India Turns to Community Computing

Q&A: MIT’s Kenneth Keniston says cheap information kiosks are helping India bring computing power to the masses, providing a model for how to bridge the digital divide.

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.

TR: What part has industry played?

KENISTON: Microsoft has been very, very slow in localizing its user-interface to Indian languages. But the pressure is on Microsoft because companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard are pushing Linux. Some Indian states, such as Madhya Pradesh and Kerala, have taken the open source route.

TR: What are Community Information Centers?

KENISTON: There are several models. In Madhya Pradesh, for example, the Gyandoot project had the backing of the deputy district collector but was designed to be largely self-sustaining. In Warana, the big impetus came from the Maharashtra government, the sugarcane cooperatives, and the National Informatics Centre. Then we have the ITC, which has set up a vast operation with 800 Community Information Centers operational and increasing to 2000 kiosks soon. Soybeans, shrimp, and coffee are transacted through these kiosks, and they have a very carefully thought out revenue model. By bypassing the middleman, ITC saves eight to 10 percent on the purchase of soy, which is very impressive. In Warana, I am told that enough savings are generated from the kiosks to sustain and maintain them. The interesting thing is that some of these setups are products of companies that are not philanthropically inclined in nature.

TR: You plan to do a study on the sustainability of ICT4D projects in India. Can you tell us something about this?

KENISTON: From the point-of-view of sustainability, the Drishtee Community Information Centers and the Sustainable Access in Rural India projects are similar. They plan to offer a variety of services through the Community Information Centers to recover initial investments and operating expenses. We do not know the degree to which these projects are self-sustaining, but it’s perhaps too early to say. Then there are the Bhoomi land records project in Karnataka, the government of [Indian state] Andhra Pradesh’s various e-government projects, the National Informatics Centre’s efforts to computerize the district collectors’ offices across India, and the efforts of Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi’s efforts to computerize the state’s functions. There’s the case of the SARI project’s collaboration with the Aravind Eye Hospital, where the retinas of people were photographed and the doctors identified cataract patients among them, but one doesn’t know how sustainable this is. India probably has more ICT4D projects than any other country in the world, but there are no studies on their impact on the common man.

TR: Why do you feel such studies are important?

KENISTON: When implementing these systems in rural areas, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Computers break down, viruses bring down the systems, and impact studies are 17th in the priority list. Then there are projects that have a low impact, and therefore there is no motivation to do impact studies.

TR: There’s a lot of skepticism about ICT4D-even Bill Gates says that for those living on less than $1 a day, there are competing priorities.

KENISTON: This is why impact studies are necessary. We need to know what works and what doesn’t work. It is not a philosophical question. It is a question of knowing the facts. Such studies have to be done by Indians themselves and not by people like me who don’t speak the local language.

TR: What exactly do you need to find out?

KENISTON: There should be two aspects to such a study: impact and sustainability. To study the impact, one should not just ask questions but live in the villages, and talk to everyone from the outcasts to the Brahmins. We also need to take a very hard look at sustainability and understand what are the expenses in building, maintaining, and sustaining the infrastructure. What are the possible sources of revenue? We know that if you pour enough money, you will be successful. But NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] get tired of pouring money, and they eventually pull out.

TR: How might these kiosks generate revenue?

KENISTON: One positive example is that of using the kiosks to teach children computers. This has made some money for the kiosk operators.

TR: What do you think are among the best implementations of ICT4 development?

KENISTON: In India, everyone talks of computerizing land records. The lives of 700 million people are connected in some way or other to land. In this, the Bhoomi project in the state of Karnataka really stands out-it has comprehensively computerized land records. Rajiv Chawla, who headed the project, has been articulate and creative in the way he has gone about it. He deserves every prize he can get. Chawla enlisted an army of people to check and recheck the records-some of them illegible, some of them in ancient Kannada, some on bad paper that’s falling apart, and some of them contested.

TR: In your travels around India studying ICT4D projects, what one memory stands out?

KENISTON: I visited one place where there was supposed to be an information kiosk, but wasn’t. This was a place where 70 percent of the population lived below the poverty line and the literacy levels for men were around 30 percent. The area had suffered three successive years of drought, and there was just one brick building with two rooms and no windows. One room was full of children from the second to the fourth standard. In the other room were groups of 8 to ten people. Seven groups were women, and two groups were men. This was a place where the government had work-for-food programs running and the parents had to decide who gets to eat the next day. The children were thin and undernourished. First the men started talking, and then the women spoke, and they were critical of the men. The women were very articulate. What stood out was their determination to ensure that the next generation could read and write.

TR: What lessons could one take from the ICT4D projects in India?

KENISTON: My fear is that ICT4D could become one of the development fads that follow the boom and bust cycle. One fad was modernization (now called development) that gave us big dams like the Three Gorges and the Narmada dams. These are probably the last of the big dams we will ever see. Another was that of sending tractors to Africa. Five years later we saw pictures of them rusting because there was no infrastructure to support them.  Billions of dollars are being spent on ICT4D-but if it crashes, people may feel that the money is better spent on something else. To prevent that we need to know what works and what doesn’t work, how costly it is, and who can pay for it.

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