TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: Rethinking ICT Solutions

Let us look at the requirements for the ICT (information and communications technology) solutions for the rural markets:

Mass-market: The solution needs to address the needs for tens of millions people. In India, this has to be a solution which can in a short period of time penetrate into each of the 600,000 villages to make a difference to hundreds of millions of people. It is a solution on a scale that has perhaps never been thought of before.

Scalable: Being able to scale out the solution is very important, else we will have created yet another demo wonder. Scalability will mean that there has to be a decentralisable element in the solution.

Emergent: Going hand-in-hand with scalability and decentralisation is the need for the solution to have emergent properties where it is driven from the bottom-up, and the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. This can only happen if the solution is driven not by government, but by small entrepreneurs who see a commercial motivation to own, deploy and grow the solution.

Low R&D Costs: There is little time to go out and develop new solutions. The approach should be that of aggregation, not re-creation. This means looking around and pooling together existing ideas and technologies which may be just good enough, rather than spending years on creating what could be the perfect solution.

Extremely Affordable: We are talking of the worlds poorest markets. Affordability needs to be redefined keeping in mind these customers. These are segments of society we dont ordinarily think about. But they are the ones who are the worlds next markets. Costs have to be a fraction of what we are otherwise used to considering or paying.

Technologically Forward-looking: The solution needs to look to the future rather than into the past. What is there under the hood is not as critical as giving the same kind of features and performance as the ones in the developed world are used to. In some ways, there is an advantage in terms of legacy there simply isnt an existing solution to upgrade so there is no need for backward compatibility. This gives us an opportunity to leapfrog.

Platform Orientation: The solution must create an ecosystem in which multiple players can thrive. The approach must be that of creating a platform that others can build upon, without having to redo the groundwork from scratch.

Consider the Constraints: We cannot forget the limitations and realities of the rural markets intermittent and fluctuating power, connectivity which probably isnt there, a market which does not necessarily speak or understand English, and one which has been largely ignored and forgotten by the world (except the politicians who need votes in a democracy). Since connectivity is not a guarantee, the initial focus should be on information and offline communications services, rather than real-time, database-driven transactional services.

Commercially Viable: Above all, the solution needs to be economically sustainable, given the constraints of the rural markets. It must provide the rural entrepreneurs with a business model which enables them to not just make money but also grow the business with their own initiative and innovation.

As we think of the solution, we should keep these words by Stuart Hart and CK Prahalad (writing in Sloan Management Review) in mind: Disruptive Innovations compete against nonconsumption that is, they offer a product or service to people who would otherwise be left out entirely or poorly served by existing products and who are therefore quite happy to have a simpler, more modest version of what is available in the high-end markets.

Next Week: Transforming Rural India (continued)

Continue reading TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: Rethinking ICT Solutions

Metabolic Pathways

Jon Udell describes an experiment with Virtuoso (“enterprise middleware that unifies SQL, text, XML, and object data will play an increasingly vital role in delivering business data to users”):

Data moves from a SOAP service in Radio UserLand, through an auto-generated WSDL wrapper, into a database stored procedure, which calls out to the Web through a C# extension and stores results in an indexed XML database. Then an XPath-enabled SQL query gathers results, converts them to XML, and virtualizes them as a WebDAV resource, which Excel finally reads and analyzes.

Fascinating flow. Its what Udell describes as “metabolic pathways”, adding that “I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which energy and information flow through biological systems, and the IT realm is starting to feel more and more like that.”

It is the kind of flow we need to enable in our eBusiness suite that we are working on.

PDA as Thin Client

Yesterday, Prakash, who was at Cebit, forwarded me an email from a company in Taiwan (whom he had met there) which offered PDAs for USD 28 in quantities of 2,000. These are very basic PDAs. The only port they have is an RS232 serial port to connect to a PC or a modem.

What amazed me was the price point. This is one of lowest computer price points I have seen. In India, the USD 28 price point would probably lead to a selling price of Rs 3,000 or so, considering shipping costs, import duties and local taxes. That is a very attractive price point. And that set me thinking.

Can we use this PDA as a thin client in addition to its standalone operation? There could be quite a few applications where one may just need to have a small screen and tap through it, without the need for a full-blown desktop PC. So, in a setup, one could have say 5 PC Terminals (proper PCs as thin clients with 14 or 15-inch monitors), and then complement that with some of these low-cost PDAs, which could connect to the thick server either through one of the thin clients or through dial-up. By running “vnc”, one could get the entire desktop on the small PDA screen.

We need to try this out. We have a Sharp Zaurus I had bought a year ago, which we will try it on with. It is already running Linux. Lets see how the apps look in reality.

What could such a PDA-based Thin Client be used for? For one, it could be used for data entry or surveys away from the LAN, and then connect to the thick server to update the data and allow the user access to his desktop. In schools, it could be used for students to go through “micro” pages or tests. In organisations, it offers one more option for some applications, given that the PDA is now a portable device. So, in a sense, one has to think of how a small footprint thin client with some local memory and standalone applications could be used in a server-centric computing environment.

PC co-creator on its Future

Mark Dean was one of the people who put together the first PC at IBM in the late 1970s. He is now at the IBM Storage Systems Division here, where he is vice president of architecture and design. USA Today talks to him. Here are a couple of his thoughts:

Storage systems will be where it’s at. We’re growing data so rapidly. Data will dominate and computing will be an artifact of data. There is just a flood of data.

There’s a time where we will develop a tablet. It will look like an 8-by-11-inch Plexiglas. It will have the resiliency of paper. It will have all the functions of a PC plus many other things. You will be able to play DVDs and music through it, all through this piece of paper.

A Book Idea

I have contemplated writing a book for quite some time. I have a fair amount of writing that I have done, and am doing. What a book will do is consolidate all of it together in one place and make it read like an integrated story, rather than the discrete, individual posts that are there today.

Writing a book is a scary exercise. It needs a lot of time commitment, even though the basic raw material in terms of ideas and content exists. Running a company full-time, reading and blogging daily, travelling, meeting people are enough to pack a day. This is what has stopped me short in thinking of a book.

I thought of a title today morning, so this may be a start. The title is “Tsunamis, Slippery Rocks and Disruptive Bridges”. I used it for a talk that I gave last week – covering new technologies (the tsunamis), entrepreneurship (slippery rocks – from Dan Bricklin’s quote) and on the Emergic ideas (disruptive bridges – innovations to bridge the digital divide). This would be the essence of the book.

It would need me to spend a significant portion of time over a 3-month period to get the book done. I will also need the help of a professional editor. The question is: am I willing to do this? Perhaps, now, more than ever before, I am. But the final decision to go is probably still a bit away.

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: The Conundrum

There have been various initiatives to take IT to the masses in India Gyandoot, eSeva, Bhoomi, eChoupals are some examples. At best, these have been success stories limited in size, scale or scope. The digital divide is far from being bridged. Where is the problem? There certainly does not seem to be a lack of vision, ideas or even resources. And yet, what is missing is a solution that has been rolled out on a mass scale to make a difference to millions.

As I see it, the problems are the following:

Government as Financer: This is perhaps the single biggest issue which limits scalability. The government can fund 100 or even 1000 centres or kiosks costing Rs 100,000 (USD 2,000) each. But the need is for 50 times as many access points. That is where the government-funded model becomes impractical there simply isnt enough money to set up these across a state or a country. And so, without the scale, the costs of operation are high, the villagers have to walk many kilometers to get to the nearest centre and that is simply not going to happen.

Demo Mentality: The thinking when the plans are drawn up is to create pilots. The reasoning goes: let us do 10 or 50 or 100 such demonstration centres, or showcases. Once the proof-of-concept is proved, then we can look at scaling these up. This approach is one which is setting itself up only for a short-term success; it will not succeed in the long-term. This is because it is much easier to put in all that it takes to make a few centres work because the aim is not to prove commercial viability but to showcase a local success to funding agencies or key decision-makers. The approach is not geared to creating solutions that can be scaled out rapidly.

Silo Solutions: Many approaches think of the problem too narrowly. We think of solving a telemedicine problem or a land record problem or an email and Internet access problem or a literacyproblem or the voting machine problem. The computing infrastructure required for solving each of the problems is almost identical. And yet, we think of each in isolation trying to create economic models which will work in the silos.

Internet-driven: Many of the current solutions assume the existence of a Net connection, essentially functioning as Internet Kiosks. This is a big limitation, because connectivity is one of the biggest bugbears in the rural areas. Without connectivity, the computer is crippled, seriously limiting its usage. While transaction services like bill payments and railway bookings which need real-time Internet connectivity can offer immense benefits to the villagers, these services can be hobbled by the lack of connectivity.

Incrementalist, not Disruptive: The need of the hour is for disruptive solutions. Yet, the thinking that percolates is very incrementalist. That may be because there is an interest in keeping things nearly the same, or because we look at technology that exists today, and not at what the future is bringing. The solutions tend to be driven more by what may have worked in the developed world or in the urban areas, because they are the ones who are either funding the solutions or providing the technologies. The need is for a completely fresh and bottom-up analysis of the rural markets, keeping in mind the emergence of cold technologies.

Thus, the result is that the thinking and therefore the solution is flawed. We need to think in terms of millions of villages worldwide as the potential addressable market, and yet work on making each village commercially viable.

Tomorrow: Rethinking ICT Solutions

Continue reading TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: The Conundrum

Trackbacks Explained

Michael Pusateri explains Trackback. The benefit is “to let a site know that you are referencing them on your on site.” Another explanation comes from Mena and Ben Trott. Trackback is a feature available with MovableType, but hasn’t yet become popular, perhaps because it takes a while for people to understand and still isn’t trivial to use.

Helping Bangladesh’s Poor

Writes NYTimes:

There are 34,000 such schools across Bangladesh, with 1.1 million students. They are run not by the government, but by a nongovernmental organization, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, or BRAC. Together, its schools represent one of the largest private education systems in the world.

The same organization is providing 3.5 million women with microcredit loans, more than any other organization in Bangladesh, including the better known Grameen Bank. BRAC also runs a commercial bank, a dairy, a hatchery, a poultry feed factory, a plant-tissue culture laboratory, seed processing centers, an Internet service provider, a chain of clothing and craft shops, a university and more. It provides health care at some 90 clinics and more than 2,000 prenatal clinics.

It does, in short, much of what a government should do, and what in many countries, the private sector would do. That is BRAC’s strength but, many say, Bangladesh’s weakness.

I think we should talk to them about our TeleInfoCentres idea.

RSS2Mail

I am excited about a service we’ve been experimenting with internally for a few days. It is a centralised RSS aggregator which allows me to set up subscriptions for RSS feeds and then emails me the items in a separate IMAP account. This way, I use my email client as the RSS viewer. All I need to do as a user is to set up an email account (like I would do with Hotmail) and then add it into my email client. The entire procedure will take less than 3 minutes. And then, as I subscribe to feeds through a web-based front-end, the RSS items now show up in the Inbox of this email account. The separate account ensures that the emails don’t clutter up any existing account and makes sure the account is spam-free.

An RSS Viewer (or News reader) can definitely increase the number of items one can process by a big multiple. Its a “10X” improvement in the way we currently do things. Also,the best part about this is people don’t need to download a separate application – the email client is as ubiquitous an application as we can get on a computer.

We hope to launch this as a service soon. There are still a few more things we want to do – for example, integrate blog posting via the BloggerAPI. Watch this space!