Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Developing critical infrastructure from a human and a societal perspective 3

Posted in business and convergent technologies, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on November 25, 2013

This is my third installment to a series on infrastructure and on developing it to fit and work within a social context, based on my recent experience in East Africa, and particularly in Northern Tanzania (see Part 1 and Part 2.)

I ended Part 2 noting that I would continue its discussion by sharing “some thoughts on the issues and challenges, and the technological and social puzzles of bringing computers into the rural classroom, where there is no supply of electrical power, or even for reliable potable water.” And I noted in that context that access to computers and the internet open the door to change in ways and to a degree that cannot be anticipated by peoples who have not seen this window into the world as a whole and with all of its diversity. The people of Tanzania are open to change and to more deeply engaging with the world around them, and for a large proportion of their diverse citizenry. And this is a national goal that has been consistently pursued by their government in its evolving forms, and from before independence and certainly since then. But how can this goal be realized, given the systematic gaps that would need to be addressed in order to achieve it?

I begin this posting by acknowledging some established foundational strengths, and with language and literacy. First, let’s consider language. There are some 120 distinct tribes in Tanzania, each with its own language and with dialect differences adding to that complexity. But Tanzania also has two formally recognized national languages: Kiswahili and English. Kiswahili is a Bantu language that has been used to bridge communications gaps between peoples of different tribes and local languages from well before European colonization. So it proved to be a logical and already substantially established lingua franca for connecting together the peoples of this region into a single unified country. More recently, dating back to British colonial rule, English was added as a second commonly shared language with its formal inclusion as an official second national language by the current independent Tanzanian national government. I began outlining something of their public education system and how it is organized in Part 2 of this series and continue that here for background for this posting’s discussion.

Grades one through four are taught in Kiswahili, and English is taught as a subject in those grades. Then in grade five and beyond and into secondary school and beyond that, this is reversed and students are taught in English as their primary language of classroom discussion and their text books are written in English, and Kiswahili is taught as a subject. And to round out this part of this discussion, Tanzania actively seeks to achieve as close to 100% literacy for its adult citizenry as possible.

Use of computers, and certainly use of the internet with its diversity and range of resources does not necessarily require English as a great deal is available in other languages too. But more is available in English than in any other language, and vastly more than is available in Kiswahili or any other strictly African language.

• Widespread literacy and literacy in English makes accessing a great deal of the internet an achievable goal for a great many Tanzanians,
• If they can gain access to the necessary technology, and through a connecting, enabling local and national infrastructure.

And with that in place, I turn to consider some of the pieces of this technology and infrastructure puzzle itself. And I begin with the organizing framework and with a direct continuation of all that I have been writing about up to here in this series.

• The easiest way to ensure that technology-based infrastructure development goes wrong is to focus on the technology and at the cost of losing track of the people who would use and maintain it.
• People, of necessity, are the most important element in any effective infrastructure. So start thinking through and planning and developing infrastructure for its human context, where in this case this means the people and communities of Tanzania and their cultures and their goals and aspirations, and their starting assumptions and the range and limitations of what they will accept as change.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will outline some of the more technical pieces of this puzzle – and how this overall puzzle can be broken down in different ways and into different types of pieces depending on what basic technologies would make the most cost-effective sense. And as a foretaste of that, I note that while I have been writing about developing infrastructure so as to mesh with the societies and cultures it would be used by, technology solutions also have to be developed so as to address the specific needs, requirements and priorities of the projects and tasks they would enable too. In this, infrastructure development as a whole needs to meet the same basic requirements of any technology implementation. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) and at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 directory, and see also that directory’s first page.

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