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Why Leapfrogging Matters

Our post last week about the $100 Computer generated quite a bit of good discussion. Implicit in some of the comments, however, was the question of what use people living in the developing world would have for a seemingly-frivolous bit of information technology. Smart Mobs author and WorldChanging ally Howard Rheingold, in his new piece for The Feature, has an answer: market information.

Markets aren't only for the rich. Certain kinds of information, however, convey advantages to those have the right data at the right time. Until recently, only the relatively wealthy had swift access to relevant market information. The cost of technologies that connect people with economically useful price data has declined steadily, however, from the tycoons of the early 20th century with their home ticker-tape machines to the day-traders of recent decades with their desktop PCs, and now, to farmers in developing countries who are beginning to own mobile phones.


[...] A private firm, Kenya Agricultural Commodities Exchange (KACE), has contracted with African mobile provider Safaricom Limited to sell timely market information and intelligence via SMS. In addition, eleven kiosks across the country, located near where agricultural commodity buyers and sellers meet, provide low-cost access.

[...] In Peru, a network of wirelessly connected, community-based kiosks in the rural Huaral Valley provides a similar service.

[...] India abounds in rural and urban infostructure projects of both the top-down and grassroots-up variety. The wireless pony express of Daknet uses thousands of buses equipped with Wi-Fi transceivers to pick up and deliver e-mail wirelessly from village kiosks. The Cambodian "Motoman" project uses Wi-Fi equipped motorcycles and a satellite connection to deliver e-mail to remote villages.

[...] Madhya Pradesh State Initiative built an intranet to give villagers direct access to government documents: in the past, farmers had to pay $100 to officials for a copy of a land title. Now, the same titles can be ordered online for less than a dollar. Deeshaa Network uses the same Drupal software that the Howard Dean campaign used so effectively as a groupblog and information portal dedicated to "bring about greater participation in the economic development of India by providing a platform to collaborate and cooperate."

The entire article is filled with these examples, and it makes for wonderful, instructive reading. Information for both sellers and buyers makes markets work, and inexpensive, networked tools make information more readily and inexpensively available. The emphasis in the piece is on the use of mobile phones as the primary information device; not surprising, considering their proliferation. And, as I argued in the "$100 Dilemma" piece, it's most likely that a cheap, rugged information device for the developing world will evolve from mobile phones, not be a chopped-down desktop or laptop.

IT leapfrogging may not do much to help the poorest of the poor, but for people in India, in China, throughout Latin America and the more successful states in Africa, it can be incredibly valuable. Life-changing, for some. Perhaps even world changing.

Comments (7)

I suspect the effects of these efforts will trickle down to the worlds poorest within just a few years as business interests expand. Internet kiosks could be profitable at such low cost while a mobile phone would make most microloans much more successful. There's great social and financial incentive to get these tools out to as many as possible.

the mobile phone argument is a good point. you just have to look at Japan, where computers are simply not appropriate technology for many people - lack of space, high price of acquisition (you have to buy a phone line, in many cases) - where mobile phones are used for email, weather, internet, stock market.

Jamais: You're right, mobile phones are much more relevant in the developing world than computers. All over the developing world, countries are skipping the land line and leaping directly to cellular service. SMS also is a good way to go -- as the service is cheap. That being said, except in Turkey, where the market for old (and sometimes stolen) mobile phones is massive, most of my squatter friends still don't have the money for a phone. I'm also curious what news these market services will send. For instance, Nairobi's 1.5 million squatters are not much interested in reports on the price of tea or coffee at the weekly auctions downtown. If that's the kind of market news the Safaricom service will offer, it may be of use to the middle class and wealthy but it won't interest the poor.

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Mars Saxman:

you just have to look at Japan, where computers are simply not appropriate technology for many people

Ahh, so that's why cell phones are getting stuffed full of so much random crap lately! I have always wondered where the market demand for all that stuff was coming from.

Personal owned technology would be unwise. Internet points for everyone accesible at low cost are a better alternative. A system where you can, but don't have to, use a flash card (usb stick, hard drive with hard disk rack?,...) to save your own documents and have your configuration for programs (like linux /home). Keeping the biggest technology expenses for the community and not the individual. And needing a smaller number of devices.
I'm also certain that the technical devices would be treated best by an administrator. Mobile phones break too easily in my point of view, because they are carried around everywhere.
Of course the devices have to be low cost, low power consuming, stripped down linux or other open operating system.
My point is that it shouldn't be carried around everywhere by individuals. Keeping the technology at a good space where it's treated well so it lasts long.

And, do the people really need this high tech as fast as possible?Will it bring them more good then bad?

And one more concern. Many areas don't even have electricity. Using solar power is easy for running a small system. But the mobile phone masts or sattelite transmitters (to upload) use a lot of energy. So you'd need a lot of solar energy which in turn costs a lot, if I'm not mistaken.
What people there need is jobs, land for agriculture owned by the locals, not relying on export and company's from abroad, clean water (no pollution by dirty industry), education, a stable society ... . I don't think mobile phones or computers can help much or help at all.


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