Information technology: Connecting the developing world
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) When Helen Clark, the administrator of the UN Development Programme, stepped up to the podium at the London Conference on Cyberspace last year, her message was clear. Information technology has the capacity to transform the way governments and the development sector respond to the needs of the poor and marginalised, and expand south-south co-operation (the exchange of resources, technology and knowledge between developing countries).
The potential of technology to push through positive change is specifically included in the millennium development goals. MDG8, on developing a global partnership for development, includes a target to make the benefits of new technologies, especially ICT, readily available to people around the world, in co-operation with the private sector.
The use of mobile phones, and SMS technology in particular, has proved transformational, enabling healthcare workers to stay in touch with hospitals in rural communities, and farmers to access data and advice from remote areas.
So what's next The application of mobile technology to development work has almost endless potential. Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Oxford developed data transmitters that fit inside water pumps and send text messages if one of the devices breaks down. The "smart" handpumps are being trialled in 70 villages in Kenya.
But the real change, according to Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net, an organisation that supports technological innovation in the developing world, will be the rise of locally developed solutions to local challenges. Banks is the developer behind FrontlineSMS, a free, open-source SMS platform that anyone can download and use as a communications platform. By December 2011, it had been downloaded 20,000 times and used for everything from monitoring elections in Nigeria to training rural medics in Ecuador. As open-source technology for mobile platforms, innovations like FrontlineSMS are essentially a blank canvas for grassroots organisations to apply to any local context.
"The rise of homegrown solutions to development problems will be most crucial in future," says Banks. "That means African software developers increasingly designing and developing solutions to African problems, many of which have previously been tackled by outsiders. This, I think, will be the biggest change in how development is 'done'."
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