Although digital divides between the world’s industrialized and developing areas loom large, development experts are finding ways to cross them. Research institutions such as the World Bank are making their libraries freely available to the global public; while governments and nonprofit groups deploy new open-source software, open-content tools, and wi-fi intranets to empower even the remotest villagers in Earth’s most underdeveloped zones to access data and work with it, or to create their own data and share it.
“Democratizing Development through Wikipedia and Other Open Solutions,” a forum that the World Bank and Wikimédia France co-hosted Wednesday, July 11, at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC, explored these trends. Michael Trucano, World Bank senior ICT and education policy specialist; Asaf Bartov, head of Global South relationships for the Wikimedia Foundation (the foundation owns Wikipedia and its sister sites); James BonTempo, thought leader in ICT4D for Jhpiego; and Adrienne Alix, head of operations for Wikimédia France; took to the stage to talk about a range of innovations and the communities that benefit from them. Cyril Muller, the World Bank’s vice-president of external affairs, moderated.
The World Bank exemplifies the phenomenon. In April 2010, it made its data sets available online for free in six languages. Then in April 2012, the Bank unveiled its new Open Knowledge Repository, an online library encompassing all the peer-reviewed research that the World Bank produces, all free for the public to use.
“Opening our knowledge, opening our tools is extremely meaningful to opening up development altogether,” said Muller, adding that NGOs, research institutions, and universities around the world are doing the same.
Wikipedia is, of course, a pioneer in free online information. But what good is online knowledge to people in parts of the world where Internet connectivity is weak or nonexistent?
Wikimédia France and several partner organizations hatched one answer in June 2012: Afripedia, a project that gives users in Africa access to Wikipedia offline. Alix, a leader in Afripedia’s formation, explained that the developers distribute small computers called Plugs and install local wi-fi. Every Plug connects wirelessly to every other—basically an Intranet—so once a programmer uploads a flash drive of Wikipedia content onto one, it can disseminate to all of the others.
African students can read Wikipedia whether they have Internet access or not, courtesy of Afripedia. (photo credit: ZDNet.fr)
“Everyone can hop onto a computer and access Wikipedia within the network,” said Alix. “It gives good access to Wikipedia offline when Internet access is bad or not very accessible.”
Wikimédia France and its partners have spread the intranet to 50 universities in central and western Africa, and they may add on more. The developers also host workshops that teach users how to access the pages and create their own for sharing with other Afripedia users, or with Wikipedia users whenever Internet connections are available.
“It’s very important to give and share knowledge for every people,” she said.
Offline versions of Wikipedia are also circulating in Peru, according to Bartov. He said that the Peruvian education system partners with One Laptop Per Child “on a massive scale” to deploy compact laptops equipped with wi-fi and offline Wikipedia files to Peruvian schoolchildren.
“If forty kids have them, they have their own network automatically,” said Bartov. “You have kids in the farthest reaches of Peru using those laptops to do amazing things.”
Wikipedia is working on getting these developing areas actual Internet access, though. Bartov described the site’s progress on making more of its content easily accessible via mobile phones—important because in much of Africa, average citizens are far more likely to have mobile phones than personal computers.
Also, Wikipedia has negotiated with local mobile carriers in Tunisia, Niger Malaysia, and Uganda to allow users to access Wikipedia via their phones without being charged for the data. Wikipedia hopes to extend this deal into more developing countries over time.
“We’re trying to increase participation in the developing world. We feel there is a strong content bias if not enough people from the developing world are participating,” Bartov said.
Trucano described NGOs such as Camara, who sell computers at knocked-down prices to African school systems. Onto each computer, the NGOs bundle complimentary instructional videos on varieties of academic subjects, along with offline Wikipedia pages and other open-sourced learning materials. Then they train the school staff and students on how to use the computers and content.
Students in Kenya log on to computers for the first time thanks to the discounted desktops that their school obtained from Camara. (photo credit: Camara.org)
“As we try to contextualize a lot of the learning we have from the Global North, we try to make it relevant to other places,” Trucano said. “One of the hopes for making available more information, more tools, more broadly, is that it will enable us both to provide people with some of the raw stuff to do this kind of work, and—because they’re doing it in an open way—it will enable us to learn about what the actual results are.”
More developments in open-access sharing are occurring in health care. BonTempo’s organization has one project in Indonesia in which patients can post and receive text-message reviews of medical services.
And in Uganda, Jhpiego deployed SMS Learn, a module that texts health-care providers recurring reminders and quizzes. In one instance, texts on the importance of hand washing motivated the recipients to more frequently and thoroughly wash their hands.
“Yes, Internet connectivity is a challenge. But there are some pretty amazing things that we can do with the most basic technologies,” BonTempo said.
In neurosurgery, one hears of brain-damaged patients who get some of their lost functioning back. How? Their brain’s neurons form new connections to bypass the damaged brain tissue.
Open-source innovators like Alix, Bartov, and others are human equivalents of those neurons. They see physical barriers separating communities from the worldwide store of knowledge. And they work around those barriers by forging new lines of communication.
Thanks to them, individuals who had been isolated are able to plug into the greater global community. Then, just like the recovering patient’s body discovers new strength and capability, so does our world population, as its myriad composites link into a better-connected and profoundly healthier whole.
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This is my last posting for the next few days. I will be taking my office apart so that we can move to our new apartment downtown next Tuesday. I will be unplugged and disconnected except by tablet. Expect me to be back in the saddle before the end of next week probably in time to provide you with some more headlines. In the interim these are the stories I share with you this week:
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