Archive for Technology

e-petitions and Legistlation

I just read a very interesting BBC Technology article on making e-petitions compulsory for all UK councils, and I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if similar legislations were to be passed in many African countries?’ Having said that, I don’t think this bill goes far enough since, most e-petitions do and will continue to be ignored by lawmakers.

So what if, in addition to e-petitions, the law required lawmakers to publish summaries of legislation they plan to pass at least 45 days in advance? Similarly, citizens would also create e-petitions of laws they would like to see passed during the coming legislation period. Then let citizens vote (via sms/web, or even via direct mail) on the combined list of e-petitions and legislation proposals. Lawmakers would then ‘only’ work on, say, the top 10 of the vote getters. And if none of the proposals by the legislators make it to the list and they want to work on passing them, then those not on the list would need a super majority vote to become law (e.g., require 66%).

The reason I believe it is necessary for citizens to have a say on what laws are worked on and passed each legislative period is that a large number of laws passed by legislators are proposed by powerful interests/lobbyists and are either against the interests of the citizens or are of no or little benefit to them. This would go a long way in making the legislative process more democratic and accountable.

I have no doubt that powerful interests will try to game this system, so I would appreciate your feedback as to whether you think this is a good idea, and how would you improve on this proposal.

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R&D in Developing Nations

An interesting look into Microsoft’s R&D in India by Navi Radjou at the HarvardBusiness.org blog. It’s great to hear that Microsoft is employing “development economists” and “social anthropologists” to develop products designed to specifically address real problems affecting subsistence farmers and small businesses in developing nations. The article also has several good recommendations to other multinational corporations as to how to conduct R&D and deploy solutions in developing nations.

What is missing from the article though is whether the inventions that come out of this research are patented and/or are restricted to work only with Microsoft products. Or are the inventions that come out of this made available to local and other entrepreneurs or NGOs, so that the products developed as a result of the research are affordable enough and without crippling restrictions as to their use and distribution to make them useful to their intended audience?

I guess my fear is that IT multinationals will follow the footsteps of agribusiness multinationals and their genetically modified seeds and the horror stories we keep hearing about the experiences of farmers in developing nations who use these seeds.

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One eBook Reader Per Child

The Amazon Kindle 2 has received some very good reviews, and has in the process reignited people’s interests in ebooks.

ebook readers have the potential to revolutionize education in Africa and the developing world. The lack of text books in schools is a serious issue that hampers the education of students throughout Africa, and ebook readers could play a significant role in addressing this issue.  What if every student has an ebook reader, and gets his/her text book in an ebook? Every student would have a copy of the text books and other required and recommended reading material.  Also imagine every student getting next year’s text books and recommended reading material weeks or even a month or two before school starts? How about making public domain books available for kids to download?

The technology is already available to make this happen (for example, cellphone infrastructure currently in place can be used to download books). The question is, could you make a good ebook reader equivalent to one of these devices for $100 or less, with the main requirements being, say, at least a 2 GB flash storage and with the cellphone connectivity that must work in Africa (Tri Band/3.5G HSDPA)? These are not impossible requirements to meet, since for one thing there are already cellphone carriers providing next generation services in some African countries, and many more will roll out services over the next few years.

Even though the Kindle looks like an amazing device, a closed, proprietary ebook reader should not be used in Africa. So here is a challenge for African computer science and computer engineering students: design an ebook reader that can meet the needs of African students for less than $100. This is similar to the One Laptop per Child project, but better since it aims to solve an existing problem: the lack of textbooks in African schools. It would be tempting to ask the OLPC folks to tackle this challenge, but it would be much better if this was designed by African students, perhaps in collaboration with the OLPC, since they already have valuable technical and business experience in this area.

A criteria for the reader design has to be that open source software needs to be used not only to reduce the cost of the device, but also to encourage students to extend the device and create applications for it.

One last suggestion to the student designers, make sure at least numbers 5, 6 and 7 of Seth Godin’s suggestions for the Kindle are part of the spec/design.

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