Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Role of communication technologies in development

I am sure all of us have heard of great examples of how communication technologies have spurred rural development, as what this report shows too. People finds all sorts of innovative ways on how to put technology to good use, and if they are convinced that the technologies can indeed benefit them, they will come up with the coolest of ideas to gain access to the technology.

But then again, is communication really as important as proper health-care, or education, or providing employment? A lot of my own work is related to the use of ICT for rural development, and I have been asked this question many many times. This Economist article takes a very realistic, though one-sided, view: What use is communication to a poor person who doesn't even have food to eat? Or, a sick person who can't go to a doctor? People like me argue back that communication provides crucial information flows that these poor or sick people can use. The poor person can probably gain access to microfinance through organizations like Kiva. The sick person can probably get some medical advice through telemedicine. The critics argue back that the poor don't have money to pay for such communication services, or that they are illiterate and cannot use them. Diverting public funds to rural communication is hence a waste of money, and the governments should instead invest in other infrastructural services. We again argue back that communication is also needed because it can improve the efficiencies of various other development activities -- lower corruption, provide information, etc. And the debate goes back and forth each time...

I am any how strongly convinced that communication is important and it provides a strong positive feedback to improve various local developmental and professional activities. The sad part though is that implementation is always harder than philosophizing and leaves so much ground uncovered. For example, telecentres or rural Internet kiosks are being set up extensively in rural areas to provide Internet services to the people, but the most common purpose to which they are put is for electricity bill collection (personal experience) because it saves the people bus-fare and a day's travel to the city! And this is not surprising, because the kiosk operators are hardly knowledgeable themselves to be able to help educate the local people about various other possibilities. There are of course many other problems as well, but this always throws back the same questions in our faces of what are good ways to intervene in a system so that the interventions actually live up to their potential? Where does technology stop and where does execution begin?

I think these are important questions to answer for any interventionist activity or government policy, because their success or failure depends on so many contextual factors. On the other hand, the market-driven cellphone revolution probably reinforces Adam Smith's invisible-hand theory to leave everything to the free-market and reduce the government's role merely to that of a facilitator. But this has its own set of challenges and biases which makes it equally hard to understand. It's a difficult question to answer, and something I've been struggling with for a long time.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Dam realities

Much of the dams in India seem to be heavily mis-managed. The 2006 floods in Gujarat were mostly man-made: water was not released in time, and later when there was danger of the entire structure suffering damage, almost 30 times the regular amount was released. The result: a hundred people dead, and losses of over 21,000 crores.

But as this article shows, the negligence continues. Water is released or stopped without any prior notice. The farmers have to move their pumps closer to the river when the water levels go down, and later when the water is released, they find their pumps under several feet of water. Worse is when lives are lost, which could have easily avoided by being more responsible and having appropriate technology and systems in place.

If the authorities cannot manage dams at this scale, why do they even talk about massive projects such as the river-interlinking project. It just scares me to think of the complications there, which simply dwarf the complexities of the management of dams today.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Shame the corrupt with Rs. 0

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Very low-cost Internet access in rural areas using KioskNet

This is an article I wrote for Saatva:

Rural areas in developing countries are deprived of access to information. This is because it is often economically unviable to provide telecommunication services in remote villages; or even if the infrastructure is available, high cost of usage and illiteracy among the villagers reduce the abilities of the poorest sections of society to take advantage of the modern communication systems. A solution that has proved effective in recent years is that of setting up rural Internet kiosks (also known as telecenters) in the villages. A typical kiosk houses a few computers having Internet connectivity, and is operated by staff recruited from among the local community members. Sharing of the kiosk infrastructure among many people effectively reduces its cost for the people. And the kiosk staff members who are trained in basic computer skills are able to serve as an intermediary to help even illiterate people find useful information on the Internet. Kiosks can also be made economically sustainable by charging a small fee from the people using them.

There are now literally thousands of telecenters across Africa, Latin America, and even in India. In fact, the Government of India is supporting a programme called Mission 2007, with the goal of setting up a kiosk in each of the 600,000 villages of India. Stories abound of how very useful medical and agricultural information distributed through such kiosks has helped hundreds of people to adopt healthier lifestyles and improve farmland productivity. Access to the most recent weather forecasts and crop procurement prices in nearby markets has given even further control to the farmers to make better decisions for crop harvesting and sales. Even other programmes such as watershed development, microfinance, and rural electrification have received a boost from hearing and learning about similar activities pursued in different parts of the world. Yet another useful application supported by many telecenters is that of e-government services, such as automation of land records, and requests for birth, marriage, and income certificates. It is hard to deny the tremendous advantages of kiosks to provide information in rural areas.

However, kiosks face many practical problems. Due to limited electrical power, pervasive dust, mechanical wear-and-tear, and computer viruses, kiosk computers often fail, requiring frequent (and expensive) repairs. Similarly, network connectivity is often lost due to failures in the communication system. Dial-up are cellular-data connections are very slow and flaky. Satellite terminals are expensive, and have large power requirements to operate. Other solutions such as long-distance wireless links require expensive and sturdy towers because the antennas often lose alignment with each other in strong winds. Faced with high costs and unreliable service delivery, customers quickly lose interest, and kiosk deployments often become unsustainable in the long term.

Our research group has built the KioskNet system by approaching these problems from a holistic standpoint. KioskNet attempts to make a kiosk more robust without increasing its cost. It uses a low-cost and low-power single-board-computer as a kiosk controller at each kiosk. This runs from a car battery charged using solar power, to ensure 24 hours of up-time. The controller provides a network file-system for PCs running at the kiosk. These PCs are typically recycled PCs, and do not need a hard-disk; they boot from the kiosk controller itself. Kiosk controllers are reasonably tamper-proof so they offer reliable virus-free boot images and binaries. Since we do not use the PC’s hard disk, it avoids hard disk failures and disk-resident viruses. Moreover, recycled PCs are cheap and spare parts are widely available.

The controller can communicate wirelessly with another single-board computer mounted on a vehicle, powered from the battery of the vehicle itself. These vehicles may belong to government officers who regularly visit the villages, or taxi owners who operate in the area, or transportation providers who carry goods and groceries back and forth between villages and cities. The computers on the vehicles automatically pick-up or drop-off data wirelessly at the kiosks, and carry it to and from an Internet gateway typically in a city. Even during a few seconds of connectivity while a vehicle simply drives a past or gateway, almost 100MB of data can be exchanged. This ‘mechanical backhaul’ avoids the cost of trenches, towers, and satellite dishes, allowing Internet access even in remote areas, though at the cost of increased end-to-end delay. In areas where dial-up, long-range wireless or cellular phone service is available, the kiosk controller can be configured to use these communication links in conjunction with mechanical backhaul.

We did a successful pilot deployment of the KioskNet system in May 2006 at a kiosk in the Anandpuram village of the Vishakapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh. Some pictures from the deployment are shown in Fig. 1. We plan to do a bigger deployment soon to verify many of our assumptions and observe the system carefully. Please let us know if you are interested to use or experiment with KioskNet. More information, including links to papers, technical details, and cost estimates can be found on our website:

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The persistence of underdevelopment: Raghuram Rajan

Although I haven't been able to completely read or understand this paper, some parts of it sound really interesting. Raghuram Rajan is director of research at IMF, and has proposed an explanation of why countries like India and Mexico, which are "vibrant democracies", are still plagued with underdevelopment. Why do people choose poverty, is the question under concern!

It assumes that comprehensive reforms, defined as (pro-market reforms) + (education for all), are needed for the collective development of different groups of people. This seems to be justified because without education, the uneducated would not be able to take advantage of the pro-market reforms. And pro-market reforms are in general considered to be good because they promote competition and lead to lower prices for goods and services.

Then it goes on to show that educational reforms might never happen because of the diverse interests of different groups of people. For example, the uneducated people might vote for them, but the educated people would want to preserve their elite status. Or, even if the reforms do get voted through, their success would depend upon factors such as the price of educational services, which are again provided by the educated people.

In the absense of educational reforms, the pro-market reforms would never gain consensus. This is because (a) without education, the uneducated would not be able to take advantage of the opportunities created by pro-market reforms, and (b) pro-market reforms would create additional employment for the educated, which would lead to higher prices for services such as healthcare provided to the uneducated by the educated. Thus, the real wage of the uneducated might actually decrease with pro-market reforms.

The bottomline is that different groups of people want to preserve their current rents, while also trying to expand their opportunities. But opportunity expansion is always good for some and bad for some, and everybody cannot preserve their rents. As a result, the people "may act like crabs in a bucket, willing to pull down any crab that appears to be climbing out, with the active help of the elite oligopolist, who prefers them all to stay in the bucket. The oligopolist may even forego some reforms that could enhance his rents, for fear that they would unify the crabs in the bucket and allow them to overwhelm him."

The general suggestions for policy formulation are not different from what we already know: pro-market reforms should be accompanied with reasonable endowments for education to different groups of people. However, this is easier said than done. What is a "reasonable endowment"? What should be the sequencing of pro-market reforms and endowments for education? How can the government persuade diverse groups of people to follow a coordinated reform process? The last question indeed seems to be the crux of the problem, to persuade uncoordinated masses of uneducated and educated people to think in a coordinated manner. Even the other questions are not answered in a straight-forward manner because economics and its implementation is still a science (?) under development.

Although this is a highly academic paper, I think it provides a framework to understand the complexities of much that is going on in India these days, especially with regard to OBC reservations, SEZ expansions, the Narmada Bachao Andalon, etc. And it shows that it is wrong to analyze these problems from highly simplified viewpoints such as corrupt politics, or manipulative corporations, or "irrational mobs" in a democracy. In fact, they subsume the media, civil services, democratic politics, economics, and what not. An utterly complex world that humans have woven for themselves! Small can indeed be beautiful :)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

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