Hard drives make inroads into rural India

In effort to bridge digital divide, government is pushing high tech for the masses.

Molly Ninan is about the last person on earth you'd expect to have a handheld computer. A field nurse in this rural Indian village, she sets out on foot every day to monitor the basic medical needs of roughly 7,000 residents of an area rife with poverty and illiteracy.

But in this hamlet 25 miles south of New Delhi, Ms. Ninan is using state-of-the-art technology to track patient medical histories, immunization and natal-care needs, and education and literacy levels. As she does, she joins a major government undertaking to develop useful technologies for common people in India's countryside which could serve as models for the whole developing world.

"With India's very large population, whatever digital divide [remedies] are established here as a success could become models for the rest of the world, and the developing world in particular," says R.R. Shah, the secretary of India's Information Technology Ministry.

More than two thirds of India's billion-strong population is rural, spread across nearly 600,000 villages. But the benefits of information technologies, visible in high-tech urban hubs like Bangalore, have been slow to reach places like Dayalpur.

Two years ago the government set out to change that. Top bureaucrats in the technology ministry joined forces with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to launch Media Lab Asia (MLA), a nonprofit research center aimed at focusing the leading minds of industry and science on the technology problems of the developing world.

There are already dozens of nongovernmental organizations and private companies working to find useful applications for technology in rural areas. There are village kiosks that give farmers real-time market prices for their crops and Internet cybercafes where people can order birth certificates and land records from government websites. But so far there is very little coordination of these efforts.

The problem with the technologies available today in the global marketplace, MLA's founders say, is that software, hardware, and networking systems have been designed to meet the needs of the world's richest one billion people. "I don't know of any other institution in the world that has focused its entire existence on going after and innovating technologies for that next 5 billion people," says managing director Bimal Sareen. "That's what we're about."

Skeptics say this view of the mission sets unreasonable expectations about what technology can accomplish. Govern-ment and private-sector resources, they say, should be going toward solving more basic developmental problems: providing clean drinking water and housing in the poorest villages.

Even some Dayalpur medical students have doubts about the project. "What good is it to get all these medical records when people need to be treated right now?" asks Anush Alfred.

Defenders of the initiative say its potential benefits are worth such present sacrifices. But even proponents of "rurally compatible" technology acknowledge that it's a long way off. They say it will involve building a range of new gadgets - from handheld computers to wireless Internet systems - that are inexpensive and consume little power, developing interfaces that people with little or no formal education can understand and use, and creating software that serves a practical purpose in a rural environment.

Right now, MLA's efforts are just getting off the ground: The computers given to dozens of midwives and nurses like Ninan are expensive Compaq models. The group is working to develop a cheaper handheld for the public-health project.

But the user-friendly software MLA has developed to track medical information, which relies on visual icons and simple commands, is clearly making field nurses more active participants in the provision of healthcare. Information gathered in handheld computers is even beginning to help doctors and public-health officials track disease patterns and medical trends.

MLA is pursuing a number of other initiatives in various other parts of India. To break through the literacy barrier with rural computer users, a lot of effort is being focused on developing interfaces that understand speech commands in local languages.

Researchers are also developing GPS-enabled tools for handheld computers that will facilitate the mapping of rural villages and integrate the collection of large amounts of economic and medical data with those maps. That will make it possible, for example, for a bureaucrat to determine which areas in a village have the most productive land.

The government has made MLA a high priority, pumping more than $13 million of seed funding into the venture. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has designated it one of the government's top 15 priorities.

Other seed funding came from private companies like Tata Consulting Services and Microsoft. MLA hopes to attract more investment from corporate sponsors, but to do that it will have to show that the development of rural-specific technologies can be profitable.

For now, the company seems more focused on technology evangelism - showing that the right technologies can make a difference by creating jobs, enabling access to information, and improving government services. Mr. Sareen is convinced his organization's work can help unlock what he calls "the hidden GDP potential of the masses" - and even reverse urban migration.

Many technology and development experts say Media Lab Asia's position at the nexus of academia, government, and business makes it crucially important for the future of development initiatives centered around technology.

"We have needed for a long time to strengthen the relationship between academic institutions and the private sector, and Media Lab Asia is an expression of that possibility," says Aditya Sood, head of the Center for Knowledge Societies in Bangalore, a nonprofit focusing on technology and development issues. "It's excellent that we've entered into an environment where the government is trying to help make that happen."

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