|Grameen Solutions CEO Kazi Islam gives a keynote address at the 2009 UN Web4Dev conference, hosted by UNICEF, on 12 February.|
By Amy Bennett
NEW YORK, USA, 13 February 2009 – The fifth annual United Nations ‘Web4Dev’ conference, hosted by UNICEF for the first time, wrapped up today with a roadmap for future collaboration to put technology in the service of global development.
Many interested people around the world did not get to physically participate in Web4Dev, but that wasn’t a problem; the three-day conference was webcast, blogged and Twittered.
Participants heard from experts in a variety of fields and took part in breakout groups to more intimately discuss the ideas that the presentations brought forward. They were also able to forge new ties that will help expand the use of technology for humanitarian action.
Common needs and issues
Implementing solutions using new technology is harder than it sounds. Many Web4Dev speakers – including technology experts, academics, UN agency officials and innovators from the development and private sectors – cautioned against rushing into developing countries without first asking some tough questions.
“When you’re talking about solutions, think about how that solution can be integrated into people’s lives,” said Kazi Islam, CEO of Grameen Solutions, the Bangladesh-based software development company.
|David Galipeau of the UN Conference on Trade and Development speaks at a panel with representatives of UNESCO, the International Bureau of Education, the World Bank, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the UN Executive Board Secretariat.|
“Everybody wants to improve their livelihood, they want to have better education for their kids. So regardless of how the people are different from community to community and culture to culture, their needs and issues are very common,” he added.
Planning for success
As the conference went on, it became increasingly clear that identifying those needs and issues is a complex task.
“You can have technologies that are not developed” in poorer nations, said Kajiso Chikane, Central Manager for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa. “People just impose them on the developing world and then they do not work.”
The point was echoed by Dr. Tony Salvador, Director of Research and Definition for the Emerging Markets Platform Group at Intel.
“The idea for any new innovation, especially for development, is to ensure that whatever you’re bringing, whatever you’re trying to do with your local partners, doesn’t threaten too much so that it’s squashed down,” he said.
UNICEF acted not only as host of the Web4Dev meeting but also as a leader on innovative thinking and partnerships.
“One of the things that UNICEF brings to this whole endeavour is, ‘Hey, this is the notion of what’s going on on the ground, in the field,’” said Dr. Salvador. One challenge, he suggested, is for partners in the private sector to learn from that field-based perspective.
‘The Digital Doorway’, developed by CSIR in South Africa, was cited as an example of a successful innovative partnership.
|A participant accesses the Internet via a mobile device during the Web4Dev conference at UNICEF House.|
‘It will not break’
“The Digital Doorway is a very robust computer kiosk,” said Ms. Chikane. “It was developed so that it could be put in rural areas outside community halls, outside school areas, and the communities can just use it. It’s also for children to teach themselves how to use the computer without being taught by anyone.
“You can throw stones at it,” she continued, pounding forcefully on the screen of the Digital Doorway kiosk. “It will not break.”
The kiosk prototype caught the attention of UNICEF staff last year, and it has now been developed into a portable version called the ‘Bee’ mobile communication system for deployment in humanitarian emergencies.
Opportunity for development
While several standing partnerships were highlighted at Web4Dev, new partnerships were also unveiled.
For example, Mr. Islam of Grameen Solutions announced on the second day of the conference “that we’re going to partner with UNICEF to increase innovation opportunity through education with mobile phones.”
Through knowledge-sharing workshops, panels, breakout groups and new partnerships, the conference concluded with a call for collaboration as the key to the future. Not everyone was in complete agreement about methods and means, but the optimism was palpable and the opportunity for development is huge.
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