UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
"Strong Words About Using Telematics for Development", by Tony Hall

"Strong Words About Using Telematics for Development",

by Tony Hall

Home Truths From Abroad
Strong Words About Using Telematics For Development

by Tony Hall

Sparks started to fly on day two of the Telematics Africa symposium in Addis Ababa yesterday. Among those who lit fires were three speakers on user groups and needs former head of education for Apple Computers David Walker, UNCTAD's Bruno Lanvin on trade, and Peter da Costa of InterPress Service on news media.

Walker warned of the high stakes and risks of the market. "Telematics is a gateway to education equality, but inevitably, it is a gateway to markets..." Africa needs to prepare, and take advantage of the market, but in curriculum content, it must get in and develop its own now, or it will be rolled over by those from America and other outsiders.

Some of the pithy points, from a man at the heart of the industry, but now semi-retired, and feeling free to talk: Telematics will allow education to drive the technologies rather than be driven by them. But there is an enormous industrial influence on education. In Britain, the programme to put microcomputers in schools was run by the Department of Trade and Industry, not Education. "It was industrially driven, and if we're not careful, it always will be."

If Europe had telematics ten years ago, the path of educational development would have been different. Now Africa has the opportunity to use the Internet as a backbone. "I would encourage Africa to go forward in developing new curriculum, because there can be substantial savings by going through the Internet." Using telematics can save 60-80 percent in curriculum development costs, depending on how much they need to be adapted for language and culture. "If you don't go down this route, you will end up buying the American curriculum. If you're a spectator, you won't have an influence."

The future market size of the world information industry is projected at $7,000 billion, and the world total education budget at $6,000 billion. "When the industry sees these figures, they want a piece of the action... You can assume that Africa, even at 0.2 per cent of the total budget, is seen as a market ripe for exploitation."

Walker exhorted policymakers: "You should harness your own voices, so you drive the industry rather than have the industry driving you...Take advantage of the information industry: there is nothing wrong with taking money for knowledge that exists within your own boundaries....You should charge people for having access to rare knowledge existing in Africa."

Many projects claim to have African content or connections, but only four projects worldwide have really cooperated in two-way connections with African countries... Real progress can only be made when the focus is from Africa to the world outside. There is only real partnership when all parties have similar weights of input. Be careful, in learning from developed countries, to distinguish between those issues that are culturally or economically biased and those which are truly transferable.

Telematics in education can help to decentralise decision-making, to end the tyranny of low expectations, to bring in outsiders the second chance learners, and the unemployed.

Knowledge of the Internet is the essential human, business and educational skill we will all need before the end of the century. But to teachers, the Internet is an enormous beast, they're terrified of it, and they need help to find their way round. If you allow children total access to the Internet, they can get lost.

Africa needs a pilot phase, where you filter information through a number of centres or nodes. And in these programmes you may involve teachers, but please have them run by universities and technical staff.

If education in general does not move from lesson-bound software towards developing overlays on powerful generic bases, and integrating telematics, industry may determine future curricula.

A lesson from the developed world is that if you can't afford to put one personal computer for every 30 to 40 pupils in schools, then postpone that equipping, and concentrate on developing telematics programmes.... Concentrate on a top down approach, starting with a telematics philosophy and infrastructure, through training, working down to providing computers in classrooms.

IPS Africa director Peter da Costa caused a stir with his "non-presentation": he handed in his paper for distribution, in which he describes the work of the InterPress Service, as a well-established non-profit organisation disseminating alternative Southern perspectives on world events, and how it uses e-mail, fax servers, software, leased lines and the development of communications among regional news agencies.

But choosing to speak for just a couple of minutes, his points went home to the gathering. Firstly, he noted, "IPS is the only information provider in this symposium..." The role of information providers, of the gatherers and disseminators of news and current information, should not be forgotten, he said. He noted the presence of UNESCO, which supported this activity "and I am surprised we are alone here." He pointed out that 90 per cent of journalists operating in the continent can't even afford a computer. "People have to understand that democratising information is about access."

Bruno Lanvin of UNCTAD followed up with some powerfully expressed home truths, from the viewpoint of an activist promoting third world trade, using the networks.

First of all, he noted, technology is no longer an obstacle in trade development. He then referred to the thrust of the discussion so far, about lack of coordination in networking initiatives: "Many are torn between excitement at so much good work and achievement, but despair at how many don't even know about each other. I will give an opposite view..." He said there are also bad ways of trying to coordinate, when different groups trying to achieve something say, why don't we get together... "Leadership by example can be better the Internet succeeded because it was not coordinated," said Lanvin. What's needed is a point of convergence between active projects, five or ten years down the line. "Coordination through action takes place that way."

Computing and telecommunications were the elements in the launching of UNCTAD's project in the early 1980s, called "Automated Systems in Customs Data," which were applied in a few West African countries including Benin, Togo and Mauritius. "Nobody believed that in the dusty, corrupt corners of bureaucracy like customs you could get a result...," said Lanvin. "But in one year the results were so startling that the have been quoted throughout the world, including by the IMF. And the system has been adopted in 69 countries."

He told of how, at a high-level meeting last year of the Global Trade Point Initiative, one videoconference described how one small enterprise of 35 Colombian women reached markets in Switzerland, the US, Britain and France and was awarded the prize for best performance of 1994. Twenty-five of the women couldn't read or write, but they could network.

The lesson, he said, is that local initiative comes first. "The beneficiary country, or enterprise, takes the first step. But let's start with users' needs expressed, and then see where technology can help.

On the information highway, Lanvin said it will be of little purpose if only a few cars are allowed to run on it. "What we need is not the Ferraris, Jaguars, Rolls Royces, but the sturdy four-wheel drives that take you safely on the rough paths when you leave the highway." The "four-wheel drive technology" of networking is not less advanced, he stressed. "We need to put money in there." He said the Global Trade Point Initiative, which allows small and medium enterprises to exchange information round the world, is emerging as one of the major players in information flows.

Who will finance the information infrastructure? Donors will have to play a significant role, said Lanvin, but nothing will happen without the strong and forceful participation of the private sector. "You can convince them with one word traffic. If you generate traffic, you're in business...

"I would argue that BIT will stand first and foremost for Business, Investment, Trade. If a trade point is established, then you can have social, environmental, health and education objectives realised..."