Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Developing critical infrastructure from a human and a societal perspective 1

Posted in business and convergent technologies, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on November 15, 2013

I recently returned home from a visit to Tanzania, and find my mind full of thoughts regarding that country and her people. And I find myself writing about critical infrastructure systems and their development with the challenges and efforts of the Tanzanian people in mind, and from my conversations and experience there and from my experiences in other developing countries.

So I write this as the first installment in at least a brief series, and I begin this with an acknowledgment, and both of thanks and appreciation, and of the limits to my knowledge and perspective here. I have had the opportunity to meet and get to know people from half a dozen of Tanzania’s 120 or so tribes, but in that, I know and acknowledge that I have barely scratched the surface of the cultural and historical richness of this country and even for just those tribes and their peoples that I did begin to get to know.

I have visited and been welcomed by the people of a Maasai boma, or village and have learned something of the traditionalist Maasai life, and of those who have begun to adapt new ways and new technologies too. And I have learned from a now friend: a college educated Maasai, of how his adaptation of new and different ways have led his people – the members of the boma he was born into to no longer consider him a true Maasai because of that. He went through the rituals of becoming a young Maasai warrior with honor, enduring his circumcision without crying and the months he lived in the wild after that, after his weeks of healing. But he left his home to continue school beyond the primary and secondary school stages, to complete high school and to obtain a university degree – and he took to wearing different clothing and he adapted use of cell phones and other outsider ways and he changed. So he was no longer considered Maasai by the people he was born into – and his birth boma was more settled and not strictly traditionalist.

The Maasai span the range from those completely resistant to change and fully traditionalist, to those at the forefront of change for their country. And this only represents a snapshot of Tanzania as a whole. Any one tribe and its story can at most be seen as representing just a tiny part of this story in its entirety.

When you travel around northern Tanzania, where the Maasai are demographically one of the largest tribes, you see villages and communities of many other tribes as well, and I had opportunity to visit others from among them as well, and to visit one of their country’s primary schools and meet both students and teachers and to talk with them about their needs and concerns. Computer studies are officially one of the subject areas that are to be taught in Tanzanian public schools, primary schools included, but for most rural schools certainly and on the order of 90% or more of them, this is not possible. They do not have computers and even the low cost tablet computers that have been developed for use in such settings. They could not use them if they had them because they lack electrical power supplies to run them. I will write about this and about the puzzle pieces of assembling the infrastructure needed to make this part of the desired course curriculum a reality for schools such as this one that I visited, in this series. And I will write about technology leapfrogging and the diffusion of solar panel electrical supply resources where a wired power grid is not even a dream yet – and about the seemingly ubiquitous use of cell phones throughout the country with signs advertising Airtel and Vodacom services in even the smallest and most out of the way villages – except for the Maasai bomas. And I will write about the emerging if still early stage spread of smartphone technology with up to 3.75G coverage in more urban areas, and certainly in cities such as Arusha and Dar es Salaam.

I am a scientist and a technologist by training and inclination, so I write here in this blog about the technology side of infrastructure development and implementation – usually. But my goal for this series is somewhat different, as I plan on focusing much more on the human side of this story here. If designing and building and bringing online and maintaining critical infrastructure is largely a puzzle with hardware and software and business model decision making pieces, this puzzle has to be developed and it has to make sense in a human and interpersonal, and in a societal and cultural context. So my goal here is to put the technology of this in that wider context.

And I end this first installment by noting that even the best and the most advanced and sophisticated technology cannot work if that vital context is not taken into account and if that technology is not designed and implemented so as to work in the specific context it is to be placed in. And I end this note by repeating that I write it from my personal perspective and on the basis of the limited knowledge of a concerned and appreciative outsider who has only started to scratch the surface of a complex and vital national story. So I offer my friends, old and new and those who have shared some of their story with me a heartfelt asante sana (thank you very much in Kiswahili.)

I did not go to Tanzania under the auspices of or as a participant of a United Nations project or program or in collaboration with a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) but I am including this in my United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) directory as it fits there by subject, and I also will include this in my Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 directory, and see also its first page for related postings and series.

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