Monday, May 12, 2008

A success story of technology helping third-world farmers:

Ajit Singh, a farmer in the poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh, had never seen a computer until four years ago when ITC, the Indian agribusiness-to-hotels conglomerate, installed a PC in his village, Kurthia.

Now the thin 47-year-old farmer visits the ITC station, known as an "e-choupal" after the Hindi term for "gathering place", every day for online access to news-papers, crop prices, weather forecasts and farming techniques. As ITC's village manager, he passes on what he gleans to fellow farmers. ...

The result has been a big jump in crop productivity. Annual incomes in Kurthia have risen from Rs40,000- Rs50,000 ($1,000-$1,230) before e-choupal to Rs100,000- Rs120,000 now, says Mr Singh.

Gee. You know what could be really helpful in trying to spread this sort of thing? An extremely rugged, very low-power laptop (for long battery life) with sophisticated built-in wireless networking, designed for easy field repairs, with audio-visual features built in to help guide semi-literates through the UI. Kinda like the machine being built by One Laptop Per Child.

But alas, Mr. Singh is not a child, and so he is not in OLPC's target user base. Which remains, as before, children only. Though the project's direction is changing in other respects, as project founder and leader Nicholas Negroponte explains:

"I think that means and ends, as often happens, got confused," he says. "The mission is learning and children. The means of achieving that were, amongst others, open source and constructionism. In the process of doing that, open source in particular became an end in itself, and we made decisions along the way to remain very pure in open source that were not in the long-term interest of the project."
So, open source is no longer part of the mission, to the general distress of techies associated with the project. And constructivism was never much of a guiding star to begin with --- stripped to its essence, it amounts to asserting that if you give kids computers and leave them alone, they'll figure out what to do with them entirely on their own. (Indeed, some of them will, and they are the sort of people who tend to wind up at MIT --- which explains the appeal of that philosophy there. But the rest of them need lesson plans.)

In short, the goal of the project seems to devolve into getting computer hardware --- specifically their own hardware (recall OLPC's contentious and combative approach to anyone else in their space, like Intel's Classmate) --- into childrens' hands by any means necessary. As acknowledged by new project CEO Charles Kane:

"The OLPC mission is a great endeavor, but the mission is to get the technology in the hands of as many children as possible," he said. "Whether that technology is from one operating system or another, one piece of hardware or another, or supplied or supported by one consulting company or another doesn't matter."

"It's about getting it into kids' hands," he continued. "Anything that is contrary to that objective, and limits that objective, is against what the program stands for."

Which brings me to the question I was asking more than a year ago --- why just kids? Why just huge, bloc government deployments? Why not give them to anyone in the third world with a use for them? Why not just sell the damn things, and let the people in the third world themselves figure out what they're good for?

And to answer that, you've got to go back to what this project is really about. "Helping the children" will get Nicholas invited to the cool parties at Davos. "Selling computers" will not.

More: Here's one suggestion: a deployment plan modeled on what Grameen is already doing with cell phones: extending loans to local cooperatives which buy the gizmo and rent access. A similar model has been used in Nicaragua to fund deployment of local solar power systems in areas where there is no power grid; those are a heck of a lot more expensive than an OLPC unit.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home