I vividly remember my first experience using the Internet in 2000. The amount of information I was hit with by typing my first search term, university, was far beyond my wildest imaginations. This plethora of knowledge filled my mind with wonder, excitement, and enlightenment. I suddenly had the power to read, analyze, and learn about anything and anyone. The knowledge created by some of the greatest minds in the history of mankind was at my disposal, free of cost and just one single click away. I felt empowered.
Fast forward to June 2012. I met a village boy, Rajan, at a local orphanage in my hometown of Amritsar, Punjab. Rajan was dynamic in his conversations and I am sure that given the right facilities, had the potential to live a far better life than he was living. I am not naturally more talented than Rajan, but I had all of the resources available to raise my standard of living that my friend did not. I was born in an economically well off and highly educated Indian family. Is success then only a matter of fate? Is it only dependent on which family a person is born into? Isn’t the world losing talent and passion of those millions who, if given the gift of knowledge can make a positive impact in our world?
This case of massive disparity transcends Rajan and engulfs millions all across the developing countries. According to Linux4Africa, an initiative to bridge the digital divide, in Germany, there are 600 computers per 1000 persons. In Mozambique, Southeast Africa there are 6. I strongly believe that human progress is not possible without access to and use of information. Inclusion and collaboration are not abstract concepts in business and society. No individual can create a meaningful life without having an exposure to the digital world. The situation reminds me of a famous adage that a society becomes developed when the highest level of technology touches the lowest section of society.
Establishing cost effective infrastructure, primarily providing access to the Internet is part of the solution to bridge what experts call the digital divide. The digital divide is undoubtedly a monstrous problem that humanity faces today and it becomes critical to find mechanisms that provide cost effective solutions to this gigantic issue. There have been laudable initiatives and experiments in this direction, some of the most notable being the establishment of the The World Summit on the Information Society and the recently launched campaign by Mark Zuckerberg, Internet.org.
How the digital world works
Connecting the world is the first quintessential step towards digital literacy for everyone, however, the solution does not stop there. Filling the digital divide gives birth to the problem of the knowledge divide. Giving a child access to Facebook or Twitter is useless until the child knows how the digital world actually works. Until someone knows how to use information wisely to her benefit and the benefit of those around her, the initiatives and efforts to just provide Internet access are futile. Providing Internet access and filling in the knowledge gap have to go hand in hand to alleviate the standards of living of millions of people who need it the most.
The open source methodology of executing projects offers a potential solution to the aforementioned problems. There have been a few great experiments and initiatives that have seen success in providing cutting edge infrastructure and knowledge in rural areas at a cost effective manner. A few pioneering initiatives are:
- The School Sector Reform Plan
- Open Learning Exchange (OLE) in Nepal
- One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)
- Implementation of Ubuntu to provide a solid solution to the problem of connectivity in rural India by the social enterprise Airjaldi
Both the digital divide and the knowledge divide can be resolved by imbibing the aspects of open source. The foundations on which open source software works can be implemented to permeate the digitization to the lowest parts of the society. Three of my thoughts on how the efforts to address these problems can be made more effective and why open source matters to that end are:
The challenge grant model
I recently finished a great book by John Wood, the founder of Room to Read, in which he discusses his innovative method of involving communities to create libraries. The same approach can be experimented to fix the digital divide problem. The idea is to see which communities are motivated enough to bring knowledge to their doorsteps. Once these communities are detected, local leaders can be involved in taking the ownership. This community based approach creates stronger partnerships between social enterprises, public sector, and most importantly the beneficiaries of the solution. Involving the local people of a city to help create an infrastructure makes those people stakeholders in the entire solution.
Participation is the spinal cord of open source software. The usage of open source software in bridging the digital divide will remove the barriers to participation. To understand how the technology works, it is vital to have access to it and the freedom to explore it. Using free operating systems, like Ubuntu and Fedora, and open software, like XJounal and Kojo, can empower people without restrictions.
The successful use of the Ubuntu on workstations by Airjaldi exemplifies the importance of using open source software. Airjaldi is able to provide superior network solutions to rural parts of India in very cost effective manner. At places where establishing infrastructure is an issue and affordability is low, open source software becomes the only solution to connect the people.
To put the power of information in the hands of those who need it the most requires low cost yet sophisticated solutions. It requires the support of new approaches, like open source.