Friday, 21 October 2011

Informing the Illiterate-Dhaka Courier Article, October 20th, 2011

http://www.dhakacourier.com.bd/?p=2372


Shayan S Khan

After India got its cheap $35 (for students) tablet PCs, Bangladesh may be on the verge of using the handheld devices for its own giant leap across the technological divide- provided a unique pilot about to conclude in Gazipur can be replicated at a national level.

”Digits to All” is the flagship project of an ambitious undertaking by four individuals that has at its heart two concepts at the cutting edge of technology today- cloud based computing, and the tablet PC.

Its stated aim is to “bridge the illiteracy wall” that denies the masses in a poor country like Bangladesh direct access to information, simply due to their inability to read or write. A guiding principle of what motivated the four- three businessmen and a lawyer- is that being illiterate doesn’t mean one should be uninformed as well.

With that in mind, they set up Amadeyr Cloud Ltd (ACL), focusing on finding solutions to the problem of “bridging the digital and literacy divide” and “maximising information efficiency”.

Digits to All, for which the initial pilot has been entirely funded by ACL itself, is causing some excitement in development circles, with its delivery system that aims to demonstrate information can be directly delivered to even illiterate users, who can in turn comprehend it fully and most importantly- put it to good use.

The system was envisioned (and subsequently implemented during the pilot) as a “loop”, starting with content ranging from information on how to obtain a birth certificate to precautions against dengue fever uploaded on to the “Amadeyr Cloud” in the form of “apps”. The content is then accessed through “Amadeyr Tablets”- given free of charge to user groups, although ACL expects the purchase of the tablets to be financed by recipients’ usage of the devices.

To complete the loop, usage data is relayed back to the cloud, helping ACL to not only maintain the cloud, but also to keep expanding it through continuous customisation to suit users’ wants and needs.

Under the initial pilot, one Amadeyr Tablet each was distributed amongst 138 households in Nij Maona village of Gazipur, just outside the capital. Four WiFi networks were set up across the village to allow the villagers to go online with their tablets, and download content from the Amadeyr Cloud, which incidentally is the first cloud server developed in the country.

The tablets run on Google’s Android operating system, and have been specifically designed and customised by ACL for use by “illiterate and bottom-of-the-pyramid” users. They’re no iPad or Playbook, but they get the job done.

The “illiteracy-proof” content currently on the cloud has mostly been developed by the ACL team in conjunction with their strategic partners such as Infokosh/A2I. Brac University as well, has provided valuable technical support.

In order get past the illiteracy barrier, all content aims to be as audiovisual as possible- be it information on paddy cultivation, cattle farming, producing organic fertilisers, how to avoid or deal with different diseases, pregnancy advice, or primary and secondary level e-books.

The birth certificate application for example, contains audio instructions at each step of filling out the form, to nudge the user along towards submitting the completed application online.

The results of the pilot are still to be weighed up formally, through a survey that compares it with an initial baseline that was conducted at the start. That will reveal how truly scalable the project can be.

But already in just four months, it has thrown up some remarkable stories, as UNB discovered on a recent visit to the project site. One couple learned about fisheries, and used what they learned to grow a pond of fish, each weighing “1 to 1.5kg”, which they now expect now to sell at a profit. A tea-stall owner not only expanded his shop, he went on to start a poultry farm as well. One woman started a vegetable farm, while another finally realised a lifelong dream to write her own name.

Elizabeth Ali, chairperson of ACL and the lone non-Bangladeshi amongst the four founders, is very keen to point out that the results they have in so far show a greater propensity amongst women in the household to make use of the tablet and explore its possibilities.

One regret for Ms Ali is the inability of the ACL team to develop and upload more content onto the cloud, “to keep up with the users”, who are evidently lapping up all the information made available to them.

But that too serves to demonstrate the validity of the ACL team’s overriding objective- even in the absence of literacy, with a little bit of creativity, information delivery and consumption can be optimised to yield some audacious results.

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