Saturday, June 24, 2006

What next for GAID?

Well now that GAID has been launched, what next for GAID? Too early to say yet, but I hope it does not take forever to get things going. I had an interesting conversation with Sarbuland Khan, Executive Co-ordinator of GAID, where he assured that GAID would not be a "talk-shop" and there would be sure and steady progress. I admire him for saying this and look forward to delivery of what has been promised. General consensus amongst other participants were generally the same "we have seen and heard all this before, and let's see what happens". IMO, there must be positive, practical and relvant indicators within the next 6 months, if not, then its taking too long and will be another episode in the series.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Malaysia, Knock-offs, the price of Beer and great Biryani

I am homeward bound early tommorrow morning. Malaysia has been interesting. The biryani (rice and spices cooked with meat with Indian - Hyderabad - origins) is absolutely fabulous here. If you are shopping, the range of knock-offs is huge, and if they don't have it, they will get it within a day. I went to one of the more popular markets one evening and was accosted by gangs of young men flogging the latest movies on DVD. They even have them categorised. For 15 Ringgit (about USD 4), you get a "retail copy", for 10 Ringgit (about USD 2.8) you get a "master copy" and for 8 Ringgit (about USD 2.20) you get a "cinema copy" - with bobbing heads and all! I am uncertain as to where the "retail copy" comes from for movies which have not yet been released on DVD. As I was looking at the selection one of the young men had (out of curiosity than anything else, as I cannot stand watching the pirated rubbish with poor vision and lousy audio) there was this sudden panic that seemed to run through the whole market. As I took a closer look at what was happening I realised that just about all the stall holders were equipped with walkie-talkies and a running commentary could be heard coming through these. Suddenly out popped large boxes and bags and all the wares on display were thrown in and within about 2 minutes more than half the stalls were empty and the stall-holders had disappeared, including the young man I had been talking to. What I had just observed was a police raid (well an attempt anyway). The stall-holders are so well organised that I doubt these "raids" do much to dent their business. After walking around for about 40mins or so I could see that the Gucci's and CKs were back on the stalls again, so it appears the police were gone and it was back to business as usual.

Earlier on, I had stopped at a Soft Drink seller in the same market to get a can of soft drink. As I was juggling with the coins to pay him, he whispered if I would like a beer instead. I looked up quizzically and he motioned towards a cooler box hidden behind the main one and said "good taste, good brand". I asked him how much, he suggested 6 Ringgit, but cheaper if I bought more. I said not right now thanks and took my soft drink for 2 Ringgit. The cheapest beer I had seen thus far was 15 Ringgit so this was a bargain. I am uncertain as to what the deal was here, perhaps it was smuggled beer from across the border. Later as I passed by towards the back of the "soft drink seller" I realised that he was not alone - there were at least 4 of them in total, with one rather rough looking individual sitting atop a large cool-box, so I decided to observe for a while. It turns out that "Rough-boy" was sitting atop the stash of booze to replenish the stock out front. I also noticed a steady influx of customers for the "good taste, good brand", so obviously this is also well run. Full points for entrepreneurship and meeting a commercial need!

I also did the mandatory visit to the Twin Towers, yep, its a set of tall buildings and the designer shopping centre next to it. Point to note, taxi drivers are an absolute rip-off in KL. Ask them to use the meter or find a taxi which will. The monorail and light train are also not bad, but unfortunately serve different parts of KL, so you really need to plan your trip, or keep changing from one to the other (and not all stations are inter-change stations).

Conclusion? Malaysia ain't half bad, next time around I would like to go outside KL to places like Malacca and Serawak. Haggle with the taxi drivers or they will rip you off, the markets have a better range of Gucci then a Gucci store (and whatever price is advised first, you should be able to bargain down to at least half or less - at the market, not the Gucci store!), beer is expensive (even from the soft drink seller), the biryani is great, the people friendly, and take a good camera if you have an interest in buildings and architecture.

Malaysia's MSC

Day 3 was spent on a visit around Putrajaya as well a visit to the MSC Innovation Centre, where we found out that Malaysia was now into the animation game as well. Apparently the recent animated feature "Saladin" was done in Malaysia. There was a demonstration of various multimedia technology as well a presentation on why someone should relocate to facilities within MSC. There were a list of government guarantees put up, one of which was around IP. This made me laugh (not as loud as I wanted to though).....a stroll through just about any market in KL will confront you with pirated versions of anything from the latest Hollywood movies to designerwear........uncertain what the IP guarantee means.........I suppose I should ask someone but not sure who will give me a non-cynical reply. Without doubt, the MSC facilities are pretty darn good, though, and the Malaysian Government's plans to extend and connect multiple satellite "multimedia cities" would be interesting. A valid point on Malaysia's plans to become an ICT leader and knowledge-based economy was put forth by a participant who happened to be from India. He questioned whether Malaysia, with some 25million people, really had the HR capacity to compete with someone like India with 1billion people. Food for thought indeed. One of the responses to this was, we will import them from India (and apparently this may already be happening).....hmmmmm........

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

GAID 2006 Workshops

Day 2 of GAID 2006 was dedicated to a couple of workshops. These were:
- Common multi-stakeholder frameworks for developing effective policies and sustainable partnerships for mainstreaming ICT in Health
- Common multi-stakeholder frameworks for developing effective policies and sustainable partnerships for mainstreaming ICT in Education
- Common multi-stakeholder frameworks for developing effective policies and sustainable partnerships for mainstreaming ICT in Entrepreneurship and poverty eradication
- Intersectoral governance and ICT strategy for development in countries with economies in transition

As these were run in concurrent pairs, I was only able to attend the Health and Intersectoral Governance ones and exchanged notes with (some new-found and some old) colleagues on the other sessions. From the two I attended my perception was that the workshop lacked real focus. There were a set of panellists out in the front of the room, each of whom gave a presentation, some based on their organisation's work, others on generic topics centred around the workshop theme. The audience was then asked for questions. The problem with this was that the panel were not necessarily able to respond to questions, as they were there more to provide anecdotal comments rather than solutions and workflows. Sometimes the responses to questions were so out of subject that many in the audience were left a bit dazed. During the Intersectoral governance workshop I asked a question on how new Internet services such as VoIP should be handled in a regulatory environment and the likely impact of such actions in developing economies and economies in transition. Instead of a panellist from the emerging economies represented answering, the answer was provided by one from the US, who simply suggested "VoIP should be considered" and then went off on a tangent talking about net neutrality, which is a buzz word in the US at the moment. I thought of going back to the microphone to emphasise that I seeked the view of one of the rest of the panellists who actually were from emerging/transitioning economies, then decided to not bother and instead had a chat with a colleague from The Gambia who was seeking answers to the perceived US control of the Internet (ie. the ICANN debate).

The Health workshop was perhaps slightly better in terms of content, and issues such as standards and human resources also crept into the deliberations. I think first and foremost, it must be realised by all and sundry experts that although ICT can indeed be an important tool in Health, for most developing economies the priorities become basic health services (ie. primary health care) and how to deliver these basic services. An issue, particularly in Fiji in recent times, is how to retain our nurses who are constantly leaving for better paying jobs in the developed countries. I fear until such basic concerns (primary health care and HR) are addressed first, any work with/involving ICT will always be secondary. If there are no properly trained staff, who will use the ICT tools? If there are no properly trained staff, how can a diagnosis be made using telemedicine technology?

As I was not present at the other two workshops due to scheduling clashes, I do not want to comment on them, but I imagine ICT in education is well developed and continuously evolving. I would have loved to attend the ICT in poverty eradication one, which could potentially have been very interesting.

I am also uncertain as to what the outcome of these workshops are to be. Although I could not see anyone transcripting, I believe the proceedings were videoed. The summaries provided by each workshop chair at the collective summary round were a bit hoo-hoo-hah-hah and not too far from gooney-goo-goo I thought. But then again maybe I am just a cynic........

Panel Discussion at GAID 2006

The Panel Discussion was themed "National ICT Strategies For Achieving The MDGs" and featured panellists from around the world including Peter Bruck of the World Summit Award, Kim Hak-Su, Executive Secretary, UN/ESCAP, Ali Abbasov, Minister of Communications and Information Technologies, Azerbaijan, Anne Cobb, President, VISA International CEMEA, Dato Lee Yee Cheong, Co-Chair of Task Force on STI, United Nations Millennium Project, Dato Suriah Abdul Rahman, Advisor, Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Malaysia, A.W. Khan, Assistant Director-General, UNESCO and Renate Bloom, President of the Conference of NGOs (CONGO).

Some of the discussion was quite interesting, in particular the frank and open manner in which the Azerbaijan Minister put forth his views on corruption as an issue for business development and how it affects the private sector progress in a free, open and transparent manner. His comments were met with wide (and loud) applause from the audience. Anne Cobb (VISA) stressed the need for electronic payments instead of cash as the solution, however her comments sounded more like a sales pitch to use VISA as a payment medium. Whilst there are definitely merits with electronic payment, the bigger issue is whether someone like VISA will support the small scale prevalent in regions such as the Pacific and the Carribbean, and whether these regions have the infrastructure (and economy) to support such transactions on an all-encompassing scale. She also raised how RFPs from developing countries tend to be complex and over-engineered (and I absolutely agree - some RFPs leave me scratching my head, perhaps a reason for the follicular fallout) and she questioned why this is so prevalent in developing countries and emerging economies. She was also asked whether VISA would be interested in helping finance telecentres in the developing world, but she dodged the question and went off on a tangent on bureacracy and the difficulties of market entry in some countries.

Lee Yee Cheong talked about ICT being just one enabling technology amongst many others, eg. biotech, space technology, nano-technology, etc., and stressed for an increase in donor work by developed countries. He also stated that physical infrastructure must be relevant to local conditions and must be approached in a holistic manner eg. including electricity - I guess he was trying to say what use is ICT if there is no electricity. He also suggested the failure of the millenium project was the lack of recognition/regard for youth, who are probably the most important social group in society. Suriah Abdul Rahman stressed that strong political will must exist for real success. He also stressed the need to connect schools to a network. Malaysia has 10,000 schools connected serving 5,000,000 children. There was also the question raised on the actual viability and use of telecentres. He suggested success is totally dependent on community engagement in the process and I would add providing real, demonstrable benefits for improvement in socio-economic conditions in the long-term - not just putting in PCs with an internet connection for surfing.

Kim Hak-Su from UN/ESCAP suggested a pilot project of best practice, and this must also consider cultural and religious perspectives, which are often strong in developing countries. He also stated that the public and private sectors must partner for long-term viability and there is a need to involve inter-government and regional organisations. AW Khan from UNESCO also stressed my point earlier about the mere existance of telecentres not being the answer - he stressed there must be a valid linkage to poverty reduction by ICTs. He also stated there must be a viable business model in place for sustainability, which is something I would say enough real attention is not paid to - there appears to be a scramble to deploy telecentres (I guess it looks good on an Organisations profile when they say they have installed x number of telecentres in this and that region to improve people's lives). Khan also stressed on the quality of education improvement - introducing technology for the sake of introducing technology is meaningless. My take on this is having 50 PCs in a school is useless if the proper and relevant curriculum does not exist to make use of the PCs. Khan also stated a need to identify the role of ICT in non-formal education. His parting shot was that the "C" in "ICT" stands for "Communications", not "Computer" and suggested that after some 5 years of the WSIS process this has still not been realised and fully understood. What he meant here was that, much like the telecentre scramble, PCs are being thrown left, right and centre by various Organisations (I have seen many a profile stating the number of PCs donated to this and that school, community, etc.) and this may not be the appropriate technology. Sometimes the ubiquitous radio may be the best medium to achieve an objective and this all points to using the appropriate technology based on local conditions.

The key points in the panel discussion for me were the existing conditions in developing economies which include corruption and over-complicating desired solutions (whether through a RFP or otherwise), both of which need to be addressed for progress to be made, and the use of technology relevant and practical to local conditions as being one of the most critical factors to real success (as compared to perceived success as expressed by the proponents, which is pretty much always present in every ICT-related project!).

Monday, June 19, 2006

GAID 2006 Opening Session

Today was the Opening Session which included a series of the usual mandatory speeches, a panel discussion and the official launch of GAID by the Malaysian PM which was intertwined with a multimedia spin verifying his identity on a projection screen and initiating the launch - something like pressing the nuke switch in a movie. From the PM's speech, it is interesting to note that Malaysia has achieved all the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) except for one, and I wonder where this puts them on the world scene. It would be interesting to have a look at data by country and where each is the with MDGs. There was also a committment by Malaysia's colourful Science and Technology Minister, Jamaluddin bin Dato’ Mohd Jarjis (or JJ as he is more commonly known) that Malaysia will go to some effort to give back to the world their expertise and knowledge for development of less fortunate nations. I found this quite interesting and will try and follow what actions Malaysia will embark upon to achieve this. The panel discussion was interesting and I will cover that separately. Following the launch, the evening saw an official reception for delegates with dinner and cultural performances where Malaysia's multi-cultural heritage was show-cased followed by (apparently a very popular) local singer and her rendition of some popular songs. I shared my dinner table with some invitees to the dinner who were a bit confused as to why they were there and what it was all about.........and they work for the UN.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Since this morning was (somewhat) free I decided to explore the location a bit. Putrajaya was created (or perhaps I should say is being created, as works are still in progress) as an administrative city (with the aim of being a paperless government - real e-government) located within Malaysia's much touted MSC (Multimedia Super Corridor), and apparently will become the new capital city in due course. There are a couple of grand hotels in the area, one of which is the conference hotel, the Marriott Putrajaya located within the IOI Resort campus. There was a shopping centre not far from the hotel which was open so I decided to go visit. Enroute, the helpful driver did a quick tour of the city and its grandiose buildings. Apparently most of the buildings are modelled after other buildings around the (mainly Islamic) world which is all quite interesting. The Prime Minister's offices are a bit of a visual feast as is the Putrajaya International Convetion Centre (or the cowboy hat as some locals call it). The city is highly planned and very surgical in its layout. The nice bit is the surrounding greenery as there has been emphasis in maintaining an environmentally friendly theme. There is still a lot of work progressing, particularly landscaping and it would be interesting to come back in say 3 years time to see how this has turned out. Putrajaya is roughly half-way between KLIA and KL and the locals are essentially all Government employees, who apparently have allocated housing depending on their rank. The King also has a palace retreat in Putrajaya "but only about 12 rooms" according to the driver. There is also a grand mosque near the city centre, visitors can walk around it but access to the main prayer hall is only for those who practice the religion. I also plan to visit some of the MSC facilities later this week, but more on that later.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

An interesting welcome to Malaysia

So I arrived in Kuala Lumpur earlier tonight (my first visit to Malaysia) and was quite amused by the attention I received. Off the plane, and as I was heading towards the train that connects the 2 buildings that make up KLIA (KL International Airport), I see someone waving a GAID sign up and down so I figured I should go up to him. He seemed to know who I was and escorted me on to the train. He told me that at the other end of the short trip another person would be waiting, and so there was. He greeted me and took me towards Immigration where and enroute I got introduced to another 2 gentlemen who all guided me in the right direction. Just before Immigration, yet another gentleman asked me if I had filled in the arrival form, I said yes, and then was told to head towards the VIP Immigration counter. I was told another person would be waiting on the other side of the Immigration counter, and as promised there was. He took me to the baggage claim hall where I collected my baggage and then got waved through Customs. Outside I was told there would be someone to meet me, and indeed there were actually four of them - all looking quite relieved after seeing me was the impression I had. I was then led to a vehicle which would transport me at breakneck speed to the hotel in Putrajaya, location of GAID 2006.

I found out at the end that I was the last person to arrive that night, and it would appear there were some 11 or 12 people (all from the Government of Malaysia) waiting to escort me through from arrival to hotel. I found all the fuss quite amusing but I suppose that's protocol for you! I must add that all the dozen or so people I encountered in the process were very welcoming and handled everything in an efficient and professional manner. Indeed an interesting welcome to Malaysia (and the airport in the forest and forest
in the airport ain't too bad either).

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Off to Malaysia and GAID 2006

After being repeatedly asked to attend the inaugural UN GAID (Global Alliance for ICT and Development) meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I have finally decided to attend.........I am always somewhat skeptical by such meetings, which more often than not amount to a talk-shop........but then I am just a humble cynic at best.......more from KL next week.

In case you are wondering what is GAID, from a press release (the full press release is available here) by the UN:

The mission of the Global Alliance for ICT and Development will be to facilitate and promote such integration by providing a platform for an open, inclusive, multi-stakeholder cross-sectoral policy dialogue on the role of information and communication technology in development. It will thus contribute to linking the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society with the broader United Nations development agenda.

The Alliance will organize thematic events addressing core issues related to the role of information and communication technology in economic development and eradication of poverty, employment and enterprise in pro-poor growth scenarios, with particular focus on health, education, gender, youth, disabled and disadvantaged segments of society. Groups of participants would coalesce around specific topics of mutual interest put forward for discussion.

In building on existing initiatives and institutions and promoting synergy among them, the Alliance will make extensive use of the latest web-based collaborative technologies, thus minimizing the need for physical meetings. The Global Alliance will function primarily as a decentralized network, open to participation of all stakeholders, including Governments, business, civil society and international organizations. The Alliance will aim significantly to expand the circle of participants in policy and partnership debate beyond the traditional set of stakeholders, by actively engaging constituencies that currently are not adequately involved, particularly non-governmental participants from developing countries, media, academia, youth and women’s groups.

The $100 Laptop

Well, it appears Mr Negroponte has a new prototype of his laptop, and with some refinement. And its looking pretty darned good.

Ever since his project hit the mainstream media, there has been a level of buzz in the Pacific about how good it would be to give this out to kids here. What most don't realise is that it is an economy of scale issue. I understand that a Government must commit to purchase a certain number (which I understand to be larger than the population of some  island countries). Reading comments from others around the world, there  is also the question of priorities. Most developing countries are more  concerned with provide electricity, clean water, sanitation and basic health services to their population. A laptop for every kid in the village would not exactly fit into the picture per se, and I, for now,  don't see Governments shelling out $$$ for these just yet. Then I hear people say let's talk to the politicians and they will listen to us and act. Again, and I say this from observation and experience, it ain't that simple. Yes some may listen, and will most definitely agree its a good idea, but ask them for the $$$ to fund it and you will get a polite answer on funds being committed on priority projects such as those mentioned earlier, which is valid.

There are also questions on how getting and paying for Internet access for these laptops, particularly in rural areas. Of course, the Internet is not the only application for the laptops, but in today's age, an important one. Mr Negroponte and his team have done the necessary engineering (and continue the refinement process), now it is time for the rest of us to work out how these will be deployed and how the deployment will be sustained in the long run, what the constraints for acceptance will be, how exactly a curriculum will be developed (and how quickly) to support (a more holistic) educational use for the laptop, and how to make sure the laptop does not end up as a boat anchor or table-top...... ;-)