On being a citizen reporter: an international perspective, part X


This was a presentation by Prof. Gary Chapman to the OhmyNews International Citizen Reporters’ Forum held in Seoul, Korea on July 15. OhmyNews is one of the first and largest International Web sites for citizen journalism, the same citizen-driven content that fuels the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Dr. Chapman is Director of the 21st Century Project and a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin.

[This is the final installment on this series on the OhmyNews conference]

Prof. Gary Chapman, Director, 21st Century Project
Topic: Citizen Journalism and the Digital Divide.

Gary says that the term Digital Divide is falling out of favor in government circles. It is being replaced by either the term Digital Access or Digital Opportunity. The Austin campus of the University of Texas recently held a world congress on the Internet and its theme was Digital Opportunity. This change of terms is not done so lightly. It was meant to reorient the debate to the positive aspects of digital inclusion rather than stressing exclusion. It urges us to think about this gap in different terms.

Here is the situation with the Internet. The number of users on the Internet just passed 1 billion. It is the first communications technology to reach everyone over the globe in the same format. It looks the same to everybody.

The Internet is also growing fastest in regions where it has been hardest to find over the past few years. In the Middle East its growth over the past few years is at 267 percent Africa is nearly 200 percent and the growth is solid-but-slowing in North America. Latin American/Caribbean growth of the Internet is 211 pecent and the world growth total is 146 percent .

India and China have grown in reach and speed. The growth of broadband in China is 918 percent . To meet this need for connectivity, urban Internet approaches have been very innovative, including cyber cafes, Community Technology Centers, PC bangs (e.g. in Korea), Yahoo! Tarjeta Prepago and Brazil’s Computador de Uno Reale.

Tarjeta Prepago uses cash cards prepaid with pesos for Internet time. Uno Reale is a CD-ROM that you take with you to a cyber cafe. It brings up your entire desktop from a server regardless of where you are.

Rural Internet approaches include satellite-based Internet connections and solar-powered PCs. In the village of Masai Mara, Kenya, there are two ISPs both running on satellite. This is a very remote area yet demand for computer access is increasing, having grown more than double over the past five years.

One new device is a solar-powered Internet station, the Inveneo. It’s a dumb terminal, but builds a wireless mesh network of these solar devices.

Digital audio and community radio has been used for remote locations. ALIN (Arid Lands Information Network) uses satellite connections via internet radio in some remote areas. You can download data over digital radio modem cards and into your laptop.

Chapman says that hybrid systems are also gaining popularity where access and connectivity are limited. Connecting computers to small radio transmitters that broadcast mp3 files is a practical hybrid where local people carry small transistor radios.

Many places in Africa (and the world) have no power. FreePlay devices, which are hand-cranked devices are very useful. Motorola makes the FreePlay mobile phone and radio.

Datamules “store and forward” technologies employ small computers and WiFi on a motorcycle. The motorcycle rider receives the stored files at one location, travels to the destination, then downloads them via Wifi to village PCs. It’s just a guy on a motorcycle, but it works where it’s employed in Thailand and South Africa using thumb flash drives. Similarly, in Argentina there is a boat with a WiFi connection exchanging information with villages along its route. Simple is sometimes best.

MIT’s $100 laptop and AMD’s $180 PIC (personal internet communicator) are two new relatively low-cost technologies. PIC is now being tested throughout the world. PIC runs on 10 percent of the power for a PC using either a car battery, solar panel, bicycle power or other options.

Six thousand residents of New Orleans were bused to Austin. AMD donated 100 machines with low-energy requirements that all plugged into one outlet! PICs are targeted at households with $1,000 to $7,000 income, which is really middle class for much of the world. Remember that what the developed world denotes as the poverty rate is the income made by more than 1 billion people worldwide.

They are also interested in hand-held devices in the developing world. One billion mobile phones are supposed to be sold this year. The PicoPeta Simputer is a small handheld computer made in India. Not as successful as they had hoped, but this might lead the way for other successful introductions.

Challenges in the developing world include the non-existance of telecommunications and electric power. As drought grips the world, water bodies have falling levels and that means very little water for hydroelectric power plants. Climate changes leading to long-term drought also affect demographics. Farmers leave drought-stricken areas and that also pulls children away from the villages. This means that any devices installed in schools go unused, impacting the technology literacy of users, social relations and funding efforts for schools.

What are the other opportunities in the developing world? Wireless infrastructure is much cheaper, including WiFi and WiMax. One advantage of WiMax over WiFi is that it has a huge range of 15-25 miles rather than 200 ft.

Free open-source software is a major advantage for lower cost hardware like PIC. One such example is Ubutu, being employed in Africa. Also, free online tools like Google spreadsheet and locally developed content such as citizen journalism help give a focus for the hardware tools.

Making the case for ubiquitous universal access include the South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, bird flu epidemic (tracing outbreaks even in very small villages). We need information from places where the internet is rare today to supply information on global warming and peacekeeping operations that affect us all.

The near-term future of universal access includes the following:
– Falling hardware costs and new devices (also new markets).
– Expanding telecom infrastructure(such as a new trans-African fiber loop).
– Alternative energy solutions.
– Improving literacy and educational opportunities (driving people online).
– Finding and developing the “key” that opens the door.
– The need for global leadership at local and national levels to convince people how they will benefit from new technologies.

©2006 Gregory Daigle