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Folk Computing


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To close the gap between the technology rich and poor, computer application developers worldwide cannot merely duplicate computing formulas that work in affluent societies. Computing for the impoverished, largely rural, often illiterate masses requires multimedia-dominant environments that reflect a deep understanding of and respect for unique cultural needs and user requirements.

Back in the 1700s, the income disparity between the richest and poorest countries was a mere 2:1; today, it is more than 100:1 and increasing [1]. In 1988, the median income in the richest countries was 77 times that in the poorest 10%; by 1999, the gap had grown to 122 times [2]. This disparity is at the root of the digital dividean economic and social gap not only unfortunate for the have-nots but dangerous for everyone else as well.

The gap began with the industrial revolution of the 19th century but gathered its greatest momentum in the knowledge revolution of the 1980s. Information and timely communication are essential for the proper use and distribution of scarce resources that in turn reward countries with significant socioeconomic benefits. Technology is and always has been the vehicle for communication; countries without it find themselves on the dark side of the digital divide. The richest countries, in contrast, have learned to ride technology's periodic waves for inspiration and profit. The U.S. embraced the printed word and subsequent scientific thinking that led to the industrial revolution; India, for one, did not and has struggled to keep pace with the growth of prosperity ever since.

To change its fortune, a country must select a technology wave and ride it. Timing is critical. Just as a surfer directs the board to coincide with the rise of the wave, so a country must time its adoption to coincide with certain inflection pointsdisruptive technologiesto reap the greatest benefits.

We have seen two such inflection points in the knowledge revolution. The first was related to data, packaging it to reach millions. The second was related to information, packaging data so it means something. We are now approaching a third inflection point, packaging information so it reaches everyone, even the illiterate.

This inflection point is at the heart of folk computing, or computing for the masses based on a deep understanding of a particular culture's special needs, employing technology relevant to living conditions, socioeconomic status, education, and language.

Folk computing is not simply recycling products that work in the developed world. Unfortunately, this is precisely what many projects to deploy information and communication technology (ICT) in developing countries attempt to do. They ignore the markedly different needs of a vast and growing user group. Existing products depend on a user's ability to read and write some language, usually English. But many people in developing countries are illiterate even in their own language. How can they use technology that requires typing and reading English?

A more realistic solution is to create an environment that relies on audio, video, and tactile input and output and on interface mechanisms based on the natural human senses. I call them experiential environments; they are not only a prerequisite for folk computing but also require a new way of thinking for ICT developers.


Many people in developing countries are illiterate even in their own language. How can they use technology that requires typing and reading English?


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The Case for Experience

The Internet and Web were instrumental in bringing about the knowledge revolution. The computing systems that create information environments in which users pose queries and get answers work well, to a point. They suppose that users know enough to ask the right questions, which often requires reading, and that they can formulate a query, which often requires writing. It also supposes that users understand metaphors (such as desktops and file folders). For people in developing countries, an information environment can be bewildering. Most have neither seen a desk nor used a file or folder and have no concept of a trash can.

Moreover, information environments run contrary to the natural synergy of humans and machines. People are best at conceptual and perceptual analysis and relatively weak in logical analysis. Computers are exactly the opposite. Presenting sequential and logical information to humans goes against that synergy, as does expecting computers to detect complex patterns in data.

Experiential environments work with the natural synergy. Users apply their senses to observe data and information of interest related to an event (conceptual and perceptual analysis) and interact with the data based on what they find interesting. The computer is the supporting computational engine enabling this interaction, relieving users of burdensome logical and mathematical tasks. Users in information environments must decide how to, for example, refine a query so it does not prompt thousands, if not millions, of irrelevant responses from a search engine. Only then can they get the needed information.

The same users in an experiential environment receive the same result, though distributed along multiple dimensions (such as time and space) through an interactive visualization system, making the search what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Experiential environments recognize that access mechanisms should be natural to use, easy to learn, and not require users to do a cultural 180.

Finally, a major problem in deploying ICT is the lack of relevant content in local languages. A developer in Silicon Valley cannot imagine what a villager in Ramakona, India, will do with a computer-based device. Indian developers, on the other hand, have better access to future users and more readily understand their needs. Techniques for developing such content will speed Internet adoption in even the most remote locations. Considering the prevalent education level in most rural areas, content-development tools must be geared to people who are at most semiliterate. Again, this strongly implies that experiential environments are the best solution.

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In Practice

Internet kiosks have received much attention as a way to bring ICT to developing countries. ICT can help local developers create products that help villagers communicate with friends and families and with government offices to solve simple problems, sparing them having to travel great distances for needed information. Users can also learn about neighboring markets, conduct business with people in adjacent areas, and get local information (such as community news). Most areas in developing regions, including rural India, have poor transportation infrastructures, meaning that ICT products may be the only way individuals can conduct business, receive basic medical care, or even enjoy family pictures.

In the Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI) project (www.tenet.res.in/rural/sari.html), begun in 2000, villagers communicate through Webcams, sending images of their vegetables and animals to experts at universities and receiving agricultural advice. They also send images of problematic body parts like their eyes to doctors and receive diagnoses. And illiterate villagers send video mail to their children in foreign countries.

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Usability Barrier

Even kiosks could ultimately fail to win the interest and loyalty of their most valued users if developers fail to overcome the usability barrier to ICT adoption. The other two barriersinfrastructure and device affordabilityare increasingly less formidable. Wireless infrastructure involves making phones with Internet access available to remote areas in even the poorest countries. The cost of these devices is expected to decrease, especially with widespread adoption.

That leaves usability. How can ICT developers ensure these devices are actually used? Experiential environments represent the board with which developing countries can catch the next technology wave. It is now squarely on technologists to see they don't miss it. They must stop adapting old products and start creating experiential environments in which text is just another abstract mechanism to be used only for some specific purpose.

The earliest computing environments were developed for scientists and required extensive training to use. When computing applications entered business, education, health care, entertainment, and other domains, developers refined these environments so educated novices could use them, too. Experiential environments are the next step in evolving technology to penetrate an even larger groupthe billions of eager potential users in developing and underdeveloped nations.

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References

1. Amoako, K. United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa speaking at the First Executive Dialogue of Ministers and Leaders in the Private Sector on Science and Technology for Africa's Development (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 1819,1998).

2. Weller, C. and Hersh, A. Free markets and poverty. The American Prospect 13, 1 (Jan. 114, 2002).

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Author

Ramesh Jain (jain@ece.gatech.edu) is the Farmer Distinguished Chair and GRA Eminent Scholar in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta.


©2003 ACM  0002-0782/03/0400  $5.00

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