e-Asia 2009 in Colombo: Huge gaps remain between Sri Lanka’s ICT hype and reality

Say eeeeeeeeeee - and don't ask questions!

The much-hyped e-Asia 2009 conference and exhibition opens in Colombo, Sri Lanka, today. It is organised by our good friends at the Centre for Science, Development and Media Studies (CSDMS) in India and the Sri Lankan government agency known as Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA).

According to the conference website, e-Asia 2009 is meant also to celebrate Sri Lanka’s Year of ICT and English, 2009. The event has been preceded by a massive advertising blitz in Sri Lanka’s print and broadcast media, while Colombo and suburbs have been plastered with promotional banners and posters.

The foreign delegates will be exposed to a great deal of sunshine stories from the ICTA which was originally set up as a sunset agency (but hey, the sun never sets on some people!). Sri Lankan delegates will be too embarrassed or well mannered to point out glaring gaps between the hype and reality. Few people want to rock the boat these days!

I am reminded of a popular Sri Lankan folk tale. It relates an incident that happened when we were ruled by hereditary kings, and concerns jaggery — a delicious sugar substitute we make from the sap of the coconut palm.

The King of Lanka, being the curious type, wanted to know how jaggery was made. He sent for the official jaggery supplier to the Palace, who claimed that it was being produced under the most hygienic conditions by people who had mastered the technique for decades.

Unlike today’s rulers, however, the kings of yore didn’t believe everything they were told. So one day the King went in disguise to investigate. Which was just as well — because the reality was completely different! The king found his jaggery being made in a rickety old shack, with none of the hygienic conditions!

A very angry king revealed who he was, and demanded an explanation. He was then told: “That’s the hype, Your Majesty, and this is the reality!”

For one thing, today’s heads of state – overexposed in the media – can hardly expect to go anywhere incognito (and if they tried, security officers and assorted sycophants would immediately prevent it!). All the same, it is an interesting thought experiment to wonder what the President of Sri Lanka might uncover if he were to probe beyond the glitzy (almost giddy) propaganda being unleashed by ICTA!

As I wrote in CSDMS’s own regional magazine i4d a couple of years ago, the gulf between the hype and reality in our ICT circles can be as wide as it is shocking. When an agency invests so much time, effort and money in publicity, we can always suspect that there is more than what meets the eye…

People want their needs met and problems solved, not fancy projects...

The proof of the ICT pudding is in the societal acceptance and integration of ICT tools, processes and services in the daily living, work and leisure of people. As I said in my i4d essay: “Tragically, the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka, which has the mandate and powers to address these issues, is instead dissipating its energy and resources on setting up rural tele-centres, a task that it should leave to better positioned and experienced groups. This glaring inability to set and pursue the right priorities has been a bane of Sri Lankan ICT sector for years.”

What I wrote a couple of years ago is still valid. Here’s another excerpt:

No amount of legislation, policy formulation and paid propaganda by the ICTA is going to mainstream ICTs in Sri Lankan society. ICTs have to prove their worth, and be accepted as adding value to living and working conditions of ordinary people.

We can assess the utility and relevance of any new technology by asking a few simple questions. Does the new technology or process:
– put more food on their table?
– add More money in people’s pockets?
– make interfacing with govt easier?
– save time and effort involved in commuting?
– support cultural and personal needs of individuals and groups?
– put a smile on users’ faces?

Finally, is it affordable, user-friendly and widely available, with minimum entry level barriers?

Read my full essay, ICT Hype and Realities in i4d magazine

Wanted: Development 2.0 to catch up with web 2.0!

i4d magazine August 2008 issue

i4d magazine August 2008 issue

Did anybody hear of the senior UN official who finally started blogging? He wrote perceptively and expressively – with some help from his speech writers – but a vital element was missing in his blog: no one could comment on his posts as he completely disabled that function.

Then there is the Red Cross chief who started her own Facebook account but remained completely ‘friendless’ for months – because she didn’t accept anyone seeking to join her social networking effort!

These are just two among many examples I have come across in recent months. They are all symptoms of a major challenge that development and humanitarian communities are grappling with: how to engage the latest wave of Information and Communication Technologies, or ICTs.

With these words, I open my latest essay, titled “Wanted: Development 2.0 to catch up with web 2.0” in the August 2008 issue of i4d magazine, published from New Delhi, India.

My thrust is something regular readers of this blog would be familiar with. In fact, in this essay I consolidate and expand on ideas that were initially discussed in various blog posts over the past many months.

The new wave of Internet, collectively known as Web 2.0, opens up new opportunities for us in the development and humanitarian communities to reach out and engage millions of people – especially the youth who make up the majority in most developing countries of Asia. But it also challenges us as never before.

This time around, it’s much more demanding than simply engaging the original web. It involves crossing what I call the ‘Other Digital Divide‘, one that separates (most members of) the development community from ‘Digital Natives‘- younger people who have grown up taking the digital media and tools completely for granted.

I have identified four key challenges involved in crossing the Other Digital Divide:
– Leave the comfort zone of paper
– Let go of control
– Invest less money but more time
– Recognise information needs and wants

I argue: “There are no authorities on this fast-changing subject: everyone is learning, some faster than others. Neither is there a road map to the new media world. From Rupert Murdoch and Steve Jobs downwards, every media mogul is working on this challenge. For those who get it right, there is potential to make corporate fortunes, and also to serve the public interest in innovative, effective ways.

I end the essay with a challenge to the development community: “To face challenges of web 2.0, we need to come up with development 2.0!”

Read the full essay on i4d magazine website