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Computer ‘Gold Farming’ Turning Virtual Reality Into Real Profits

The rapid spread of the internet around the global South is bringing with it new forms of work. One of these trends is so-called “gold farming”: making money in the virtual world of computer gaming by trading in virtual money, prizes and goods for busy gamers who don’t have time to do it themselves. This work now employs 400,000 people – mostly men and mostly in China, but also elsewhere in the South, according to a new report.

Working out of internet centres where they can get access to high-speed or broadband internet connections, “gold farmers” use the global trade in virtual goods for online computer games in the same way stockbrokers trade shares on the world’s stock exchanges. The trade operates similarly to the stock market, with prices fluctuating based on demand and changing by the minute.

And as the report discovered, this trade is acting as a gateway into the world of information technology employment, where computer-literate young men are able to earn an income they could not have done otherwise.

It is a trade that can provide gold farmers with US $145 a month in income. They are often given free food and accommodation to do it, and many have few other economic choices.

“You can probably think of two models,” said the report’s author, Professor Richard Heeks of Manchester University’s Development Informatics Group. “They could play as an individual at a local cybercafe doing their own in-game farming and then selling to one of the trading sites (that buy from farmers at one price, then sell on to player-buyers at a higher price). Or they could be organized into a small/medium enterprise by an owner, all working together in a room full of computers.”

There is a dark side to gold farming too: there have been reports of youths forced to gold farm by gangs who make them work 12 hour days. Crime gangs sometimes become involved and scams proliferate.

Heeks says the downside is the result of governmental ignorance. “The main problem is a lack of understanding about ICT and ICT enterprise generally in some governments in developing countries and in particular a relative lack of understanding about the spread and implications of computer games.”

Supporters see gold farming as a flourishing Southern economy that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and exposes participants both to information technology skills and the wide horizons of the virtual computing world. Its defenders say it shows that those who dismiss the expansion of IT infrastructure as a waste of time are missing the emerging economic opportunities it is creating.

Heeks said we still know too little about this fast-evolving sector, but that “gold farming does seem to be providing income/livelihood for young men who would otherwise be unemployed. There are claims that it has helped mop up youths who had otherwise been involved in crime, but we don’t yet know how generalized such claims are.”

The number of players engaged in online gaming has grown by 80 percent per year, and Heeks sees the rise in gold farming as linked to a bigger trend: “in both North and South, we will spend increasing amounts of work and leisure time in cyberspace. Couple that with the growing penetration of ICTs into developing countries, including into poor communities, and there will be growing opportunities for this kind of ‘virtual outsourcing.’”

Currently, more than 300 million people worldwide have access to the internet through fast broadband connections (mostly in developed countries, although this is changing quickly), and more than 1.1 billion of the world’s estimated 6.6 billion people are online.

China is working hard to capture the economic power of the internet. The country’s economic boom has helped create an affluent urban middle class clamouring for the social aspects of internet access like chat rooms, while the government has been driving the roll-out of internet access in rural areas.

The country’s largest Cyber Park is under construction in Wujin New and High-tech Development Zone of Changzhou. It will be a technology incubator, a research and development centre, and a place for small and medium-sized enterprises to innovate.

China’s most ambitious digital media industry development is the Beijing Cyber Recreation District (CRD), a collection of digital media academies and company incubators spread over 100 square kilometres, creating the world’s largest virtual world development. It is already home to more than 200 game and multimedia content producers in western Beijing.

And even in Africa, where broadband penetration rates are very poor, countries are now looking to the mobile phone companies to provide their populations with access to the internet, as they struggle to find a place at the digital table.

Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean strategically close to Africa and better known for tourism and luxury hotels, wants to become the world’s “cyber island”, and Africa’s e-gateway. Armed with the first 3G network in Africa (the third generation of mobile phone technology – offering high-speed internet access and video telephony), Mauritius is moving fast to make good on this advantage. And it is even moving to the next level of mobile-phone speed, High-speed Download Packet Access (HSDPA) – allowing even greater quantities of information to be exchanged.

Mauritius joins a select few countries, including Japan and South Korea, at the forefront of access to 3G. Wireless – or wi-fi – computer access is available in three-quarters of the island.

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: September 2008

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/Httpwww.slideshare.netDavidSouth1development-challengessouthsouthsolutionsseptember2008issue

Slideshare: http://www.slideshare.net/DavidSouth1/development-challengessouthsouthsolutionsseptember2008issue

Southern Innovator Issue 1: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Q1O54YSE2BgC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 2: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Ty0N969dcssC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 3: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=AQNt4YmhZagC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 4: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9T_n2tA7l4EC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 5: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6ILdAgAAQBAJ&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

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© David South Consulting 2021

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Kommunikation total: Der siebte Kontinent

In 1998 Der Spiegel’s “Kommunikation total” issue profiled the global connectivity revolution underway and being accelerated by the Internet boom of the late 1990s. It chose my picture of a satellite dish and a ger in the Gobi Desert to symbolise this historic event.

Scroll through a PDF of the story (my photo is on the last page).


“Die Handy-Gesellschaft war erst der Anfang: Experten sehen in den Sphären des Internet einen neuen Erdteil entstehen. Hier lebt die Info-Elite, umgeben von PC, Pager, Powerbook. Die Multimedia-Industrie wird zur Schlüsselbranche des 21. Jahrhunderts – mit gravierenden Folgen für die Gesellschaft.”

English translation: “Total communication: the seventh continent –
The cell phone society was just the beginning: Experts see a new continent emerging in the spheres of the Internet. The information elite live here, surrounded by PCs, pagers and power books. The multimedia industry is becoming the key industry of the 21st century – with serious consequences for society.” (http://t-off.khd-research.net/Spiegel/10.html)
From The Turns of Translation Studies: New Paradigms Or Shifting Viewpoints? By Mary Snell-Hornby · 2006.
Der Spiegel is a German weekly news magazine and is one of Europe’s largest publications of its kind. It chose my photo taken in the Gobi Desert for its profile of the Internet revolution in 1998.

“The transformation of Mongolia from a largely rural nomadic society of herdsmen to a community dominated by the increasingly ultra-globalized city of Ulan Bator, where almost a third of the population lives, is nothing short of astounding.” The New Mongolia: From Gold Rush to Climate Change, Association for Asian Studies, Volume 18:3 (Winter 2013): Central Asia

From 1997 to 1999, I served as the Communications Coordinator (head of communications) for the United Nations (UN)/United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) mission in Mongolia, founding and directing its UNDP Mongolia Communications Office. 

Copies of Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia by Jill Lawless are still available in various editions and languages.

Published in 2000 (ECW Press: Toronto), Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia by Canadian author and foreign correspondent Jill Lawless also selected the ‘ger’ photo for its cover image.

The world has changed considerably since then; and so has Mongolia. The digital revolution has rolled across the planet, the attacks of 9/11 unleashed a wave of violence and wars, and Mongolia even became the fastest-growing economy in the world a few years ago (2012). But back when this book was researched, Mongolia was just coming out of decades of isolation within the Soviet orbit under Communism, and the country experienced in the 1990s “one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever” (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994). 

“The years 1998 and 1999 have been volatile ones for Mongolia, with revolving door governments, the assassination of a minister, emerging corruption, a banking scandal, in-fighting within the ruling Democratic Coalition, frequent paralysis within the Parliament, and disputes over the Constitution. Economically, the period was unstable and rife with controversies.” Mongolia in 1998 and 1999: Past, Present, and Future at the New Millennium by Sheldon R. Severinghaus, Asian Survey, Vol. 40, No. 1, A Survey of Asia in 1999 (Jan. – Feb., 2000), pp. 130-139 (Publisher: University of California)

That collapse made for some crazy times, as Wild East shows. 

Read a small sample of David South’s new media journalism and reporting from the 1990s here: From Special Report: NMM (New Media Markets) Spotlight On The Emergence Of Satellite Porn Channels In The UK

Channel Regulation: Swedes Will Fight Children’s Advertising All The Way

Two trends came together at the end of the 1990s and the start of the 2000s: the digital revolution and the mapping of the human genome. Both have given birth to whole new industries. Read more here: The Dawn Of The Genetics Revolution | 2001 – 2003

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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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What is the UN doing with your data?

2011

France24: UN among victims of massive cyber-spying campaign

“Cyber-security experts have unveiled one of the biggest computer hacking campaigns to date, releasing a list of 72 organisations whose networks were attacked over a five-year period. Victims include the UN and several governments.

REUTERS – Security experts have discovered the biggest series of cyber attacks to date, involving the infiltration of the networks of 72 organizations including the United Nations, governments and companies around the world. … 

In the case of the United Nations, the hackers broke into the computer system of its secretariat in Geneva in 2008, hid there for nearly two years, and quietly combed through reams of secret data, according to McAfee.”

2019

June

Xinhua: China, UN to build big data research institute in Hangzhou

2020

January

The New Humanitarian: EXCLUSIVE: The cyber attack the UN tried to keep under wraps

“If there are no consequences for the [UN] agencies for failures like these … there will be more breaches.”

About this investigation:
While researching cybersecurity last November, we came across a confidential report about the UN. Networks and databases had been severely compromised – and almost no one we spoke to had heard about it. This article about that attack adds to The New Humanitarian’s previous coverage on humanitarian data. We look at how the UN got hacked and how it handled this breach, raising questions about the UN’s responsibilities in data protection and its diplomatic privileges.

April

Quartz: The UN is partnering with China’s biggest surveillance software company

Foreign Policy: EXCLUSIVE U.N.: Backs Down on Partnership With Chinese Firm for 75th Anniversary: The decision comes after U.S. officials and human rights advocates complained that Tencent aids Beijing in surveillance.

October

WSJ Opinion: China Uses the U.N. to Expand Its Surveillance Reach | In the name of ‘sustainable development,’ Beijing takes the lead in data collection efforts.

December

United Nations: Inauguration Ceremony Regional Hub for Big Data in China in support of the United Nations Global Platform

“I am very honoured to join you today in this inauguration ceremony of the Regional Hub for Big Data in China, in support of the United Nations Global Platform. The inauguration of this Regional Hub is most important, and timely. 

The demand for data, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, is greater than ever.  Governments are in need of detailed data on the spread of the virus and its impacts on society. Under these challenging circumstances, statistical institutes have had to respond urgently to the demand for data, and to present innovative solutions. Consequently, in these times of need, the statistical community is now able to effectively use Big Data and advanced technologies. 

For example, census data – together with detailed geospatial information – can help identify the most vulnerable populations during the pandemic. And, real-time data on the position and movement of ships, for example, can estimate the volume of cargo being transported, and thus help produce estimates on the state of the economy. These real-time shipping data are available as a global data set on the United Nations Global Platform, and can be accessed by the whole statistical community.”

2021

March

Financial Times: Opinion Technology sector: As digital trade grows, so does western distrust of Beijing: China is moving to the forefront of global innovation but governments fear privacy breaches

April

Nikkei Asia: Comment: Data suspicions threaten to tear China and west apart: Applications by Chinese companies see 200-fold increase since 1999

“Unique Identity for All”: Biometric identity is being rolled out across the planet. HSB is one of the many players in this fast-growing data collection sector. Companies such as HSB collect data on behalf of international organisations.
This story is from 1992 and is a rare glimpse into Canada’s data sharing agreements with the US and other countries.

Data integrity and cross-border data sharing have been concerns for a very long time. False Data Makes Border Screening Corruptible

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Mongolia Looks to Become Asian IT Leader

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

A Mongolian information technology company founded by a woman has shown a way to thrive in the country’s often-chaotic economic environment. With the global economic crisis moving into its third year, Intec’s strategies to survive and thrive offer lessons for other IT start-ups in the South.

While the global economy’s prospects are still uncertain, on the positive side, many believe the best place to be is in emerging economies like Mongolia, with some foreseeing healthy growth for the next 20 to 30 years. Mongolia’s information technology entrepreneurs are looking to prove this is the case. The country has made great strides in improving e-government – jumping from 82nd place to 53rd in the UN e-government survey 2010 (http://www2.unpan.org/egovkb/global_reports/10report.htm) – and is now aiming to become an Asian software and IT services outsourcing powerhouse.

A Northeast Asian nation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongolia) sandwiched between Russia and fast-growing China, Mongolia grapples with the combination of a large territory, a small population (2,641,216) and limited transport infrastructure connecting it to its neighbours. Historically, it is a nomadic nation with a strong animal herding tradition. But during the Communist period, it industrialized and became more urban. After the collapse of Communism at the beginning of the 1990s, the country experienced a terrible economic and social crisis, with rapidly rising poverty rates and high unemployment.

Despite its infrastructure obstacles, Mongolia has been able to develop a lively information technology sector, often with the assistance of the United Nations. During the late 1990s, as the internet revolution exploded, the UN led on supporting infrastructure, skills development, innovation and legislation.

Information technology consulting and services company Intec (www.itconsulting.mn) , founded in 2004, has been able to thrive through the global economy’s ups and downs by identifying an under-serviced niche as a consulting, research and training company. Intec now has five full-time staff and works with a broad network of Mongolian and international consultants.

As is often the case with new businesses, Intec initially found that many doors were closed to start-up enterprises.

“The major challenges which I faced were to make people understand about the consulting services,” said Intec’s founder, Lkhagvasuren Ariunaa. “The consulting services concept was new to Mongolia and Mongolians at that time and not many organizations were willing to work with consulting services. The international and donor organizations were keen to work with consulting services companies; however, they were requiring companies to have a list of successfully implemented projects, which was difficult for a new starter like Intec.

“For example, registering with the Asian Development Bank consulting services database required companies to be operational for at least three years. So, we got registered with ADB consulting services database only in 2008. Meanwhile, personal connections and communication skills helped to find jobs and opportunities for Intec.”

Ariunaa had worked for the Soros Foundation (http://www.soros.org/) but it closed its offices in Mongolia in 2004. Faced with unemployment, Ariunaa went about seeing what she could do next: a dilemma many people face in today’s economy.

“It took me about eight months to develop a business plan and directions of operation of the company. I started in a big room at the national information technology park building with one table, chair and computer.

“It has been quite challenging years for bringing a company to the market and finding niches for us. We have franchised the Indian Aptech WorldWide Training center (http://www.aptech-worldwide.com) in Mongolia – may be one of the few franchising businesses in Mongolia. Currently that center is now a separate entity/company and it has over 20 plus faculty staff and over 300 students.”

Ariunaa had been active in the sector for over 10 years, but while knowing many of the players and organizations, she spent time researching what niche Intec could fill in the marketplace.

“Looking at the ICT market, there were quite a number of internet service providers, mobile phone operators, a few companies started developing software applications, and services etc. However, there were only two to three consulting companies in the ICT sector which to my knowledge at that time were providing consulting services, and still there was a room for Intec.”

Intec then focused on three areas: consulting services, training and skills, and research. Intec found they were pioneering a new concept in Mongolia.

Intec’s first contract was a job with the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin in the United States to organize a three week course for American students to learn about the digital divide in Mongolia. But the global economic crisis hit Mongolia hard in 2009.

“It was challenging to survive and continue working the same way,” Ariunaa said. “There were few ICT-related jobs in Mongolia at that time, and one of our major clients left Mongolia and we had to find other clients in the market.

“One of the ways of approaching this was that we were not asking for fees, instead we would have a barter agreement – we will deliver them services and they will provide some services for us. For the company itself, we needed to find ways of financing and covering costs for renting of premises, paying salaries for staff on time, paying taxes and other expenses.”

The environment in Mongolia is being helped by the Information and Communications Technology and Post Authority (ICTPA) of Mongolia (http://www.ictpa.gov.mn) , which has been driving forward an e-Mongolia master plan. With 16 objectives, it ambitiously seeks to place Mongolia in the top five of Asian IT nations, competing with South Korea, Singapore, Japan and China.

Ariunaa believes Mongolia has many competitive advantages. “Mongolia is known for a high-literacy rate and math-oriented training and education, and ICT specialists are targeting to become a software outsourcing country for other countries. Another advantage of Mongolians is that they can easily learn other languages: we are fluent in Russian, English, Japanese, Korean, German and we believe that with these two major advantages, we will be able to do a good job with outsourcing of software development.”

While men still dominate the ICT sector in Mongolia, Ariunaa has not found being a woman a disadvantage. “In Mongolia, as gender specialists say, there is a reverse gender situation. Women are educated, well-recognized and well-respected. There were situations, when I was the only women participant in the meeting with about 20 men. But I never felt somewhat discriminated or mis-treated and I think that’s the overall situation towards gender in Mongolia.”

Intec’s success working with Aptech WorldWide Training’s franchising contract brought many advantages for a start-up. “It’s a faster way to do things, and you don’t have to re-invent the wheel.”

As a Mongolian company, Intec has found it best to play to its local strengths. “National companies have knowledge, expertise and experience of local situations, know players and understand about legal, regulatory matters. … partnership or cooperation are one of the means of cooperating with big global players.”

Intec’s success is also down to Ariunaa’s enthusiasm: “It’s fun and I love doing it – just usually do not have enough time!”

Resources

1)  Advice on starting a business and succeeding in tough economic times. Website:http://www.businesslink.gov.uk/bdotg/action/layer?topicId=1073858805

2) Changing Dynamics of Global Computer Software and Services Industry: Implications for Developing Countries: A report from UNCTAD on how computer software can become the most internationally dispersed high-tech industry. Website:http://www.unctad.org/templates/webflyer.asp?docid=1913&intitemid=2529&lang=1

3) Afrinnovator: Is about telling the stories of African start-ups, African innovation, African made technology, African tech entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs. Their mission is to ‘Put Africa on the Map’ by covering these kinds of stories from all over Africa. As their website says, “if we don’t tell our own story, who will tell it for us?” Website:http://afrinnovator.com

4) TechMasai: Pan-African start-up news and reviews. Website: www.techmasai.com

5) Ger Magazine Project: Mongolia’s first online magazine pioneered communicating on the web. Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ger_magazine

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Launched in 1997 in a major crisis, the UN Mongolia Development Portal (www.un-mongolia.mn) became the country’s largest online bilingual publisher and an award-winning pioneer of web content. It proved Mongolia had the potential to innovate in digital.
Story featured in the UN E-Government Knowledgebase and E-Government Survey in Media.