Forgive the clumsy acronym: ICT4D. It stands for Information and Communication Technology for Development, and it has become a fashionable buzzword as multilateral agencies, national governments, and non-governmental organizations worldwide seek to bridge the digital divide. One person who has consistently cast a skeptical, yet interested eye on this trend is Kenneth Keniston, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Human Development in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society.Keniston, who is also director of the MIT India Program, has been spending two to three months every year in India, which arguably has the largest number of ICT4D projects in the world. Keniston is a social psychologist by training, and his interest in the relationship of technology, personality, and culture enables him to bring a unique perspective to a field that has attracted the attention of the world’s information technology intelligentsia.
One tactic that particularly interests Keniston has been the deployment of community information centers in India-kiosks where villagers can pay a few rupees for accessing land records, market prices, and other information. India is host to an extraordinary number of community information center experiments, including private-sector initiatives like Drishtee; government-to-citizen initiatives like the Bhoomi project, which has computerized 20 million land records; and the deployment of community information centers by Indian agriculture business giant ITC, an effort that improved the efficiency of the company’s supply chain.
Keniston spoke with freelance journalist Venkatesh Hariharan in Mumbai (the city formerly known as Bombay). He says that the lessons learned in India may be relevant to the rest of the world.
TR: Your background is that of a psychologist. How did you get interested in bringing information technology to the developing world?
KENISTON: I became interested in the relationship between software and culture, and the actual application of software for ordinary people, around five years ago. India, with its 18 official national languages, has a very special problem standing in the way of adoption of software, and I became interested in that. The problem is that the ISCII [Indian Standard Code for Information Interchange] is not widely used. Organizations like the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, National Centre for Software Technology, and the Technology Development in Indian Languages program of the government of India have ended up creating a tower of Babel where no two systems can talk to each other.
TR: Has there been any progress at all?
KENISTON: Yes. One important recent development has been the growth of advocacy groups that favor Unicode, which is based on ISCII. There is also the lively, but fragmented IndLinux group, as well as the Free Software group. These organizations are working on Indian language computing and localizing the Linux operating system by creating Indian language interfaces. There is a lot of creativity, but there is still a long way to go.