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Think Beyond Technology!

Think Beyond Technology!

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On my first trip to India, I remember going to visit a rural village near Bhopal, where the Union Carbide chemical disaster happened. The visit was prompted by stories about a large agriculture conglomerate which had placed the first PC in the village in the home of one of the local farmers. I’ll come back to the PC, but one of the things that caught my attention on that visit was a rusting tractor in the middle of the fields. Its tires were flat, its exhaust pipe was bent, and it was clear that it hadn’t been operated in some time. Nearby, two buffalo were pulling a large hoe, matter-of-factly skirting the rusting obstruction. It turned out that the families who had bought the tractor, were unable to pay for its repairs when one day, the tractor broke down. The local mechanics couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They had hoped to get it fixed, eventually, but eventually came later than the ravages of weather. There were mixed opinions about whether the tractor was worth the cost, but no one else in the village had been persuaded to buy a tractor since then.

Since that visit, I’ve probably seen hundreds of technology projects, many of them involving computers and mobile phones. One lesson I’ve learned over the years is that technology requires people and institutions to maintain, and that means that for a technology to have long-term impact, it either needs to be embedded in an institution that is willing to support it, or someone has to build the institution that will support it. Just as with the tractor, a technology without support eventually becomes a technology gathering dust. Nowadays, PCs and mobile phones are piling up alongside tractors as equipment that might once have served a useful purpose, but are now slated for the dust bin. If only the people who had put them there had considered what it would take to maintain the technology…

 

 

The Technology for Emerging Markets group at Microsoft Research India has spent the last five years trying to see how computing technology can be practically relevant for some of the poorest communities in the world, and our most successful projects have been those where we worked with an organization that had a vested interest in seeing the technology work. For example, our Digital Green project was done in collaboration with GREEN Foundation, a local non-profit whose mission to support local farmers with knowledge of sustainable agriculture aligned with our own goals to support farmers. Today, GREEN Foundation runs its own video production and content dissemination – the key components that make up Digital Green – and it does so entirely on its own. If it wasn’t for GREEN Foundation, the villages we worked with would have probably ended up with a bunch of video cameras and no one to know what to do with them.

For the Imagine Cup, the lesson is this: The more you work with organizations that are involved in the problem you’re trying to solve, the more likely they’ll become owners of the technology once you’ve built it. Or, maybe you plan to build an organization (such as a business or a non-profit) that will use the technology to solve problems. Of course, this is a lot to ask within the context of a programming competition, but the more thought you give to these issues, the more we, as judges, will be convinced that you have an idea that might make a real difference. Good luck!

 

-- Kentaro Toyama 

Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research Technology for Emerging Markets Group

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