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Technology and Development

Recent pointers to research by UC Berkeley computer science graduate student R.J. Honicky had a familiar ring to them. Honicky's efforts to use mobile phones as inexpensive distributed platforms for mobile sensing, while clearly novel and worthwhile, are evocative of similar proposals and projects we've talked about on WorldChanging. As a result, I was more interested in some of Honicky's other projects -- and the growing student interest in the use of information technology in the developing world.

Take DiSC, for example. DiSC -- Distributed Searchable Cache -- is an open source project led by Honicky to aid computer networks with fast local connections but slow and spotty links to the Internet.

I therefore conceived of a web-cache which is distributed over the entire local network. This allows the cache to take advantage of all of the excess storage in the network, and avoids the need for a centralized proxy server, thus reducing hardware costs (and completely eliminateing additional capital outlay for existing networks). By making the cache searchable, we allow for completely disconnected operation, and avoid latency for search queries.

I envision a system in a library which only caches library-like documents: technical-papers, news articles, online books, online journals and other relativly static, mostly textual documents. I believe that even with a modest network, a sizable percentage of the documents like these which exist on the internet could be cached and searchable.

I like this project idea for a few reasons. It's not an attempt to come in and rip out the existing systems in order to implement something that fits with pre-conceived notions of what computing infrastructure "should" look like. It takes advantage of the ability of local tech administrators to maintain their own networks, even when the wider Internet connection -- largely outside of their control -- is fragile. And by making it open source (in principle, at least; no files are as yet available on SourceForge), the software could have a life beyond the attention that Honicky and team could provide.

Honicky is involved with Engineers for a Sustainable World (whose upcoming annual conference is centered on the topic of "Sustainability as Security") and the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions group. Both ESW and TIER are active organizations, and seem to be driven in large part by the interest and energy of students.

But what impressed me the most was the class, co-produced by UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University, entitled An Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Framework for Developing Regions. Taught in late 2003, it described itself in this way:

Looking beyond digital divide issues, which are important, we consider ICT to be an enabler of sustainable development. Hence, we will study the intersection of technology, policy, and business issues related to ICT and sustainable development. The course is jointly taught at the University of California Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon University and University of Washington via videoconferencing, and will include several guest lecturers from a wide variety of backgrounds relevant to the discourse.

Although listed in computer science, we are encouraging advanced undergraduates and graduates in social science, business, regional planning, public policy to take the course as well.

The course will address:

  • Applications of IT that can address challenges in developing countries related to economic growth, poverty reduction, health, education, governance, environment, etc.
  • New technologies that meet some of the unique requirements of developing countries (e.g. low-cost, low-power, user interfaces that support populations with low levels of literacy)
  • Economic and social context
  • The syllabus and links to much of the reading material, lecture notes and presentations remain online, and are a treasure trove of leapfrog ideas.


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