Fortune (David Kirkpatrick) writes:
No single issue in IT is more important than figuring out how to use technology in the developing world. That’s why you should know about Teresa Peters. Raised on a farm in Ohio, she now runs a group in Cape Town called Bridges.org, a unique nonprofit consulting firm on IT and development. “Our expertise is helping others use tech better,” said Peters.
Bridges.org consults on IT-related projects for governments, nonprofits, and groups such as the World Bank. It evaluates specific technologies, and advocates policy changes that will make it easier for tech to be useful in developing countries. The government of Rwanda created something called the Rwandan Information Technology Authority and put together what Peters calls an “excellent, phone-book sized” strategy. But the government brought in Bridges to help implement it. The group has focused almost exclusively on Africa, where Peters, normally modest, proclaims, “We know more about what’s happening on the ground than anyone.”
Many IT-related projects in Africa are failing. That’s because, Peters says, too many ignore the basic criteria for success: “Small, cheap, local, and relevant are the key things for IT here, with a suite of applications around the device.” Often, for instance, what’s appropriate is not a PC but a handheld, or even just a cellphone. (One of the main reasons for that? PCs are often stolen.) Assessments are not what’s needed, she says. Action is. “Our calculation is that 84 different countries worldwide have had their IT assessed more than 10 times.”
Peters says the most effective use of technology she’s ever seen was in a pilot project that gave doctors and medical students in Kenya Palm handhelds that contained a regularly updated set of medical reference materials. Drugs change frequently, as do treatment regimens. But, she explains, “Doctors are out all day seeing patients two to a bed and on the floorso many it’s unbelievable. They make notes on each patient but without a handheld they have to wait until the end of the day to check reference books for drug interactions and other information.” The program resulted in clear improvements in patient care.
But Peters says that despite the effectiveness of handhelds in such situations, it remains impractical to expand such programs. At present it is almost impossible to buy any kind of handheld in most of Africa outside South Africa, and even there it is hard to get one repaired. A simple thing like a handheld repair service might be the unexpected gating factor for a medical technology program. “It’s about more than just devices and connections,” Peters says.
An interesting comment on open-source and commercial software:
Bridges is now conducting a study comparing open-source software like Linux with proprietary software for community-access computer labs and Internet cafes. It is assessing the total cost of ownershipdoing what Peters calls a “reality check.” While the report is not complete and she says they aim not to take sides in a commercial competition, “today’s realities indicate that proprietary software is more suitable for most of these labs. Technical support is the absolute deal killer. The tech support is just not there for open source.” While she says most African governments are feeling pressure to move to the “free” open source, most projects will fail because, for now, there is simply no technical support in Africa for desktop Linux. (People aren’t having as much trouble with Linux for server installations, she says.) Microsoft, on the other hand, which is the de facto supplier of proprietary alternatives, has a well-developed support infrastructure in many places.