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Does the developing world need internet access more than food drives?

Dec 30, 2015

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Kosta Grammatis is the founder of A Human Right, a non-profit charged with ensuring all people have access to the Internet.  His work has informed millions on the power and importance of Internet access. Previously, he was an engineer for SpaceX, a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, and co-founder of the bionic eye “Eyeborg Project',” which was named one of TIME Magazine's best Inventions. He’s currently a correspondent for Al Jazeera covering science, technology, and their human impact. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.

As a vocal advocate of universal Internet access, I’m asked one question more than any other: Aren’t there more pressing issues than bringing connectivity to the developing world? In fairness, it’s an excellent question. After all, millions lack basic needs—clean water, food, healthcare, education—so how could Internet infrastructure benefit them?

This question doesn’t come just from the casual naysayer. In 2013, Bill Gates commented on Facebook’s plans to bring Internet to the developing world: “The world is not flat, and PCs are not, in the hierarchy of human needs, in the first five rungs." Respectfully, I disagree. Internet access is an essential tool that helps people to help themselves.

The Internet is not just a frivolous tool used to update social media or watch cute cat videos—it is key to improving the efficiency of development, a catalyst that helps people pull themselves out of poverty. Today, 55 percent of the world’s population does not have access to the Internet. Without the knowledge it provides, those people are left to figure things out on their own.

Take, for example, William Kamkwamba. Born into poverty to a farming family in Malawi, Africa, he was unable to afford school tuition due to a crippling famine. Desperate to continue learning, he began to frequent the library, where he discovered old texts on electronics. He quickly fell in love with the topic, and, over several years, went about piecing together the components to build what we know as a windmill, which he used to power home appliances he picked up in a local junkyard.

Yes, William reinvented the windmill.

Some roving journalists discovered his work. Impressed by his ingenuity, they took William around the world to share his story of reinvention. In one interview, William was asked if he’d ever Googled before. He had not, and so, on a borrowed computer, he typed “windmill” into the search engine. As millions of links (36 million, to be exact) returned detailing every aspect of how a windmill worked, William asked with astonishment, “Where was Google all this time?”

We have to wonder what William could have accomplished if he had the Internet as a tool to help him learn. What else could he have built? And could he have used those skills to help the community around him?

Fortunately, we have that answer: To date, William has built six classrooms for the local primary school, brought in laptops from the One Laptop Per Child program, installed solar panels, deployed a local network—complete with an eGranary server filled with 32 million reference documents—and installed a biogas digester that converts cow dung into cooking gas.

Elsewhere, fledgling stopgap solutions to the access problem are springing up. Take, for instance, the Question Box, which is being deployed around the world. Each box, dozens of which are currently active, contains a cellphone module and speaker connected to a remote operator with an Internet connection. That person is responsible for answering any question posited by a passerby—kind of like a human-powered version of Google Voice Search.

Gawri Bapusaheb Dhokle, a 12-year-old student living in India's western state of Maharashtra, wanted to know how many people in her city of Pune had been afflicted with the swine flu. On the Question Box’s first day of operation in her community, Gawri stepped up to the box, pushed its green button, and asked her question in her local language, Marathi: "How many people were detected with swine flu in Pune?" After a brief delay, an operator responded: "Forty-six people died, and 864 people are living with swine flu." Now she knew just how bad the epidemic was, and to what extent she should be concerned—information she could use to protect herself, and her community.

Gawri isn’t the only person living with questions that could be answered with a simple Google search. Farmers want to know the market prices for their crops or when it’s the right time to harvest; families have medical queries; and children are continuously burning with curiosity about everything.

Much of the network to satisfy those needs already exists. Today, 95 percent of the world’s population is covered by mobile service, and 69 percent of that coverage is data-capable 3G. A brand-new smartphone can be purchased for as little as $30, and a mobile charging industry is blossoming to keep phones juiced up.

But here’s the rub: Since 2013, the price of mobile broadband service has been increasing for the least developed countries. It’s left to service providers to get proactive about lowering the barriers to entry.

The benefits of doing so could be staggering. Without low-cost mobile data, it’s harder to monitor whether a newly dug well is still supplying clean water. It’s challenging to track the delivery of food to the world’s hungriest. It’s impossible to provide tele-health services to the most remote places in the world. And you can forget about providing an education to anyone who wants to try an online class.

Are there more pressing issues than Internet access? Maybe the Internet won’t give a man a fish, but it can teach him how to catch one—and anything else he ever wanted to know.

Kosta Grammatis

Founder of A Human Right

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