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Cheap Indian Tablet Seeks to Bridge Digital Divide

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

India has had many false starts in innovating in information technology. While the country and its talented army of software engineers have a global reputation for innovation, the fits and starts that have accompanied attempts to create new hardware and devices have drawn a range of emotions, from amusement to frustration.

India faces an urgent problem: the country is falling behind others in the global South in access to the Internet. Based on 2009 data, there are 5.1 Internet users for every 100 Indians. This compares poorly with Brazil at 39.2 per 100 and China at 28.5.

The challenge is to find inexpensive devices that allow people to access the Internet through mobile phone networks. With 37 percent of India’s 1.21 billion people living below the official poverty line – and some estimates placing the number at up to 77 percent – cheap devices are urgently needed to reach the poor. A study developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI),  found eight Indian states account for more poor people than the 26 poorest African countries combined. The Indian states had 421 million “poor” people, compared to 410 million poor in the poorest African countries, it concluded.

The World Bank recently criticised India for lacklustre results in addressing poverty levels.

Five years ago, the Indian government launched a competitive search for an inexpensive device for the masses. The government has been supporting the development of these devices through its National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (Sakshat) (http://www.sakshat.ac.in). It aims to link 25,000 colleges and 400 universities in India in an e-learning program.

The motivation behind these attempts is a good one: to try and find an affordable device to bridge the digital divide (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_divide) and reach the majority of the population living on less than US $2 a day.

But the search has had mixed results.

Low points included a failed attempt to make a rival to the One Laptop Per Child (http://www.onelaptop.org) computer from MIT (Massachusetts Institute for Technology) with an Indian version selling for US $10. What was offered instead in 2009 was a device with no screen or keyboard, requiring an additional laptop and paper to access its stored files. It was also made in Taiwan, rather than India.

Another first stab at making a US $35 tablet computer was launched in 2010 with much fanfare, but by January 2011 the Indian government had dropped manufacturers HCL Technologies for failing to honour its 600 million rupee (US $13 million) contract.

What these first steps show is the complexity of hardware development and how challenging it is to get the user experience right for customers while keeping the price affordable.

But India recently relaunched what it is calling the world’s cheapest tablet computer, selling for US $35. It is called Aakash (http://www.akashslate.com) (http://www.aakashcomputer.co.in), meaning “sky” in the Sanskrit language, and is being sold as an e-learning tool to bridge the digital divide in the country.

The utility of tablets (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tablet_personal_computer) and e-readers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_e-book_readers) for people in the global South is clear: they can enable people to bypass the lack of local library facilities to store vast personal archives of books. This is a powerful educational tool: imagine a village doctor with easy access to thousands of medical texts and papers, or a child preparing for university exams no longer having to worry they can find study texts. It also is a cost-effective way to publish in many local languages and break the stranglehold English-language publishing has had on delivering e-books.

Aakash will be sold for US $35 to educational institutions and marketed for private sale for US $61 under the UbiSlate brand name (http://www.ubisurfer.com). It is also hoped the tablet can be sold in the UK and the USA.

Jointly developed by engineers in India, Canada and the UK, it will be assembled at DataWind’s manufacturing plant in Hyderabad, India (http://datawind.com/products.html). Datawind also makes other low-cost, portable devices like the PocketSurfer3 (http://www.pocketsurfer.co.uk).

The project is run by two Indian-born Canadians, DataWind chief executive officer Suneet Singh Tuli and his brother Raja Singh Tuli.

Based in Montreal, Canada, DataWind bills itself as “a leading developer of wireless web access products and services.”

Suneet Singh Tuli wants to sell 1 million tablets a month. The first 100,000 tablets are being bought by the Indian government and then sold to university students.

The Aakash uses the Google Android operating system (http://www.android.com) and has a WiFi capability, 17.78 centimetre wide screen, two USB ports (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USB) and battery that can last three hours. It can stream high-definition videos, read e-books and run Microsoft Windows Office applications.

The components in the device are a mix, including parts DataWind has designed itself to save costs.

“This is not a one-time opportunity,” Suneet Singh Tuli told the Toronto Star newspaper. “There are 2½ to 3 million students entering university every year, as well as 80 million students in Grades 9 to 12, and the government is very serious about making mobile products available to this age group.

“I could tell you a romantic story about two Indian brothers who arrive in Montreal to get a great Canadian education, become citizens, and then go back to India to bring Internet to the masses,” says Tuli.

“But the reality is, this is all about profit – my investors and board wouldn’t want it any other way.”

To compare, the Amazon Kindle Fire device (http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Fire-Color/dp/B0051VVOB2), which launched recently, sells for US $199 and has fewer features.

“The rich have access to the digital world; the poor and ordinary have been excluded. Aakash will end that digital divide,” Kapil Sibal, India’s education minister told the Financial Times.

India’s initiatives are heating up competition with the One Laptop Per Child project set up by MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte (http://one.laptop.org). The colourful OLPC laptop sells for around US $200, and 2 million have been distributed to Latin America, Africa elsewhere.

While many companies and entrepreneurs are developing products for the poor and the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) markets, it is still a difficult thing to get right. A big issue is aspiration: consumers are still attracted to products they perceive as aspirational and quality, despite a higher price.

“(Aakash) might suffer the Nano syndrome,” Shashi Bhusan, technology analyst at brokerage Prabhudas Lilladher, told the Financial Times, referring to the cheap made-in-India car that failed to catch on (http://tatanano.inservices.tatamotors.com/tatamotors). “It is always difficult to predict the market’s reaction to a product, but what we have learnt from the Nano is that people don’t want to buy the ‘car-like’ product, they want the real thing … I feel the same will probably happen with this ‘laptop-like’ product.”

And others strongly disagree that gadgets can transcend the deep-seated social problems that need radical change.

“It is charity of a very superficial nature,” said George Mathew, director of Delhi’s Institute of Social Sciences. “It has nothing to do with the structure and permanency of our society and our system – you have to work for systemic change.”

Earlier this year an Indian company produced a rival to Amazon’s Kindle (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kindle-Store/b?ie=UTF8&node=341677031). The Wink (http://www.thewinkstore.com/ereader/index) is designed to accommodate 15 common Indian languages, comes in an eye-catching design and is complemented by a sleek website stuffed with e-books ready for download. The entire package is very well-thought-out and marketed.

The Wink was developed and built by EC Media International and retails, according to its website, for Rs 8,999 (US $200). It looks similar to the Kindle, but where the Kindle is grey the Wink is white. This Indian rival has some impressive capabilities: it can not only support 15 Indian languages, it can also access an online library of more than 200,000 book titles. They range from arts and entertainment to biography, newspapers and science topics. There is also a large archive of free books for download.

But it has come in for criticism for its price, which some say is far too high for the Indian market.

As has been shown by the information technology experience in other countries, it is constant innovation and trial and error which will eventually create successes. But with persistence, this is one space to keep watching.

Published: October 2011

Resources

1) How to build your own personal computer: This guide helps to demystify computing hardware and shows how to build a computer at home. Website: http://www.buildeasypc.com/

2) Hardware design and architecture: An archive of free e-books on all aspects of computer hardware and architecture design. An outstanding resource to get anyone started in computer engineering. Website: http://www.e-booksdirectory.com/listing.php?category=38

3) Jonathan Ive is the man behind the highly successful and user-friendly modern design that has turned the Apple computer brand into such a global success story. He provides tips on how to design usable computer hardware and shares the secrets of his success. Website: http://www.wired.com/culture/design/news/2003/06/59381

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

© David South Consulting 2022

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Turning African Youth on to Technology

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

An African NGO believes the Internet is the single biggest key to rapid development in Africa – and it is working to connect youth, women and rural populations to the web, and in turn, switch them on to the vast resources stored across the world’s Internet sites.

After initial successes with a youth project and with farmers, Voices of Africa (VOA) (http://www.voicesofafrica.info) is now seeking to scale up its work to fan out across Africa – and take its services to the world’s largest refugee camp, the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. 

The youth and technology empowerment NGO has developed a business model to deliver low-cost Internet access and e-resources to Africa’s slums and rural farmers.

VOA argues that “the digital divide, defined by a lack of access to information for a specific population, symbolizes the largest difference between developed and developing countries: the opportunity to obtain and utilize information.”

“The digital divide runs much deeper than hardware and software,” it says. “While equipment is necessary it is not sufficient. The real heart of the digital divide is that those without access to information resources often suffer needlessly while the solutions to their problems are floating in the air.”

But why is the Internet so important?

“The internet puts the choice of content at the fingertips of the user,” explains executive director Crystal Kigoni. “Traditional media is one way communications. Internet is bi-directional.

“Our NGO is completely grassroots. We train the people who train the people. It is an each one, teach one philosophy and is highly effective. We also design our projects to be self-sustainable after one year of successful implementation.”

The philosophy behind Voices of Africa – “Sustainable Development through Information Empowerment” – is to give people the information and resources to take better control of their lives.

Access to the Internet in Africa is patchy and, for the poor, an expensive resource. The penetration of mobile phones in Africa has been spectacular in the past five years. But there are limits to the resources people can afford to access with their phones. Issues abound about data costs, mobile phone networks, and mobile phone capability.

VOA targets youth and women in sub-Saharan Africa through online educational resources offered on their e-learning website (http://elearning.voicesofafrica.info/). The resources have been certified by Nazarene University (http://www.anu.ac.ke), a private university in Nairobi, Kenya.

The e-learning resources include high quality training videos, presentations and screencasts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screencast) – like a movie, it is a digital recording of changes on a computer screen and is used to teach software – to share on the web. The resources are also shared through compact discs (CDs) and iPods (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPod).

Project coordinator Nick Kungu coordinates the staff working on the pilot Kenyan projects: a Rural Internet Kiosk; a Youth Empowerment Center; and KiberaNet, which launched in August 2011. VOA uses a part-time and volunteer staff of more than 20 Kenyans and four international ‘virtual’ volunteers.

The group is also working with farmers in Kutus, central Kenya, to help them get a better price for their products and introduce sustainable agriculture practices. This is done through online courses so the farmers do not need to travel. It is hoped by doing this they can improve the supply of food for the country.

The Youth Empowerment Center in Webuye constituency of the Western province of Kenya involves a partnership with the government of Kenya to teach computer basics, research and data collection, social media, ICT (information communication technology) for development, social business and community health.

In rural areas, the need for information cannot be overestimated. In the remote countryside, there are few schools with adequate resources and almost no community libraries. The lifesaving knowledge the people require has to date been completely beyond their grasp. As one rural woman in the Western province of Kenya exclaimed to VOA after encountering the resources on the Internet, “It is like being brought from the darkness into the light.”

Another project in development is SlumNet, which seeks to combine the Internet with low-cost devices like tablet computers and netbooks. Its pilot scheme, KiberaNet, launched this month in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya to test the business model. VOA hopes to then expand it to Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. It is using a business model to bring low-cost Internet access to Africa’s slums that is fully funded by the local communities and the users.

It has identified the key needs of youth in slums that need to be met: a way to access the vast resources available on the Internet; a way to generate income, undertake low-cost learning, and organise for social justice; ways to overcome social, economic and political isolation; a way to access affordable equipment and resources to improve their quality of life in the short-term.

To make it a sustainable business model, the community takes a 60 percent stake in the incorporated entity. Voices of Africa will select six local civil society organisations to take another 10 percent stake in the business. VOA takes 10 percent and the remaining 30 percent will be open to outside investors.

It involves setting up a closed intranet system and Internet access covering the entire Kibera slum, which has an estimated population of 2 million, a majority under the age of 30.

KiberaNet hopes to act as a community hub for socialising, education and generating content. A key part is creating an atmosphere that is welcoming to novices. The business model is about delivering the bandwidth of Internet access and simultaneously generating a sustainable source of income to keep it going. Partners in the business include Promote Africa, Plexus Group and Future Optics Networks.

VOA also has been blogging about its time in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camp (http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e483a16) at their website, www.voicesofafrica.info, and has been developing plans to expand services to the camp, home to over 400,000 refugees from drought and famine in Somalia. The camp was only designed to hold 90,000 people. The chronic food insecurity has caused a massive humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, leaving over 10 million people in need of help.

“There are plenty of resources going in but it is aid business as usual,” claims Kigoni. “You see lots of waste in many areas, and a lack in others that would be extremely beneficial. Hence, why Voices of Africa has come up with the youth technology and empowerment plan that accompanies a general information and communications system, DadaabNet.”

DadaabNet will be a youth-run community Internet service and education service. VOA plans to use a wireless intranet, internal communications systems and low-cost internet access in the refugee camp.

The project is the first of its kind in Dadaab and a first in Kenya, claims VOA, allowing free educational content without needing to access the Internet

The intranet will host free educational videos that can be accessed by mobile phones and computers. The topics covered in the videos include health, nutrition, sanitation and computer training and how to use technology for sustainable development.

The curriculum is also approved by Nazerene University to certificate level.

The system is supervised and would be able to offer resources to other NGOs seeking to provide services to the camp’s residents. The intention is to open up opportunities for education and employment youth who are currently unemployed.

At present the youth in the camp, many of whom have not completed secondary school, get by ‘hustling’ for work, according to VOA. By being left to their own devices, there is a risk they will fall into negative behaviour like crime and drug use or be preyed upon by terrorist organisations operating in the area like al Shabaab, they maintain.

“In our dreams, everyone everywhere in the world can have the opportunity to develop their minds. It is through this creativity that Africa will rise,” concludes Kigoni.

Resources

1) The Impact of Mobile Phones on Profits from Livestock Activities by Roxana Barrantes. Website:http://www.mendeley.com/research/impact-mobile-phones-profits-livestock-activities-evidence-puno-peru-14/

2) 2011 UNHCR Country Operations Profile – Kenya. Website: http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e483a16

3) Southern Innovator magazine: New global magazine Southern Innovator’s first issue is out now and is about Mobile Phones and Information Technology in the global South. Website:http://www.scribd.com/doc/57980406/Southern-Innovator-Issue-1

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This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

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

© David South Consulting 2021

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Making the World a Better Place for Southern Projects

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

Good ideas are plentiful, but how to fund life-improving projects has always been a thorny issue. Judging how effective a project is can also be fraught with debate and contention. Over the past two decades, the number of NGOs in the global South has exploded (http://lboro.ac.uk/gawc/rb/rb144.html). The best of them offer the local knowledge and understanding required to make development gains. But unlike NGOs in the North, many lack the powerful fundraising capabilities of the big global NGO brands.

An exciting new initiative based in Germany, but already featuring hundreds of projects from across the South, is using the power of the internet to directly connect projects and donors.

Joana Breidenbach, an anthropologist, author and co-founder of betterplace.org (www.betterplace.org), says NGOs are emerging in India and other countries of the South to challenge the big Northern global NGOs.

“Why wouldn’t you want to donate to these Southern NGOs? There are more entrepreneurs and local approaches which are better.

“Betterplace gives local institutions a platform to express themselves.”

Started in 2007, betterplace is an online marketplace for projects to raise funds. It is free, and it passes on 100 percent of the money raised on the platform to the projects. The foundation that runs betterplace supports its overheads by offering additional services that people can pay for if they wish. It works in a way similar to the online marketplace eBay (http://www.ebay.com): NGOs post their project, set up an account, blog about their achievements and successes and needs, and receive donations direct to their bank account when they come in.

Breidenbach points out up to a third of any NGO’s income is spent on fundraising. In Germany, that represents more than Euro 1.3 billion out of over Euro 4 billion in private donations – money that could have gone directly into the hands of the people needing help.

With betterplace, donators can surf through the projects and pick the one they want. Already, more than 100 large corporations trawl through betterplace seeking projects to fund to meet their corporate social responsibility (CSR) obligations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporate_social_responsibility).

“I find it very exciting to introduce a good and innovative NGO to a corporate sponsor,” Breidenbach said.

Breidenbach says betterplace’s ultimate goal is “to transfer the donation market online.” It hopes to change the rules in donation and charity in the same way blogs and the search engine Google changed the way people publish and search for information.

“This provides better transparency, feedback,” Breidenbach said. “Now (with betterplace) donors and organizations can cut out the middlemen. A lot of established organizations do not like this too much.”

Over the past decade, new concepts like social entrepreneurs and venture philanthropy have emerged to straddle the delicate line between social good and private profit. Betterplace joins this wave of new thinking about how to do development better.

In the 20 months since betterplace went online more than 1,500 projects have joined. They are now averaging between 20 to 35 new projects joining every week.

Betterplace is a simple open-plan office on the top floor of a Berlin warehouse beside the city’s Spree river. The small team (http://www.betterplace.org/about_us/team) work on laptop computers. A blackboard on the wall details in bright colours a running tally of the projects that have joined.

Breidenbach gives the example of a mother in Cameroon who is using betterplace to raise the school fees for her children. The mother blogs about the children’s progress and has been able to raise the fees for a year and a half.

“People are now directly connected to somebody in need.”

“Right now the functionality (of the website) does not allow people getting in contact publicly and we want to enable this knowledge transfer in 2010. If you want to build a well in Cameroon then you could search for the best technology and to contact other people who are doing similar projects to learn from them.”

Success on betterplace is by no means certain. “The experience of the project managers has been as varied as development work is – some have done really well, raising thousands of Euros over the website – others have received no funding at all,” Breidenbach said.

But betterplace provides tools to give the projects the best chance possible. “Projects can present their work, breaking it down in a transparent way (in order to let supporters know exactly what is needed for their realization), there are sound payment processes in place and project managers can give feedback through their project blog, supporters can download project widgets etc., all supplied free of charge.”

Breidenbach has other tips for making betterplace work for a project: post details in English when creating a profile, break down the project into much smaller, low-cost goals (few people are willing to make large donations) – this also has the advantage of receiving payments straight away when they are small. Tell a good story about the project, and try and use actual testimonials from the people affected. Blog and update regularly with photos and videos to keep people engaged. Also avoid copying and pasting text from a previous grant application.

“We have the numbers to show that projects which give regular feedback and have a lively web of trust receive more donations than others, which are not very active.”

“Don’t think you can just go on to betterplace and the money starts rolling in,” said Breidenbach.

The betterplace platform places all projects seeking funds on the same level, allowing individuals and small NGOs to compete equally with the big, branded global NGOs with their websites and sophisticated fundraising operations.

“All the big NGOs have their own websites,” continues Breidenbach. “But it is the small initiatives that often don’t have a website or know how to use Pay Pal etc. (http://www.paypal.com). We are very useful for smaller NGOs.”

“Another big advantage is that we are a real marketplace: whatever your interests (as a potential donor), you will find a project tackling this issue on the platform.”

But what about fraud and people seeing betterplace as a coin-making machine rather than a way to make the world a better place?

“We have a feeling for dodgy projects. We check the IP address. We have a number of trust mechanisms in place (and are currently working on enlarging them). Thus projects on betterplace can create trust through their good name … But we also include something which I would call network-trust: In our web of trust different kinds of stakeholders of an organization or a project have a voice and can publicly state what they think of it. Thus beneficiaries of a project can say if the project has done them good or has been counterproductive, people who have visited the project on the ground can describe what they have seen etc. … we hope to give a much denser and more varied impression of social work and give donors (a terribly badly informed group of people), the basis for a much more informed choice.

“If a contributor to a project is dissatisfied with the project’s outcome … she can either directly contact the project manager via betterplace, or openly voice her concern on the project page for other potential donors to see her views.”

For now, betterplace is still only useful to people who have access to the internet and have a bank account (necessary for the money transfers). But in the future betterplace hopes to have mobile phone interactivity and more features to expand who they can reach.

“We are also re-working our site to make it more intuitive and easier to use for people without computer skills,” Breidenbach said. “In the pipeline is also a knowledge backbone, enabling people to access knowhow about development and social innovation issues and exchange views and experiences. This will be very useful for projects in the South as so many people are working on the same issues without knowing about it. They could learn a lot from each other, without the “help” of the north.”

With internet broadband in Africa set to take off, according to the report Africa Connect: Undersea Cables to Drive an African Broadband Boom (http://www.pyr.com/downloads.htm?id=5&sc=PR090309_INSAME1.6), even more people will soon be able to make the most of initiatives like betterplace.

Resources

1) CSR Wire: This is a news service with all the latest news, reports and events and where companies announce their CSR (corporate social responsibility) programmes and how much they are contributing. A great resource for any NGO looking to make a targeted appeal for funds. Website:http://www.csrwire.com/

2) Alibaba: Alibaba.com is an online marketplace started in China but is now global. It allows businesses from all over the world to trade with each other, make deals and find funding. Website: http://www.alibaba.com/

3) More photos from the Betterplace HQ in Berlin, Germany. Website: http://www.flickr.com/photos/15195144@N06/sets/72157622386871044/ and here https://davidsouthconsulting.org/betterplace-photos/ 

Published: September 2009

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.  

Follow @SouthSouth1

Google Books: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=uXWUyfb4MacC&dq=development+challenges+september+2009&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Slideshare: http://www.slideshare.net/DavidSouth1/development-challengessouthsouthsolutionsseptember2009issue

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

“A few weeks ago, David South, Development consultant and author of UNDP’s Development Challenges, South-South Solutions Newsletter, came by the betterplace office to take a look at our work. When I asked him how he had come about betterplace.org, he answered: he found me on twitter! So much for the twitter-scepticts. Read the article about how we can Make the World a Better Place for Southern Projects. (As the UNDP always publishes the newsletter on its South to South Website only months later, here is the link via David South’s blog).”

Photos from inside the Betterplace.org Berlin HQ: Betterplace.org HQ Photos

Joana Breidenbach
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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

By the 1990s, cables (like above) were being joined by satellites to advance the global connectivity revolution. By the 2000s, cables (copper and fibre optic) and satellites were joined by mobile and smart phones, to deliver “kommunikation total”.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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

© David South Consulting 2021