May 15, 2005 Comments Off on Evolution
For many, the word ‘telecentre’ still evokes an image of simple, straightforward technology access in rural communities. But, since first popping up 20 years ago, the telecentre idea has evolved – dramatically. Attending the ribbon cutting for a new MSSRF village knowledge hub in Pondicherry, India earlier this week, I was reminded of just how far this evolution has come.
It is important to know that the MSSRF is not a computing organization. In fact, they are rooted in agricultural development, with an early (and continued) focus on helping the rural poor develop better farming techniques. The new knowledge hub sits within this context – literally. MSSRF had first built a small, community-driven experimental farm in Pondicherry called a biovillage. It’s a place where people from the local community are involved in agricultural experiments and training. The new knowledge hub sits smack in the middle of this biovillage, which grounds its work in the real needs of village people – local information, agricultural information, community development.
Yet it is not just the location – and the idea of embedding technology access into a non-techie org – that are interesting. It is also the model. Bank in 1998, the village knowledge centres were really amongst the first telecentre projects to say: “this is about local knowledge and information, by the people who live here, for the people who live here.” So, that’s who runs the knowledge hub – five local villagers who have been involved with MSSRF for a while. Three of them are women, two are men. They use the hub both as a village access point and as a feeder point generate local information resources for smaller knowledge centres. The result is people driven, relevant information for local communities – weather for fisherman, agricultural information, local news.
And then of course there is the ‘stuff’ that makes up a telecentre – the technology bits that people often think of first rather than last. Certainly, the MSSRF centres have way more ‘stuff’ than the old image of a telecentre would imply. This one had about eight workstations, a server, HAM radio, battery back ups, printers … and, of course, a chalk board for local news. Other MSSRF centres, especially on the coast, also have loudspeakers to broadcast news to a village.
The new knowledge hub also has an FM radio station, making it possible to get local information out widely to people who would never step into a telecentre. While the radio / telecentre combo is becoming quite popular in Africa, it is a novelty here in India as it is impossible to get a community radio license. MSSRF – and their partners from the Open Knowledge Network – have piggybacked on a special licensed own by a local radio station. With the first transmission during the opening, there was intense excitement, with a small crowd of local women listening on a battery powered radio in the back room. Another link to the village, another way to connect people to information they want and need.
On the car ride back from the opening, my colleague Genevieve asked: what is a telecentre? Is a village knowledge centre a telecentre? Arun from MSSRF’s immediate response was “No! It is much more” I pushed back: my idea of what a telecentre is includes all the things you find at MSSRF. After a bit of discussion, Arun came back with: “Yes, the village knowledge centre is an evolved telecentre. The idea has evolved.”
It was this conversation with Arun that how much the telecentre idea has evolved, and how much we need to talk about that evolution to understand where the telecentre movement is going. And, of course, it also inspired this post. Thanks, Arun.