NDN Blog

Negroponte on OLPC / The World Bank on Mobile Innovation

Yesterday I was at the IDB for "Reinventing the Classroom: Social and Educational Impact of ICTs in Education."  I wrote yesterday about CEIBAL, Urugay's initiative to distribute laptops to every student and teacher in the public school system.  Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of One Laptop Per Child, followed that with a firey talk in the afternoon.

NegroponteThe mission of education, Negroponte reminded his audience, isn't teaching, it's learning. What happens inside the classroom is only a part of the story, and hand-wringing over how to train the teachers to teach the students is silly and a waste of time. Often as not, the students learn to use the laptops themselves, and will teach their parents and each other. There is nobody at this table, he said, who wouldn't buy a laptop for our own child if we could afford it.  To get hung up on assessing the impact of the program is just a waste of time.

Now, clearly, the reality of the world we live in requires impact assessments. And clearly, we can't just drop a stack of laptops on a school in some remote village without any kind of training or introduction. But Negroponte has some inspiring and compelling words nonetheless.

Today's excitemeDevelopmentent is at the World Bank, where the e-Development program is hosting "Mobile Innovations for Social and Economic Transformation." Check out the agenda, or watch online, which will be keeping me distracted until I go over to the Bank for the afternoon sessions.

In the opening session, Brooke Partridge, CEO of Vital Wave consulting, had a pretty interesting presentation about the broad opportunity for mobile in the developing world. To really make sServices work to improve billions of lives in the develping world will require new innovation-- but the innovation that is required is not in IT, but in mastering the business models that can create successful projects and bring them to scale.

CEIBAL's Success - Laptops in Backpacks in Uruguay

I've been over at the IDB all morning, for a series of seminars on the impact of ICTs in education. I'll report on this more in the coming days, but for now:

VazquezPresident Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay gave the keynote this morning, talking about CEIBAL, the very successful national laptops-in-backpacks program he has overseen. He argued that the introduction of technology into education constitutes nothing less than a revolution-- "the most profound and beautiful of revolutions." It's a big word to use in Latin America, but seems appropriate. 

Introducing laptops to every student and teacher in the country is not just a revolution of teaching and learning, he said, but a social revolution as well.  Students now have access to networks that connect everyone-- from the wealthy kids in Montevideo to the 20% of children who live in poverty around the country.  The laptops guarantee nothing, but they're a tool-- for learning, for communication, and for equality-- and they're helping create better educated citizens, who in turn make for a stronger, wealthier country.

Miguel Brechner, President of the Uruguay Technology Laboratory, has been the man in charge of CEIBAL during its three-year rollout.  He followed Vázquez in a technical seminar with a review of the costs and impacts of the program.  He echoed the point made by Marcelo Cabrol of the IDB that this technology is a fundameOLPCntally disruptive innovation, and one that requires vast reorganization of the educational system. Uruguay has met that challenged with a comprehensive rollout of the program over three years, introducing the machines gradually, and coupling them with teacher training and appropriate software.

Nonetheless, Brechner offered an accounting that calculated the cost of the program at about $276 per machine over four years.  This includes the major costs of hardware and connectivity, and many minor costs including service, software, and content.  While no broad academic studies on the impact of the program have yet been done, observational and anecdotal evidence suggests that the machines have been well incorporated by teachers into their lessons, and they have already pushed up attendance and academic achievement.

There's been a lot of negative chatter about OLPC lately, some of it well-grounded.  The program has hit some hurdles, and failed to meet some optimistic projections.  Still, the theory is sound: Understanding technology and having access to the worldwide network through devices like laptops and mobile phones will be an essential part of a child's success in the 21st century, and needs to be introduced to the classroom.  Hats off to Uruguay for pulling it off-- swiftly, completely, affordably and, it seems, successfully.

Global Mobile News: Tweeting Kampala Riots, m-PESA dividends, Carrier Pigeons

Kampala Riots

- If you're like me, you missed the news that there were major riots in Kampala, Uganda late last week.  The MSM didn't make much of the story, but if you had your eye on Twitter, you may have seen some good reporting by @mugumya, @solomonking, @appfrica and @UgandaTalks-- with everything gathered at #kampala. As happened in Iran earlier this year, local media was largely shut down during the riots, so Twitter was one of the only ways people in Uganda could communicate with each other and spread the word about what they were seeing. The Independent had a good explanation of why the riots happened. 

- The Blackberry Curve is coming to South Africa-- big step for smart phones on the continent.  Perhaps South Africans will use their new phones to call the new Presidential hotline (this was one of Jacob Zuma's big campaign promises); the government expects to recieve 1,500 calls a day in a variety of different languages.Carrier Pigeon

- Safaricom, the Kenyan phone company that recently unveiled a solar phone, just announced that they'll be paying dividends to their investors via m-PESA, the popular phone-based money transfer system. Assuming investors sign up, the savings for Safaricom (and their shareholders) could be significant.

- Also, from last week-- a South African company did a test, and found it was faster to send digital data via carrier pigeon than by web.  Ouch.

Laptops in Education - Upcoming IDB Event

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB, or IADB, or BID, depending on where you're from) is putting together a really interesting event for next Tuesday, to talk about technology in education. The slate of speakers includes President Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno, and Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab and the driving force behind the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

They'll be focusing particularly on OLPC-- Negroponte continues to pick up steam, and Uruguay has run a very successful spinoff program that has provided laptops to every student and teacher in the country's public education system.

You may know that we published a paper at NDN a couple years back calling for a similar program here in the US-- A Laptop in Every Backpack.  Alec Ross, who co-authored the paper with Simon, is now a senior advisor on technology and innovation to Secretary Clinton.

Anyway, it's good to see this initiative gaining the support it has, and to see both the IDB and the Department of Education taking laptops seriously as a crucial part of educating our youth. It is pretty hard to imagine a child-- here in the US or anywhere else around the world-- succeeding in the 21st century without a very strong foundation in technology.

I'll be going. You should too, if you can (RSVP here).  If not, I'll be tweeting up a storm and blogging afterward.

Google Competing for Mobile Search in China

The Asia Times had an interesting article last week about Google's travails attempting to replicate the success they have had elsewhere in the world as the dominant search engine.  A big part of their plan is to focus on mobile search, and the article has some interesting bits on the growth of mobile in China:

China didn't introduce 3G mobile-phone technology until the start of this year, and companies such as Baidu and US-based Google are looking to cash in as the world's biggest mobile phone market switches to the faster technology.

China had more than 695 million mobile users at the end of June, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

"As 3G starts in China, mobile Internet will be an explosive opportunity," said Lee Kaifu, president of Google Greater China. That applies across the spectrum of those involved in the business - from phone makers to application developers, to service providers. "For example, Beijing is often choked with traffic. For people who are driving, a real-time traffic map of the city available on mobile phone will be very useful."

Lee envisions a day when more people will be using cellphones than computers to go online in China. At the end of June, about half of the 338 million Internet users in China, or 155 million, have been surfing the net with their phones, said researcher China Internet Network Information Center .

"Right now, the Internet traffic from mobile phones is about one-twentieth of that from computers in China. But mobile Internet traffic can catch up quickly once the infrastructure is ready," said Lee.

Read the whole article here-- most of the rest is about competition between Baidu and Google.  Interesting stuff.

Global Mobile News: North Korean Mobiles, Betavine, Lagos to London

- The mobile industry is growing in North Korea, of all places, where Egypt-based carrier Orascom has a joint venture with the government.  Orascom reports an eight-fold increase in profits from the first quarter of the year to the second. The country of 23 million presently has only about 48,000 mobile subscribers, but plans to drop prices could greatly expand the user base.  The North Korean government banned mobile phone service in April, 2004, to prevent word leaking about a deadly explosion at a train station, but the government now seems committed to letting mobiles spread.  As we saw in Iran earlier this year, a populous empowered with mobile phones can create major headaches for authoritarian regimes.

- The people of Bangalore hosted the Mobile Tech 4 Social Change conference last week-- sounded like a great event.  Notes from the sessions will be coming here, and MobileActive was tweeting up a storm, if you'd like to look back at their logs.  The next MT4SC conference will be in South Africa at the end of October-- if you're in the neighborhood, be sure to drop by!

- Vodacom, South Africa's biggest mobile carrier, is introducing Betavine, an online R&D lab & community developed by Vodafone (the majority stakeholder in Vodacom).  Betavine will allow collaboration among developers, entrepreneurs and innovators to build widgets and mobile applications for use in South Africa.  This kind of collaboration and community building will be hugely important in creating applications that are relevant to the increasingly diverse user base of mobile phones.

- As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Nigerian IT firm GlobalCom was building a big fibre-optic line to connect Lagos to London.  Well, the connection is complete, and Accra will soon be looped in to the network as well.

- Craigslist has come to Nairobi!

- Google News has come to Senegal!

Global Mobile News: iPhone in China, Solar Phone in Kenya, Mobile Currency

- Apple reached a deal with China Unicom-- China's second largest cell phone operator-- to sell the iPhone in China. Seems like a good move for China Unicom-- they have less than a third the number of customers as China Mobile (the biggest mobile operator in the world, by that metric), but offer a faster, more mature 3G network better suited to the data-intensive iPhone.  This should help China Unicom solidify and grow their market share among China's urban elites, letting China Mobile keep their 500 million (!), mostly low-cost, low-bandwidth customers. 

Safaricom Solar Mobile-Safaricom, Kenya's biggest mobile operator,has just introduced the first solar-charged mobile phone into the Kenyan market.  The solar technology is about a lot more than being green-- for people in rural areas, beyond the reach of the electrical grid, electricity is perhaps the biggest obstacle to mobile use. Charging a phone means sharing a generator, or travelling to a town with reliable electricity.  This solar phone will give millions of rural Kenyans a new way to join the global information network.

- The government of Ghana will not grant licenses to any more mobile network operators, to preclude further crowding of the industry, and to attempt to raise quality of service standards for all operators. Limiting competition doesn't seem like the best path forward here.  A better policy solution would be to force operators to allow customers to keep their phone numbers if they switch carriers-- this would give mobile phone users the power to vote with their Cedis and migrate to the operators with the best service. (via Appfrica)

- In other Ghana news, Globacom, a new mobile phone carrier, is the process of laying high-bandwidth cables that will run from Europe, through Ghana, to Nigeria.  Though very few Ghanaians have landline access to the web, the cable will make internet access faster and more readily available.

- Yesterday, I wrote that Nokia is getting into the mBanking space with a new service. Now, Facebook is beating a path in the same direction, with an early experiment to allow users to pay for services using their cell phones. This seems to be the first step toward a whole new currency traded largely by mobile... Exciting stuff. (via Mobile Active)

- While we were up at Netroots Nation, another convention was going on in Accra-- Maker Faire 2009-- where African innovators and inventors gathered to show off their work-- everything from cassava crushers to mobile apps. Here's a video about the proceedings:

Nokia Gets Into Mobile Banking

One of the biggest areas of untapped potential for mobile phones to change the developing world and improve the lives of billions of people is in mBanking.  As Tom Kalil wrote in a 2008 paper published by NDN affiliate the New Policy Institute:

mBankingNearly three billion poor people in developing countries lack access to basic financial services such as savings, credit, insurance, and money transfers. As CGAP (Consultative Group to Assist the Poor) notes, “Access to financial services enables the poor to build their own path out of poverty …. When poor people have access to financial services, they invest in assets such as sending their children to school, buying medicines and more nutritious foods, fixing a leaky roof, or building income-earning potential by investing in their own enterprises.”...

Mobile technology has the potential to expand the reach of financial services to the poor. Branchless banking using mobile phones and a network of third-party agents (e.g. post offices, small retailers) can reduce the two biggest costs associated with providing financial services: building and maintaining a physical presence, and handling small transactions.

He goes on to describe M-PESA, one of the more successful mBanking services, based in Kenya and born of a partnership between the Vodaphone Group and DFID (the British development agency).

Well, there will soon be another option for would-be mBankers around the world--  Nokia announced today that it would begin offering mBanking services starting next year.  The move (announced in a press release, reported by TechCrunch, Appfrica, & the FT), is part of Nokia's expansion beyond handset manufacturing to services.

The press release points out that, while there are only 1.6 billion bank accounts in the world, there are 4 billion mobile phones, and turning those handsets into financial tools will give billions financial power they currently lack. From the release:

Nokia Money has been designed to be as simple and convenient as making a voice call or sending an SMS. It will enable consumers to send money to another person just by using the person's mobile phone number, as well as to pay merchants for goods and services, pay their utility bills, or recharge their prepaid SIM cards (SIM top-up). The services can be accessed 24 hours a day from anywhere, meaning savings in travel costs and time.

Many of the details aren't yet clear-- Will the service operate independent of local carriers?  Will it be fee-based? how interoperable will it be with other mBanking platforms?  Still, given Nokia's heavyweight status among handset makers and name-recognition, this is one of the biggest steps forward in mBanking that we've seen to date.

Data Mining Mobiles in the Developing World

The MIT Technology Review annually honors young innovators in their TR35 list of technologists changing our world. One of this year's notables is Nathan Eagle, who has been mining mobile phone data to improve public policy and provide income in the developing world:

For instance, he is working with city planners in Kenya and Rwanda to understand how slums grow and change in response to events such as natural disasters and declines in crop prices. And earlier this year, Eagle began using phone-derived data to build a more accurate model of the spread of malaria in Africa.

In February, he launched Txteagle, a service that lets any company send cell-phone users simple tasks such as text translation. Participants are paid with credits that can be used for phone service or redeemed for cash at special kiosks.

Txteagle was so successful that it quickly had many more people willing to take on the small tasks than there were tasks available.  Eagle is planning to realaunch the program later this year in Kenya, Rwanda, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, with changes he hopes will make it sustainable.

When you think about how new all this technology is, its potential to improve our world seems endless. Think how far we've come since, say, 1990:

A Tribute to the Lion of the Senate

America lost a great leader last night, as Senator Ted Kennedy died after a battle with brain cancer. His leadership on immigration reform, on national service, on health care, and on so many other issues will be missed, but his legacy will live on, and echoes of his powerful voice will boom through the halls of congress for years to come.

Tributes to Teddy have poured in from across the country and around the world:

- Obituaries from The Boston Globe, the New York Times, CQ, Time, and Politico.

- Columns from Harold Meyerson at TAP, Ezra Klein at WaPo, Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic, Mike Tomasky in the Guardian, and Josh Marshall at TPM.

- HuffPo rounds up reactions from leaders around the world.

- President Obama's initial statement.

- The NY Times has a timeline of his life.

- Boston NPR affiliate WBUR has a great photo essay with their obit.

- Kennedy biographer Peter Canellos looks at Ted and his brothers.

- A dispatch from Ireland.

- Politico excerpts his great speeches.

He will be missed.

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