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.
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.
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.
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.