Question-ware in rural Sri Lanka

May 6, 2007 § Leave a comment

Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, April 2007. Our main goal in going up to the Anuradhapura region of Sri Lanka was to visit a Village Information Centre (VIC). These Centres offer basic access to information through a collection of printed articles and brochures posted on a wall. Information focuses on health, education, government and, especially, agriculture. If a local person cannot find the information they need, the volunteers who staff the Centre can go into the telecentre 20 kilometres away (or make a mobile call?) to get additional information to be posted on the wall. The Centres themselves are built and financed by the local members of the Sarvodaya Society.

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In the village we visited, it was clear that farmers and others did make some use of the Centre. It also looked like there was a great deal of untapped potential. When I asked the volunteers: when was the last time you actually had to seek out information in response to a request from a villager? They pointed to a handwritten sign with information about identity cards that people had been asking for (and that there were no government brochures on). This was an interesting example of the human interface to the information society in action. However,  when I asked for more examples, there weren’t any. The villagers were not doing much to take advantage of this resource that they had collectively created.

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After seeing the Centre, we sat with the local farmers for lunch and asked them some questions. They understood the basic information supports they could now access, especially from more skilled Sarvodaya staff who visit the Centre to offer specific agricultural advice from time to time. However, it was clear that they could find way more kinds of helpful information if they could just ask. What are the crop prices? Can we find any other people to sell to than the local middle man? What about finding a tractor to share? This wasn’t something that came naturally, so they we’re asking the volunteers questions like this.

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These farmers are used to knowing what they can ask of the person beside them, and not of the broader Google-society. Clearly, Centres like this will become more valuable for the communities they serve on the volunteers are better at helping the local people ask questions that will solve their problems. The D.Net Pallitathya Kendra program with roaming information activists may offer a model here.

Accidental (telecentre) tourist

May 6, 2007 § Leave a comment

Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, April 2007. There was a big orange blob way ahead. It got bigger, and bigger. And then we stopped the van. The orange blob was actually a small building housing a Nenasala, an entrepreneurial rural telecentre created with financing and infrastructure from the eSriLanka program.

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While the owner was surprised to see two van loads of people walking towards his telecentre, he was happy to talk. Turns out that his Nenasala has been up and running only six months, and that he also has a job working at a local Ministry of Agriculture extension telecentre (it seems these kinds of centres should be more tightly linked!). While the place was filled with kids using the computers, he said the biggest problem was getting customers. He also had trouble splitting his time with his other centre.

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It was a nice treat to accidentally stumble across a working Nenasala with a passionate owner. But clearly, there was a need for more than connectivity (which they had) and computers. There seemed to be demand (or at least operator interest) in more formal agricultural service.  Hopefully, the The Telecentre Family can serve as a way for ICTA, Sarvodaya and others to come up with many innovative services to fill this kind of need. There was no question that the owner was happy to hear of this initiative. He said he’d like to get involved when it comes to his part of the country.

Getting ready for GK3

May 6, 2007 § Leave a comment

Singapore, April 2007. On a quick stop through Singapore last week, we held a number of meetings to get ready for this December’s GK3 event. In the room: Marcia from IDRC; Florencio from telecentre.org; and Dash from Warisan Global in Kuala Lumpur.

The up shot of the meeting was this: the telecentre.org team has agreed to use GK3 as a major gathering point for our partners this year. At the very least we will be doing two things:

  • telecentre.org Leaders Forum that will gather all of our networks and ambassadors in one place. The idea is to get these folks in deep learning and deep collaboration planning modes. It will happen on the two days before GK3.
  • Telecentre Track at GK3 that mixes our grassrootss partners up with corporates and thinkers from the broader ICT4D space. The aim here will be to give our partners both a stage and a feedback from smart people working in different contexts.

We also explored the idea of a Telecentre Village, which would be a trade show for telecentre models. Talking this through helped us understand that this may me a bigger and more complicated task than we thought. We need to dig into this at the GKP meetings in Europe next week to see if there really is the demand for doing something like this. If we do go with the Village idea, Dash from Warisan will help to roll it out.

Three models, one challenge

February 16, 2007 § Leave a comment

Around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 4+5, 2007: Malaysia has over 1000 telecentres. Most of these have been set up with financing from the Ministry of Water, Energy and Communications. While in Malaysia last week, I had a chance to visit three of of these centres in the rural areas around Kuala Lumpur, each of which operated on a different model.

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The first centre I visited was part of the Kedai.com program (‘kedai’ means shop).  Located in a rural planned community / palm plantation the centre was run by a local tuck shop owner who had built a computer lab onto the side of his shop. The centre offered a mix of basic cybercafe services (Internet access, desktop publishing, copying) along with extensive training courses (mostly Office apps and Internet browsing). The young people I met in the centre seemed most motivated by MySpace and Friendster, which offered a good channel to socialize with people from outside the village. The centre is also busy during the time when the government publishes exam results online.

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According to the shop owner, business has grown over the three years that he has been operating the centre. He pulls in about $25/day in revenue just from access, for which he charges 75¢/hour. He also charges $80 dollars for each month long training session. These sessions typically have about 10 people in them each month. He says that he makes a small profit once he pays for his training and other costs, but worries that the centre will no longer be profitable after the government maintenance and bandwidth subsidies end next year.

The next centre I visited was in one of Malaysia’s 600 rural libraries, almost all of which have been connected to the Internet. I had a wonderful conversation with the woman running the centre who kept saying: “I love to teach”. And so she did. The centre offered extensive digital skills training, most of it targeted at local youth and housewives. There is so much demand for training in this village that she wants to expand to offer courses on multimedia, but she doesn’t have the skills or software to do this herself. The three computers in the centre are available for Internet access when not being used for training, although this didn’t seem to be a big use. There were no services offered above and beyond training and access. The only revenue source other than government funding was a $3/one time membership fee.

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The final centre that I visited was a Pusa Internet Desa, part of a program to build out telecentres on the same premises as post offices. This was the newest and largest of the centres (nine computers). Like the other two, it had incredibly strong infrastructure, training programs and management. The centre was also a part of the government’s community knowledge centre program, which aims to help centres add more value added services. However, it doesn’t seem these services have emerged yet.

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It’s worth noting: the Pusa Internet Desa had the most ambitious and creative of the managers I met. When I asked what she saw in the future: “I really want my own building with two floors. We would have an access centre on the first floor and a training centre on the second floor.” As the centre is located in a small town that housed a teacher’s college, demand for her services is quite high. The centres probably could do well with the expanded approach she envisions, and might even become a self sustaining social enterprise.

Across all three of these centres, I saw exemplary rural Internet infrastructure and digital skills programming. This is a great accomplishment, and in many ways puts Malaysia ahead of other countries in terms of rural access. However, as the KTAK Minister noted in his eAsia speech, all of this great infrastructure is very much under utilized. After many millions of dollars, the question remains: telecentres for what?

The good news is that the Ministry behind these programs wants to increase the development impact of these centres by focusing on value added content and services. The community knowledge centre pilot program mentioned above is an indication that they are making efforts in this direction, but the content and services are not there yet. It is likely this process could be accelerated if they were to create a genuinely grassroots telecentre network that could capture and share innovative ideas from the managers who actually running the centres.

Partnership academy

February 16, 2007 § Leave a comment

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 2007: While the mainstage at last week’s Asian Telecentre Forum was interesting, there was also a great deal going on in the hallways and hotel rooms. Of particular note was collaboration amongst EUTA, the Philippines CECNet and others on the ‘world telecentre academy’ initiative. The idea behind the academy is to create an alliance of organizations working in the field of telcentre manager training. The alliance will provide a platform to share curriculum and develop a common quality seal amongst these programs.

While this effort is interesting in its own right, it is even more notable because it demonstrates how sophisticated telecentre networks around the world are becoming. The players involved in the telecentre academy initiative understand that they can move farther and faster with their telecentre manager training programs if they work together. They also know that a lightweight, flexible global alliance can lend alot of credibility to the capacity building work they do at a national level. It seems the spirit of (peer to peer) networking is really growing in the telecentre movement.

PS. Don’t surprised to see significant developments from this alliance over the coming year. There is a reat deal of promise here.

Telecentre times, two

February 16, 2007 § Leave a comment

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 7, 2007: A quick note to say: a new magazine on telecentre issues was announced last week at eAsia. This magazine will offer analytical articles and case studies from telecentre practitioners around the world. The magazine is a partnership between CSDMS and telecentre.org. The first issue will come out in August.

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The magazine is envisioned as a complement to the grassroots-driven Telecentre Times initiative, which focuses practical advice for telecentre managers and has shorter articles. Key members of the Telecentre Times community will be invited to be on the editorial board of the magazine.

Moving to the next level …

February 11, 2007 § Leave a comment

Hong Kong / Kuala Lumpur / Singapore, February 2007: With a week in East Asia behind me, a theme is settling int: moving telecentres to the next level. It was a week where almost every conversation was about building on existing telecentres … and not about building new telecentres.

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When I think back, the opening eAsia speech by Malaysian Water, Energy and Communications Minister Dr. Lim Keng Yaik played a key role in focusing these conversations. Lim’s ministry has helped to build almost 1000 telecentres over the past few years. Instead of trumpeting this as a victory, he says that Malaysia’s telecentres haven’t yet had the impact they had hoped for, and that infrastructure was not enough. Lim spoke of a next wave of effort by his Ministry will be to encourage the growth of value added services and content that make these centres into a real development asset (and also help with sustainability).

While the need to move beyond infrastructure and into services is not a new idea, you rarely hear Ministers making passionate, almost activist speeches on the topic. This put wind in the sails of other eAsia presenters: critics of Nepali government telecentres; social entreprenuers from Grameen Phone; telecentre.org partners working on the telecentre academy concept. All used the fuel provided by the opening speech to get creative about what telecentres can look like when we get beyond the access conversation.

This theme was not only at the conference. It was also central to my conversations with Malaysian telecentre managers during field visits and in meetings with Intel, Microsoft and senior Malaysian bureaucrats. More on all this as I catch up on my blogs in coming days.

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