Program brings technology to remote regions

In Laos, a boy pedals a stationary bicycle to charge batteries powering a computer that links rural villages with e-mail access and medical information.

In India, a driver of a custom-designed Honda off-road motorcycle carrying a solar-powered laptop computer makes the rounds through remote countryside. The mission is to spread literacy and bring basic information to villagers.

These scenarios exist somewhere between vision and reality, created by the Reuters Foundation’s fledgling Digital Vision Fellowship Program at Stanford University. The projects are meant to be feasible, small-scale solutions to one of the most daunting challenges confronting philanthropic-minded technologists: making information technology accessible and relevant to those living in remote regions of developing nations.

A student lounge and cluster of cubicles on the second floor of Stanford’s Cordura Hall is the workplace for a dozen fellows from disciplines ranging from agronomist to information officer. They work on initiatives they proposed, such as increasing wireless phone access in rural Brazil and enabling e-government in Mexico.

Digital Vision is funded by the Reuters Foundation and is affiliated with Stanford’s Center for Study of Language and Information. The program is set up to create a “prototyping environment” where the fellows can use the vast resources at Stanford to take a philanthropic idea and develop it from its early stages into a usable program overseas, according to Stuart Gannes, the program’s director.

The fellows would work with other non-profit organizations or foundations with expertise in the targeted regions to help implement the final project.

“In general, it’s just taking something from an idea to a proven concept,” Gannes said. “The goal here is not just create a bunch of academic papers that people put on the shelf.”

Digital Vision began in October 2001 with five fellows, and has expanded to 12 this year, with a commitment from the Reuters Foundation for funding through at least next year. The fellows also bring funding through their companies or non-profit organizations, such as Cisco Systems or the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, or are in some cases self-funded. Projects typically cost about $10,000.

Gannes said fellows with Digital Vision, which operates on an annual budget of around $500,000, primarily focus on promoting information technology use in areas such as literacy, agriculture, commerce and health care. The fellows are selected by a joint committee from the Reuters Foundation and Stanford.

The computer-carrying motorcycle was developed by fellow Rajeswari Pingali and is on its way to rural India. The “mobile telecenter” has support of two foundations and a state government in India, Gannes said. Such support, he added, is key to a project’s long-term usefulness.

Fellow Arnon Kohavi, a native of Israel, spent nine years in Silicon Valley working in wireless communications before deciding to take a “self-proclaimed sabbatical” to focus on social issues.

“Any way you look at it, Silicon Valley became very materialistic,” said Kohavi, who, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, still looks the part of a valley tech worker.

For his year at Stanford, Kohavi has focused on voice and data communication projects to help foster communities and businesses in Laos and Brazil.

“The deployment of communication technology is done in urban centers,” he said. “The countryside gets neglected.”

Just 25 miles from the Laotian capital, Vientiane, villages have no phones, no electricity and impassable roads during the rainy season, he said. Working with the San Francisco-based Jhai Foundation, which has worked with five rural villages in the Hin Heup district since 1998, Kohavi is developing a wireless network to link the villages early next year.

The low-powered computer would use software translated into the local language and could be used for e-mail or rudimentary voice communications, he said.

Kohavi also is working with co-fellow Daniela Pontes to develop a business model to provide wireless phone service for a pilot project in the town of Salgueiro, Brazil. Kohavi hopes that the model could be duplicated in other remote areas of Brazil and beyond.

If local entrepreneurs could gain access to the needed frequencies, then they could develop such a business model, he said.

“The issue is, when they have to decide whether to invest the capital, they’ll invest it where they think the have the fastest return on capital,” Kohavi said. “But the local entrepreneur in the rural village, he can see how he can still make money.”

Such technology-driven philanthropy projects face many hurdles to long-term success, according to Stephen Ruth, professor of public policy at George Mason University and an expert on the digital divide in developing nations.

“The challenges are so extreme to get any results,” said Ruth, who is also director of the International Center for Applied Studies in Information Technology at George Mason in Fairfax, Va. “The danger and difficulty with it is it’s often attractive in the way it sounds, but it’s just devilishly difficult to develop.”

He lists rampant government corruption, lack of basic freedoms and poor communications infrastructure in many nations and the short duration of many programs as major obstacles.

He said understanding of local areas and government support are key for projects to be sustainable. Ruth said one such successful project in rural India where local residents could communicate with the state government via the Internet at cybercafes. The computers, he said, could also be used for tasks such as negotiating crop prices. “Everybody gets a better deal,” he added.

“To me, the ones that have not only sustainability, but have more impact, fit in with the way people normally do business,” he said.