ICT4D

Ethan Zuckerman writes about Mike Best and his work:

After giving us hope that there might be a demostrable connection between connectivity and democratization on the macro level, Mike takes us to the micro level – the SARI (Sustainable Access in Rural India) project that he’s been working on for several years. SARI provides internet connections to 50 villages in the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu state in India. The kiosks are set up in villages of 300-1000 households where average per capita income is about $0.60 per day.

The kiosks provide a wide range of internet services, everything from email, online training programs, entertainment (horoscopes, movies and games are especially popular), televeterinary services, telemedical services (notably cataract diagnosis) and e-government services. Mike is most interested in the e-government side of things. The systems allow citizens to apply for birth certificates, old age pensions, community certifications (evidence that someone is part of an “untouchable” caste, which has government benefits associated with it), income certificates (evidence that someone is below the poverty line), as well as voicing grievances about government services.

The numbers of people using the kiosks for e-government services look small, at first glance – a few users per month. Mike points out that most of these certificates are someone one applies for once – there’s not a lot of repeat usage. And, when Mike compares the number of certificates applied for from wired villages to unwired ones of similar size, in the same region, the results are dramatic: citizens in wired villages apply for birth certificates five times more often and for old age pensions three times as often.

The reason for the increased usage is pretty simple. It costs lots less for citizens to apply for these essential documents online than it does to get them in person. To get papers in person, villagers need to spend one or more days in transit, which entails expenses, and often need to pay bribes to get the essential forms. The total expense for getting a birth certificate, including travel and bribes, is often more than a person’s daily income. That becomes a powerful incentive to learn how to use the Internet kiosks.

Mike’s research comes at an interesting time in the debate over ICT for development. There’s a real backlash against the idea that ICT projects in rural areas have a meaningful, positive effect – the Economist dedicated a substantial portion of their last issue to an argument that cellphone penetration was far more important than rural Internet access, and that rural Internet projects had mixed impact, at best.

While I largely agree with the Economist – cellphones are critically important, and most rural ICT projects have been badly thought out and their impact poorly measured – Mike’s offering a great argument that rural ICT can have a meaningful impact IF people are smart enough to build applications that have direct benefit to users in the developing world.

Universal Inbox

Dare Obasanjo writes:

It looks like Bloglines is evolving into MyYahoo! or MyMSN which already provide a way to get customized personal information from local news and weather reports to RSS feeds and email inboxes.

I’ve been pitching the concept of the digital information hub to folks at work but I think the term ‘universal inbox” is a more attractive term. As a user spends more and more time in front of an information consumption tool be it an email reader, RSS reader or online portal, the more data sources the user wants supported by the tool. Online portals are now supporting RSS. Web-based RSS readers are now supporting content that would traditionally show up in a personalized view at an online portal.

At MSN, specifically with http://www.start.com/2/, we are exploring what would happen if you completely blurred the lines between a web-based RSS reader and the traditional personalized dashboard provided by an online portal. It is inevitable that both mechanisms of consuming information online will eventually be merged in some way.

Seeing What’s Next

Dave Pollard provides “an overview of Michael Porter’s, Peter Drucker’s, and Clay Christensen’s approaches to innovation research.” Some food for thought:

If you want to practice applying these theories and doing your own research, analysis and “what’s next” forecasting, here are three intriguing exercises:

1. Tivo won many awards for its invention of the personal video recorder, which had all sorts of interesting attributes: the ability to record automatically by interfacing with online program guides, the replacement of the much-loathed VCR, the ability to strip out commercials, the ability to do ‘instant replays’ on the fly on any program. But it has not been terribly successful or profitable. Could it reinvent itself or is the advent of competitive PVR technologies built into TVs, satellite systems, and PC video software its death knell?
2. The decision by Mercedes not to introduce its Smart Car into the US market has the industry abuzz, as has its failure to make a profit in Europe. Now, GM is considering introducing a lower-end similar vehicle for $3,000 into the Chinese market, but is concerned about whether this could cannibalize its own markets. What will the future hold for these vehicles?
3. The Apple iPod has been enormously successful, even being able to command a premium price over comparable products made by reputable manufacturers. If you were Sony, what would be your competitive response to the iPod?

DataBlogging

John Robb writes about Joe Reger’s new venture:

The concept is simple. Data is usually locked up in monolithic applications (CRM, ERP, etc.). Application seats are expensive. Training is expensive. Etc. People that need the data often can’t get to it.

What if human readable data flows (via RSS) could be generated by these applications? It would allow the development of easy to read weblogs (that republished these RSS flows) that almost everyone in the company would find valuable. The combinations are almost limitless and the flow is completely automated.

The flip side is also extremely valuable. Using a weblog model of data entry, it would become much easier to train people to enter data in a timely fashion. Further, they get immediate feedback on their efforts since the data they post is transformed into an entry on the blog.

Reger explains:

Let’s take the example of a sales force working at a Fortune 100 company. This sales force works on long-cycle consultative sales that generally take 60-90 days to complete.

Traditional Blogging:

  • Members of the sales force make blog entries each time they talk to or visit a potential client. This practice is valuable because it creates a repository of sales tactics and results.

    dataBlogging:

  • Just like in traditional blogging, members of the sales force make entries each time they visit a potential client. However, and this is the key, because their blog entries have additional data fields on them they track quantifiable information like Chance of Close, Effectiveness of Pitch, Hours Invested, etc.
  • Graphs are generated from the extended data attached to each blog. For example, an Effectiveness of Pitch vs. Hours Invested graph will determine whether spending more time selling is worthwhile.
  • The Advanced Data Search feature is used to find entries based on quantifiable data searches… in much the same way that somebody might query a database. However, it is done simply through a web interface by anybody.
  • The extended data for each sales call is published in RSS feeds, meaning that other enterprise systems can consume it… a simple integration between the dataBlogging system and more complex and possibly more difficult-to-use legacy systems.

  • This seems similar to PubSub’s Structured Blogging initiative.

    Advice for Google: Get on the Phone

    Vangorilla has suggestions for Google:

    To start, promote your domain registration business. It all starts here. From the time a company registers their domain, provide all the features that make their website accessable thru a cellphone (WAP, Java).

    Then I would ALSO offer other WAYS to get to your site instead of typing the actual address. Provide a 2D code, or a barcode, or even the spoken word. By offering this other identifier, you have provided a way to reach this site via cellphone in every magazine, poster, newspaper, billboard, businesscard, actual product from the company (ie label, can, CD).

    I see Google becoming the search engine of choice for the mobile eventually, but instead of search engine, I think the term will be navigation engine. The phone is more of a remote control than the PC. It interacts with the physical world so it will have to be able to recognize/decode other identifers (barcodes,2D code, logos, spoke word, numbers) to get the user to the targeted site.

    TECH TALK: The Future of Search: MyToday

    Imagine going to your very own information dashboard built out of subscriptions of RSS feeds. Let us call this portal MyToday and compare it with how we would read content in todays generation of RSS Aggregators, which we will call as MyRSSAgg. (Bloglines is an example of MyRSSAgg.)

    In MyRSSAgg, each of the RSS feeds and items has the same view. It is based around RSS. Categorisation is typically done via folders much like email. As a result, the user has little or no control or the view. It is also hard to share ones subscriptions with others. This is typically done as a one-time export of the subscriptions as an OPML file, which is then imported. [An overview of OPML can be found in these two older columns 1 2.]

    In MyToday, sets of RSS feeds can be clustered together and viewed independently. This is because the fundamental building block of MyToday is OPML. Allowing multiple views is important because we do not consume each of the RSS feeds in the same way. As I had written earlier: I may have maybe 20 A-List feeds feeds which I want to see with all the new items outlined somewhat like Samachar. I may then have another 100-200 B-List feeds which I want to see on-demand or via a river of news style aggregator. Other feeds may be single-item feeds the closing stock market index, or the cricket scores, or the weather. In addition, I may have subscribed to a number of tags from a multitude of different sources.

    In MyToday, the user can essentially associate views with a set of subscriptions, defined as an OPML file. Each OPML file is a collection of other OPML files (transclusion) and RSS feeds. What transclusion does is to allow dynamic inclusion of RSS feeds. For example, I may have a MyToday page built around India. If you want to construct your own India page, you can transclude my MyToday India OPML and add to it your own RSS feeds. This way, whenever I make a change to my OPML, it is automatically reflected in your OPML also. On the other hand, if I had done an export and you had done an import, future changes would not get reflected. Transclusion enables users to identify experts in specific categories and use their OPMLs as building blocks for their own views.

    Along with the OPMLs, there will need to be a Page Description Language (PDL), somewhat along the lines of HTML. This will be used to define how the OPMLs are laid out. There can be multiple predefined views which the users can chose from or they can construct their own. So, A-list blogs may be viewed in their expanded forms, B-list blogs could be viewed in a river flow or as a list of blogs (with a number indicating the number of new items). Some RSS feeds could be single-item feeds, while others could be viewed like bookmarks. This way, users can also define views for the subscriptions they have for viewing on a PC and on mobile devices.

    Tomorrow: The Wider View

    Continue reading TECH TALK: The Future of Search: MyToday