrameenPhone experience in Bangladesh, something we already reviewed when we talke about the Village Phone Replication Manual.

Sullivan’s book, You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones are Connecting the World’s Poor to the Global Economy

offers a compelling account of what Sullivan calls the external combustion engine —a combination of forces that is sparking economic growth and lifting people out of poverty in countries long dominated by aid-dependent governments. The “engine” comprises three forces: information technology, imported by native entrepreneurs trained in the west, backed by foreign investors.

The book has two parts. The first one, The GrameenPhone Story, about why and how the project took place, and the second one, Transformation Through Technology, seemingly devoted to reflection and analysis.

See also:


Reminder: ICT4D Events

This is a reminder — for those RSS feed subscribers seldom visiting the site itself — of ICT4D Events, an agenda of seminars, congresses, workshops and other events in the field of ICT4D and the Information Society. Not a comprehensive list, but a selection based on two criteria:

  • A first selection based on the subjects that do interest me, are reflected in this site and, potentially, interest the readers and visitors
  • A second, natural selection based on what gets to me through RSS feeds, discussion lists and personal e-mail. What I don’t read, drops its probability of appearing here ;)

Just to bring some content, I’d like to highlight three initiatives that during the next months will have — if I’m not wrong — their second edition.

In chronological order, the first one is the Second Annual ICT4D Postgraduate Symposium, where Tim Unwin’s ICT4D Collective will pass the responsibility of the event to the Karlstad University in Sweden. Last year’s event was impressive. A must for PdD students and highly interesting for ICT4D researchers in general.

The second one is the International Conference on ICT4D 2007. I missed last year’s, so I cannot tell, but as far as I can see, Bangalore has taken the place of Berkeley and Microsoft Research India has acquired relevant prominence chairing the event. An option to seriously consider.

Last, but not least, the Digital Divide Mini-Track in the framework of the 41th edition of the Hawai’i International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-40), carefully organized, once again, by Karine Barzilai-Nahon. I had the chance — and pleasure — to be one of the referees of this mini-track’s communications and I can state that the quality standards were highest. You just can check the results of the mini-track Digital Library of Proceeding Papers for the 40th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. A pity Hawaii is not really close to… err… anywhere, but it could be a very good Christmas (self)gift.

Thanks to Gudrun Wicander and Eduard Muntaner for the tips.


Intellectual property rights and Developing Countries

Yesterday I took part in a round table — not that “round” as we were more than 50 people sitting there — about The US experience in the protection of intellectual property on the Internet, led by US Judge Bernice Donald and US Department of State (US Spain Embassy) representative Mr. Carl Schonander, and coordinated by Enric Enrich and professor Raquel Xalabarder.

Bernice Donald

The event was somehow — and as expected — very correct — that curse of our times — but, nevertheless, there were interesting statements and reflexions, specially from Mr. Schonander’s side.

All in all, the short summary of the meeting was: Yes, it looks like law is far behind reality and is not responding to today’s society demands, but it has always been this way, and, no matter, both law and society will change approaching each other: society following the law, the law accommodating the new aspects of (digital) life.

Carl Schonander spoke about the US President foreign policy, stressing that Intellectual Property (IP) really was an important part of his agenda. In this aspect, the far best Schonander’s quote is the following: IP is the currency of modern commerce. Thus, the importance for his President — and for most developed countries’ — of this subject.

US Foreign Policy in IP issues was even more important in countries with whom the US had strategical relations: Russia and China. After stating that governments (in general) should enforce law complying, and this should be their duty just for their own benefit, he accepted this was not that easy but, nevertheless, he had hope in this vision because China and Russia will change their minds [concerning generalized piracy] when their own industries have to rely on IP to develop their own competitiveness.

Carl Schonander

Personally, and from the point of view of a non US citizen, I think this is a more powerful argument towards following the (international) rules than many others I have heard of, mainly based in dealing with problems in the lawsuit arena. The problem is how do you tell some countries (i.e. Bangladesh, India, South Africa or Brazil) to enforce the law when this law, clearly, goes against (a) their population’s interests (b) the government itself interests (because of their unpopularity). And this raised my first question, almost in the same way as I have stated it here.

Mr. Schonander’s answer was, I must admit, witty, as he was able to turn upside down the questoin: The main incentive for poor countries to respect IP is that foreign investment won’t go to them unless it is proven that a safe environment for business exists. So, yes, you might think that prosecuting piracy is putting barriers to your country’s progress, but not doing it is closing your doors to foreign investment and, hence, also to foreign capital boosted progress. It will be most interesting to know where the balance is in whether protecting your “right” to access knowledge and your strategy to attract investors. On the other hand, Mr. Schonander also told the audience that there already was an agreement within the international treaties framework to help developing countries access medicines for public health … but not Viagra, for instance. I suspect that most developing countries are not really happy with this “exceptional” clauses, judging by news headlines.

My second question — and following the thread of countries considering whether following the law or not — was that it looked like intellectual property was not as widely accepted as “material” private property, and that one of the reasons might be some bad behaviors of big enterprises threatening — I actually said “blackmailing” — smaller enterprises, countries’ governments and users in general to cease and desist and pay not to be sued for astronomical amounts of money.

He admitted that this was a sincere concern of the US Government — and the international community in general —, specially after the increase of patent trolling cases all over the world that were harming both the industry(ies) and the (international) market(s). And, thus, everyone’s progress at large.

I’d really like to thank him for sharing his vast knowledge in the field. Even if we are at opposite ends of the spectrum, it was absolutely enlightening to listen to him.


Definition of Free Cultural Works

Peter Suber points to new Definition of Free Cultural Works, that, adapting the Free Software Definition, says:

[…] works of authorship should be free, and by freedom we mean:

  • the freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it
  • the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it
  • the freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression
  • the freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute derivative works

Doing exactly this same exercise, I wrote back in October 2003 what I thought were The four kinds of freedom of free knowledge, namely:

  • The freedom to use the knowledge, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the knowledge applies, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source information is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute knowledge so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the knowledge, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source information is a precondition for this.

Same thing with only a different approach: Benjamin Mako Hill and Erik Möller focus on content, and I do in knowledge :)


puntoOrg, the spanish TechSoup

The Fundación Bip-Bip [Beep-beep Foundation] is no doubt one of the most important Spanish NGOs in the field of ICT4D, specially in everything related to bring ICTs to nonprofits to improve their managing capacities, advocacy reach, training programmes, etc. Indeed, they issued back in 2005 a report that analyzed the level of adoption of ICTs in Spanish nonprofits that worked in the area of professional inclusion entitled Estudio de diagnóstico sobre el nivel de utilización de las TIC en las entidades no lucrativas de acción social que trabajan en pro de la inserción laboral en España.

Juan Gigli now let’s me know about their new project called PuntoOrg [dotOrg] self described as the web portal devoted to making possible the access to ICTs for nonprofits, through practical guides, discounts and products and service donations. For those familiar with the Third Sector and new technologies, I’d dare say that this is a somewhat spanish version of TechSoup, though at an earlier stage.

Best of lucks in this new project!


Jakob Nielsen’s Digital Divide: The Three Stages

Disheartening analysis that Jakob Nielsen does in his November 2006 Alertbox Digital Divide: The Three Stages. He there defines the Digital Divide in three stages:

  • Stage 1: Economic Divide
  • Stage 2: Usability Divide
  • Stage 3: Empowerment Divide

I can understand — we all do this — that he tries to bend the term Digital Divide and reshape it under a usability light — Nielsen’s field of expertise. But I think this “reshapening” goes way too far. I fully agree with the Economic Divide stage. I would call it Access to Infrastructures (hard, soft and connectivity), but it’s the same thing with a different name.

My first objection is in splitting his so-called Usability Divide from the Empowerment Divide. Actually, this is all about Digital Literacy, which can be defined in several levels, as many as you’d like to: technological literacy, informational literacy… functional literacy. But it is absolutely about the same thing: using ICTs. I mean, it’s okey separating the different skills that compound digital literacy, but this should be a starting point, not an ending one.

Thus, I find a second objection, and surely the most serious one, that is forgetting — intended or not — that there is much more to the Digital Divide than money/access and literacy/capacity building. The existence of an ICT Sector is crucial in the correct development of a local Information Society, specially in fields such as Education (ICT enhanced or just e-Learning) or e-Administration and e-Goverment. If ICTs are to be used as a locomotive to foster the economy, then the ICT Sector becomes, simply, a must.

Of course, a local Information Society must be driven by an accompanying legal framework that monitors and drives its development, be it by just regulating the activities that take place in the Network, be it through public policies devoted to this goal.

And last, but not least, there’s something even more important than all those described digital divides or stages: digital content and digital services. Simple as it might sound, with no content and no services, there’s no use having skilled people tapping on state of the art computers. And this is, by far, one of the most important pitfalls nowadays, almost unsurmountable in most developing countries — more than the economic divide, I’d dare say: while we “have” one laptop per child, there are just 3,102 articles in the Swahili Wikipedia vs. the 1,621,894 of the English Wikipedia.

Summing up, this is my 5 step approach, as stated on a previous article:

5 step approach to the Information Society development

So, I liked Jakob Nielsen entering the field of ICT4D and the Digital Divide. But least I’d expected was some humbler approach, avoiding that holistic aim.