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.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.