Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Developing critical infrastructure from a human and a societal perspective 4

Posted in business and convergent technologies, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on November 30, 2013

This is my fourth 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, Part 2 and Part 3.)

I ended Part 3 stating that I would continue its discussion by at least briefly considering some of the likely technology pieces of the puzzle to infrastructure development, here focusing on information technology and computers and internet access and participation. And I begin that by developing and dividing into pieces, a basic approach in which the goal is to get at least tablet computers and internet access into as many student hands as possible, and at least while they are physically present at school. And I begin that by asking a basic question: what do you need in order to reach this goal, at minimum and with all significant potential technology and technical resource gaps addressed?

To start, you need:

• An electrical power source, that might perhaps more traditionally be developed as a wired power grid, but that for this context could more easily be locally developed and deployed, as for example through use of low-cost solar power panels. The downside to this alternative approach is that these solar panels do not generate a great deal of electrical power so they can only power a limited amount of resources, leading to competition of needs, with computers and internet connectivity capability competing with lighting, and with resources such as food refrigeration coming immediately to mind. Tanzanian public schools provide meals to their students. It is important to note here that increased technologically enabling capabilities lead to increased awareness of what can become possible and increased awareness of need – and more intensive competition between fulfilling those now-identified needs.
• And solar powered electrical sourcing does not work at night or when the sky is overcast without battery support for continuity. So this type of power supply requires power storage capacity, and provision of ongoing electrical power with any continuity of service can quickly become a complex system in and of itself – and even for strictly local electrical power generation.
• Computers themselves are needed next, with low cost tablet computers an obvious choice, and both for their cost and for their relative simplicity of use, and for their more limited power requirements when their batteries need recharging. (See, for example, the BBC website article: Progress on Tablet Computer for Developing Nations for a brief discussion of these devices.) All of the pieces of this puzzle have to fit together for this to work.
• Software that would make sense for this context, including educational software and internet connectivity software, plus web browser and email and other online tools.
• Training in how to use all of this, and both for the students who would be taught about computers in fulfilling this educational goal and for their teachers so they can teach these skills to others. For an educational system such as is in place in Tanzania, this means developing and vetting full course of study modules and bringing teachers up to speed in teaching them.
• Back-up support and for both hardware and software, and for maintaining online connectivity so if and when something breaks down it can be fixed and brought back into use again.
• And of course wireless connectivity, and both from those tablet computers to central hubs in the schools such as Wi-Fi transceivers, and from those hub points to the outside world, as for example through satellite transceivers. Here, it should be noted that this would in all likelihood be more cost-effective as a technology leapfrogging route than attempting to develop fully wired networks, though a number of countries have used cable-based backbone networks and resources such as microwave transmission towers to bridge more local gaps and certainly where antenna towers can be positioned on high ground for line of sight station-to-station transmissions.
• Or core parts of this systems approach could be bypassed, at least in the right circumstances by adaptation of smart phone technology and in that regard I note that in Japan the majority of emails are now sent from and received via smart phone rather than computers per se of any type, and instant messaging is far more common than email. And with this, I note that the type of technology adaptation that would best work here, and the types and directions of the most effective technology leapfrogging that could be implemented in a country such as Tanzania are not automatically going to be obvious or monolithically uniform. Different technology solutions and different types of infrastructure frameworks might best be developed for different parts of the country and for different populations of potential users.

And with this I have left out a great many crucial details such as information and personal data security, and addressing power needs for more demanding resources such as backbone connectivity systems, wired or not. The devil, as they say is in the details. But so are the angels and the possibility for developing locally applicable and usable infrastructure solutions that would hold a great deal of promise and value for a great many people.

When I write about technology development for a context as complex and varied as an entire country such as Tanzania, it is vital to remember that no single solution should be considered as an only possible solution, everywhere and for all target audiences. Urban centers would be expected to deploy wired networks and for both electrical power and internet connectivity where these solutions could be made cost effective. Rural and more isolated communities might more easily and cost-effectively be expected to find more wireless approaches more cost effective, at least as an initial development approach and quite possibly long-term too. But I stress this all has to develop in terms of addressing very real and very specific human needs and societal expectations, priorities and goals, as they arise and develop in the specific communities where this technology would be developed and offered.

All I have done up to here is to make note of some of the basic pieces of this puzzle with a few thoughts as to their possible shape. Making this all work would call for a detailed, empirically validated and tested implementation with all of its false starts and learning curve experiences and with a goal of ongoing evolution towards better, more refined solutions as they become possible too. And as people begin using and relying on these resources, their needs and priorities will evolve too, and both as they became more aware of what can be done with the basic systems already in place and as the technology itself grows and evolves, and both locally and globally, and as they learn of new possibilities that they will want to reach out to and connect into as well. So what I write of here is a process of entering in an ongoing commitment to change, and with all of the ongoing new expenses and labor demands, and training demands that this will require.

• Starting out at least, it is easy to fall into a trap of thinking about bringing computers and the internet into schools, for example, as building towards a set and settled solution.
• This is really more about taking on new commitments with ongoing and evolving costs and demands, and for both systems growth and development and for systems maintenance and for all of those pieces of the puzzle noted above, and more.
• But taking on this type and complexity of infrastructure commitment is essential if a country like Tanzania and its diverse peoples are to more fully enter into the increasingly ubiquitously online connected community that the world as a whole is becoming.

And as a final thought here for this posting, I have been taking a student computer and internet access-centered approach here, at least up to now. Now let’s consider this from the teacher’s perspective. This might mean adding in teacher-oriented resources such as simple laptop computers and projectors so a teacher can show what they have on their computer screen to an entire classroom.

Implementing this, in all likelihood would require change in for example how primary grade students usually stay in the same room from class to class with teachers moving from room to room between classes. Here, cost-effectiveness might very well mean having a single larger classroom with teacher-supportive computer and screen projection capability that students would go to for specific class work in their various subject areas and for specific subject modules where access to wider and even multimedia content would bring significant new sources of value. Shifting from having the students stay in place and a system where teachers go from room to room, to one where students move from room to room too, might not seem all that dramatic – even if this would create new sources of challenge for bringing everyone together for a next class promptly enough. I note this as a single example of how implementing a technology change in what is available can have perhaps unexpected ripple effects in how things in general are done, and even in what at first might seem to be completely unexpected directions.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment with my teacher-oriented vision of computer and internet implementation in mind, as well as student-oriented approaches, and with development of educational and related online content that would be geared specifically to meeting set educational goals and student and teacher needs. I will then step back from the details to consider change, and resistance and adaptation to it per se, and how bringing computers and internet access into the classroom will accelerate change and in ways and directions that will likely create societal discord and well as acceptance. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) and at my Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 directory, and see also that directory’s first page.

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