How to Build Digital Societies in Asia

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The concept of a digital society centres on the interaction between governments, businesses and citizens via digital technologies, accompanied by social and economic benefits around efficiency and productivity gains, as well as the improved well-being and living standards of citizens.

At a more advanced level, citizens living within a digital society are connected to disparate industries, institutions and infrastructures simultaneously over a digital platform, and are able to interact with them in new ways that create value for all the parties involved.

This relies on individual access to digital technologies by citizens and businesses, which enhances convenience, flexibility and user engagement, particularly for personalised solutions, compared with shared access in public outlets such as Internet kiosks.

digital-economies

As outlined in the Building Digital Societies in Asia report from GSMA, digital services have the potential to help solve key challenges faced by Asian countries; many countries are struggling to cope with mounting social and economic challenges occasioned by rapid population growth, lack of access to essential services, inefficient utilisation of available resources, increasing pressure on existing infrastructure and services, and huge humanitarian and economic costs from natural disasters.

Digitisation enhances access to various services for underserved citizens and creates new growth and expansion opportunities for businesses within a digital society. However, the region’s digital society landscape is very diverse, both in the level of connectivity of citizens and in the evolution of digital services.

GSMA have grouped countries in the region into three categories of a digital society – advanced, transition and emerging – to reflect the evolution of digital services. Generally, the highly connected countries have a wider range and higher uptake of digital services, underscoring the need for adequate connectivity for a digital society to function effectively.

A digital society relies on a number of interdependent enablers to function effectively. These are;

  • a critical mass of digitally literate citizens that can access and can afford various services and devices,
  • a variety of relevant content and applications that address local challenges,
  • a robust infrastructure on which digital services can be created, distributed, stored and utilised, and
  • an environment that supports innovation and investment.

Given the importance of connectivity, there is a clear need to make sure that the technology and infrastructure, particularly mobile infrastructure, in a country meets the demands of a digital society. This will be achieved by eliminating barriers to investment around access to spectrum and the imposition of tax. Key stakeholders, including governments and operators, also need to work together on awareness building campaigns for digital services, which should be easy to use and accessible via multiple channels and languages that meet the requirements of local users.

The role of the government in establishing a digital society does not stop at creating an enabling environment. It should also include an assertive push for the digitisation of public services, which touch all individuals and businesses within a country and, therefore, can serve as a catalyst for the uptake and usage of digital services by citizens across different demographics and income levels.

Using the digital society initiatives and/or economic aspirations of six countries in the region – Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Thailand – GSMA highlight the main factors that need to be in place to establish a digital society and the socioeconomic benefits thereof.

Improving Healthcare Coverage in the Philippines with ACCESS Health International

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ACCESS Health International is a nonprofit think tank and advisory group with health programs in both low and high-income countries. It recently developed the e-AKaP project for targeting high maternal and child mortality rates in the Philippines, and addresses the health issues through a new delivery and training system for community health teams (CHTs).

Health goals in the Philippines

The Philippines has struggled to attain the decreased maternal and child mortality rates outlined by its Millennium Development Goals. The government’s solution has been to use CHTs as the main tool for expanding healthcare coverage for Filipino citizens. Over 100,000 CHTs, comprised of midwives, nurses, and volunteers, have been deployed to develop individual household health goals in each community and to target poor and vulnerable populations.

However, CHTs have faced setbacks because of the slow process of aggregating data, high cost of forms and materials, and an inefficient reporting system. Similarly, mothers in the Philippines do not have high access to healthcare information, which could mitigate health risks for both mothers and children.

The e-AKap solution

e-AKaP targets two root causes of MMR and children mortality in the Philippines:

  1. low training and skills for CHTs
  2. low access to healthcare information for mothers

ACCESS Health International’s solution draws on both innovation and technology. The e-AKaP project provides and trains CHTs to use mobile tablets to access the Filipino web and the application iCHT. iCHT provides access to forms and aggregates and processes health data, cutting down on time-consuming paperwork and providing quick access to information for CHTs.

The tablets provided to the CHTs are 7-inch tablet PCs with cloud-based admin panels so that health information could be easily accessed. The forms in the iCHT app are a replica of paper forms previously used by CHTs, so users are accustomed to the format.

iCHT also allows the user to create profiles, health plans, and progress charts for individual households. CHTs can track health progress and provide health information quickly for the households they visit. They can also address health issues for mothers and children on the spot.

The app also allows CHTs to report health information quickly to city and government health offices in the Philippines, which then use the information to track progress towards countrywide health goals.

e-AKaP outcomes

So far, 130 CHTs have been trained and provided with tablets, and ACCESS Health International has presented the app at the Philippine mHealth Forum in April 2014. Because each individual CHT is responsible for about 50 families, ACCESS estimates that its project covers around 5,000 families in the Philippines. A study by the University of the Philippines Economic Foundation found that the iCHT app reduced spending costs associated with paper forms and also reduced time spent on related activities.

The project has been successful at providing CHTs with the tools to balance their heavy obligations and providing mothers and children with quick and reliable health information. Each family covered by the e-AKaP project now has a specific health plan to mitigate and prevent health risks. CHTs are given the means to target health goals and track their progress through this innovative technology.

Furthermore, e-AKaP provides the government with reliable information to target health goals and create policy that reflects the current situation in the country.

Grace Harter is a recent SAIS graduate

Event Participation: RightsCon 2015 Southeast Asia Conference

During 24 – 25 March 2015, five ISIF Asia grant recipients attended RightsCon Southeast Asia Conference in Manila, Philippines, see https://www.rightscon.org/manila/. The event was convened by Access and EngageMedia, in partnership with Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA), World Wide Web Foundation and the Research Action Design collective, and supported by global and regional sponsors, including APNIC.

RightsCon Summit 2015 gathered more than 650 people from over 40 countries engaging civil society, technology companies, governments, and academia. The program organised around 125 workshops to discuss topics in relation to online rights protection, digital rights, economic development, technological solutions for human rights challenges, and risks in the ICT sector.

With the support of ISIF Asia, five project representatives including Bishakha Datta from Point of View (India), Jahangir Alam from Machizo Multimedia (Bangladesh), Arvind Khadri from Servelots (India), Khairil Yusof from Sinar (Malaysia) and Nazdeek (India) participated in the workshops that were relevant to their work. They took advantage of this worldwide conference to get inspired and build cooperation.

Closing plenary at RightsCon 2015

Closing plenary at RightsCon 2015

Sylvia Cadena, APNIC’s Community Partnerships Specialist, who coordinates the ISIF Asia program was particularly interested in this event, as it was the first time it was held in the Asia Pacific region. “It is really exciting to see so many human rights activists to sit at the table with Internet technology experts, business leaders and funders to discuss not only ideals and position papers about how technology can or cannot do, but to draft strategies to collaborate, be aware of funding sources available, tools available, to overcome the challenges ahead. A very hands-on approach, very much needed to bring about positive and timely change.” She also congratulated FMA, former ISIF Asia grant recipient, for their active role as local partner, to put the conference and the pre-events together and generate the appropriate space to share, discuss and learn.

When reviewing their experience to participate at RightsCon 2015, ISIF Asia project representatives presented that it was a unique opportunity to explore rights issues both online and offline and look at different perspectives around the world. They benefitted from the exchange of new ideas and expanded their network of contacts not only among activists and practitioners, but also with funders as well as Internet industry representatives concerned about how human rights manifest online, which open doors to facilitate their operations, serving local communities.

ISIF Asia supported projects meet during RightsCon

ISIF Asia supported projects meet during RightsCon

Sinar is using open source technology, development and ideas to make Malaysian government transparent and accountable. Khairil Yusof learned that “the data we’re gathering to make government more accountable might actually cause harm to groups and communities we are supposed to be helping” after Open Data and Privacy session. The reflective article by Khairil was published on Sinar website http://sinarproject.org/en/updates/institutional-support-eco-system-for-digital-rights.

Point of View contributes to amplify the voices of women and remove barriers to free speech and expression. Bishakha Datta (India) attended sessions about CyberSex and online fundamentalism. During the session, she was able to discuss how physical rapes are turning into digital porn in India and Pakistan with the speakers from Indonesia, see http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-31313551. Bishakha described RightsCon as “Getting a taste of digital rights in other Asian countries, hearing voices from Asia”.

Servelots works on empowering population that cannot read standard web content due to illiteracy, partial literacy or language issues with web accessibility. Arvind Khadri (India) participated in eight sessions including technology vs. policy rising debate, networking for trainer storytellers, and Brave GNU World. For him, RightsCon was an opportunity to network and collaborate. He was able to built connection with the Internet Society, and explore the opportunity to apply for a fellowship to speak about Servelots work at the Internet Governance Forum later this year. “RightsCon makes us understand challenges of various people and organisations by meeting friends and discussing future plans with them”, Arvind reported.

Jahangir Alam represented Machizo Multimedia (Bangladesh) which does photojournalism, reporting and digital campaign on popular culture, human rights and development issues. Jahangir Alam attended seven sessions focusing on human rights promotion, activism, media productions and digital campaign issues. The inspiration he took from RightsCon was that “we need to promote the local content on human rights education online via school networking. We will soon open a section ‘Amader Odikar’ (Our Rights) in UnnayanNews new portal”.

Participants also attended pre-events organized the day before RightsCon started. At the Responsible Data Forum Nazdeek reported that “In our context, it is imperative to understand how technology shapes the struggle to advance fundamental rights, as well as what safeguards must be put in place to ensure technology does not further perpetrate discrimination against marginalized groups and individuals.”

For the ISIF Asia fellows, RightsCon 2015 unraveled a bundle of issues such as online freedom of expression, surveillance, privacy and digital security for human rights defenders.

For overview and conclusion of RightsCon 2015, please check out the Outcome Report at https://www.rightscon.org/files/RC_SEA_outcome_report.pdf.

An Integrated ICT Approach to Solve Agriculture Challenges in Bangladesh

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In last two and a half years mPower Social Enterprises Ltd has been working with Dhaka Ahsania Mission and Care Bangladesh to implement an USAID awarded five years ‘Ag Extension Project’ which aims to strengthen the agriculture extension system of Bangladesh.

Being a technical partner of this project, mPower is focusing on some of the key challenges in the present agricultural eco-system and trying to develop some integrated ICT based solution to cater these challenges.

Challenges in present Ag Ecosystem of Bangladesh

  1. Limited access to extension agent: One of the primary challenges of the agricultural ecosystem in Bangladesh is the absence or limited presence of expert consultation in rural vicinities. Although there are almost 14 000 government field extension officers, each extension agent has to assist more than 2 000 farm families in his area. Given the working hours, the logistical constrains, the geographical context and the available resources, it’s a mammoth task for each extension agent to provide adequate support to all the assigned farmers. As a result, farmers are forced to take advice from people who are not experts and are prone to be misled or exploited, which hampers the overall productivity of the country and negatively affects farmers’ livelihoods. In addition, female farmers are often left out of the traditional extension system: because of gender barriers, many times female farmers do not interact with male extension agent.
  2. The challenge of keeping up-to-date the Knowledge base of extension agents: Like many other domains, agricultural knowledge becomes outdated quite qulckly and it is often hard to regularly train extension agents working in the field with up-to-date information. Moreover, currently there is no specific mechanism in place to regularly train extension agents after a certain interval in a proper learning environment. In addition, in the field extension agents are not equipped with any sort of tool or materials that can be used to improve their service delivery.
  3. Decision-makers have limited tools to collect real time information from the field when taking timely decisions: Extension agents in the field collect and prepare a massive amount of ground level data, such as crop statistics and visit log, which is vital for managers and decision makers in order to plan future activities. Currently data collection is done through a traditional paper-based system, and therefore aggregating all the data collected requires a big amount of staff time. Hence, when it comes to management level, which is far from the ground, it often takes more than fifteen days to elaborate data from the fields, and this means that decision makers have very little time to send out meaningful and effective instructions in emergency situations such as floods and other natural hazards.

To solve these three specific issue, mPower has developed in integrated ICT approach which includes a big amount of mobile and web apps, multimedia content for mobile phones, and even community radio programs.

To solve the very first issue, the lack of extension agents, mPower has developed a community based, infomediary driven approach.

In each of the farmer group, the community selects an ‘ICT Leader’, a member of their community who owns a smartphone. These ICT leaders are trained by the project and they are provided with a mobile application named ‘Farmer Query System’.

When farmers in the community face a particular agriculture challenge, through this app the ICT Leaders send the details of this problem to a call center where expert agriculturists respond to the query through a phone call, becoming a virtual extension agent. Currently the infomediary are not paid by the project and not given any phones. The social incentive of using this system to solve other farmer’s problem actually motivates them to do this work.

Though, we are also trying out various revenue models so to give as well a financial incentive to the infomediary. Moreover, female farmers are also more prone to get reliable and certified agricultural information as the person who is sending the query on her behalf is community member himself.

Agriculture Knowledge Bank, an online repository of agricultural content which can also be accessed through mobile app, has been developed in collaboration with various government research institutes and extension department of Bangladesh in order to solve the challenge of updating the extension agent with most recent knowledge.

Many research agencies in Bangladesh produce a lot of content which is stored in their own website. Existing rural telecenters, innovative farmers or extension agent who tries to use ICT or mobile web to extract information from web, often face a hard time because for a single piece of information they often have to roam through multiple government websites. Hence this knowledge portal, which is also linked with learning tools and powers the various diagnostic tool, aids extension agents to learn more about each of the topics with updated information.

To automate the reporting and data collection process of extension department which is challenge three, mPower, in collaboration with extension department of Bangladesh, has developed three mobile application which automate their scheduling process, statistics collection and problem tracking, with the positive result of eliminating a lot of paperwork.

This data are being automatically aggregated in real time, and managers sitting remotely can see the view in a web dashboard and can give timely and meaningful forward instructions.

Results and Learning

  • Up to these point, so far 93 users are using these applications and so far 4 970 agro advisory service are being provided.
  • Farmers are in general very receptive to the recommendations they have been getting from this ICT based system. So far 96.4% of farmers responded that they are happy with the recommendations received, and they have applied practices . To find out adoption and impact more, mPower is working with a team of researchers from iCHASS,
  • So far 10.04% female farmers got agro recommendation through this systems which is a vast number, considering in traditional system the number is very poor
  • Some of the e-Administrative application which are targeted to government extension agent are yet to show significant impact as it’s tough to train field extension officers with a new ICT based tool and replace the old paper based method
  • Finding out female infomediary seems to be a challenge due to gender barrier and project is working with INGENAES to develop a strategy to tackle this issue
  • Involving community people increases ‘trust’ of the recommendation
  • Apart from social value, to find out sustainability some revenue based model is required for the infomediary

Thank you for taking some time to read through this blog post. Please feel free to share and circulate this message. We look forward to hear your feedback and comments!

Sadman Sadek currently working with mPower Social Enterprises Ltd. as Technical Coordinator in Bangladesh

Event Participation: ICTD 2015

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Four ISIF Asia grant recipients and two mentors on project evaluation and communication attended the Seventh International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD 2015) conference http://ictd2015.org/, in Singapore from 15 to 18 May 2015. ICTD 2015 Post conference report is available at http://ictd2015.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/ICTD2015-Full-Report.pdf. Participation was possible thanks to the Seed Alliance, a collaboration established between the FIRE, FRIDA, and ISIF Asia grants and awards programs, that provided support for 23 representatives from Latin America, Africa and Asia.

ICTD Conference provides an international forum for researchers and practitioners exploring the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in social, political, and economic development. The conference reflects and deepens the multidisciplinary nature of ICTD research in a broad range of areas including computer science, anthropology, communication, design, economics, electrical engineering, geography, information science, political science, health, sociology, and many others. Held for the first time in the Asia Pacific region, ICTD 2015 aimed to showcase the impact ICT has had on society with a multidisciplinary research-focused conference that reflects the Millennium Development goals.

The Seed Alliance organized a session during the conference, called “Seed Alliance: helping ideas grow”. Facilitated by Sylvia Cadena (ISIF Asia/APNIC), Gaelle Fall (FIRE/AFRINIC) and Lara Robledo (FRIDA/LACNIC), this session introduced the Seed Alliance as a platform to support Internet development in the global south through a variety of funding mechanism, capacity building strategies, and networking opportunities. Grant recipients from FIRE, FRIDA and ISIF Asia shared about their projects and the challenges they faced to bring about positive change to their communities through ICTs.

ISIF Asia Grant recipients Jacqueline Chan (Operation ASHA, Cambodia), Vin Samnang Charlie (Operation ASHA, Cambodia), Pheng Votey (Operation ASHA, Cambodia), Tariq Zaman (ISITI, Malaysia), Gurpreet Singh (Punjabi University, India) and Teddy Mantoro (Suria University, Indonesia), mentors Vira Ramelan, Sonal Zaveri attended and participated in workshops relevant to their work, as well as presenting their demos (list of demos http://ictd2015.org/demos/) at the conference, and joined the vibrant start-up community in Singapore at an Open House event at the JFDI.Asia incubator space.

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Operation ASHA team in Demo Session

Jacqueline Chan, Vin Samnang Charlie, and Pheng Votey from Operation ASHA (Cambodia, 2014 ISIF Asia Grant recipient) work providing disadvantaged communities with Tuberculosis (TB) care via eDetection App serves in Cambodia. The team was selected to present a demo session at the ICTD 2015 Conference. Their expectation of the presentation was to encourage the use of mobile technology for other communicable diseases and to generate more awareness about TB in Cambodia. The team also attended sessions from the program such as Public Access ICT, Disability Accessibility and Infrastructure, ICT and Development in Myanmar, and Persistence of Paper in Low-resource Setting. “It is not often that you meet a donor who is fully invested in your work and keen to build up your capacity, ISIF is one of these donors”, Jacqueline said. Jacqueline valued a networking dinner for Seed Alliance recipients. In the relaxed and confortable atmosphere, participants from different projects and evaluation mentors shared their experiences and got inspiration from each other. Operation ASHA’s team also highlighted a pre-conference session for Seed Alliance recipients about fundraising strategies and the need to engage different stakeholders, facilitated by Mr Michael Lints (Venture Partner at Golden Gate Ventures).

Tariq Zaman from the Institute of Social Informatics and Technological Innovations, (Malaysia, 2014 ISIF Asia Grant recipient), is working on developing and designing appropriate ICT tools for preservation and digitalization of sign language of Penan. Tariq presented the paper “Reviving an indigenous rainforest sign language: Digital Oroo’ Adventure Game” (PDF of article http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2737885) during the Notes session of the conference. He attended the IPID Symposium where he facilitated an open session. The most interesting additional activity for Tariq was to pitch the Oroo’ project at Joyful Frog Digital Incubator (JFDI) http://www.jfdi.asia/. He also attended Papers and Notes presentations and ICTD Innovation Accelerator: connecting ICTD researchers and practitioners. Tariq participated at the ICTD 2013 in Cape Town, South Africa. He commented how, compared to 2013, in ICTD 2015 the major question they discussed in peers groups was the effectiveness of “ICT tools” vs “user’s will” and innovative “use” of these tools. In addition to experience sharing, Tariq reported, “This conference gave me an opportunity to strengthen my networks. It was a professionally rewarding experience”.

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Gurpreet Singh from Punjabi University in Demo Session

Gurpreet Singh represented Punjabi University (India, 2014 Grant recipient), who contributes to facilitate electronic and written communication between Sindhi people living in India and Pakistan through the development of a bi-directional web based Sindhi Language Transliteration Tool. Gurpreet attended open sessions “Understand the impact of mobile money in development”, “Delivering health service through ICT in rural communities”, and “ICT and Development in Myanmar”. More importantly, he arranged an online demo of Sindhi transliteration system, where participants tried the tool. He also presented and discussed their project at JFDI with prospective sponsors. One of the he most valuable moments for Gurpreet was that he met Gouri Mirpuri, wife of Ashok Mirpuri, Singapore’s ambassador in USA. She highly appreciated Sindhi transaction project and exhorted Gurpreet’s teem to extend the work for Kashmiri language, as Kashmiri is also written in both Perso-Arabic and Devnagri scripts.

Teddy Mantoro from Suria University in Demo Session

Teddy Mantoro from Suria University (Indonesia), who invented “Surelator”, a statistical machine translation between English and Bahasa Indonesia. He was selected both for the demo session and poster session during the conference. After the demo session, at least three possible investors have shown their interest with Surelator product innovations. The poster session happened in two days, where Surelator booth was visited by lots of audience. They discussed and showcased about the background of Surelator, delivery of real-time demo and off-line demo, packaging of the product, movies of how to use Surelator, and the possible impact to Indonesian community. Surelator was planned to be a commercial product but during this conference. However, after the discussions with various stakeholders, Teddy’s team adjusted the plan to develop a limited version of Surelator to be available for free for Indonesian community. Teddy commented, “ICTD conference is a place to understand these interactions, and to examine, critique, and refine the persistent, pervasive hope that ICTs can be enlisted by individuals and communities in the service of human development. Teddy won the ISIF Asia award in 2013 for his work on the HajjLocator.

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Utilisation-Focused Evaluation mentor Sonal Zaveri (Right) in the Demo Session

Vira Ramelan and Sonal Zaveri were the mentors of Utilization-Focused Evaluation (UFE) & Research Communication (ResCom) for the ISIF Asia program from 2013-2015. During that period, they supported three of ISIF Asia funded projects to develop their capacity in both evaluation and communication. From the perspective of project evaluation researchers, they found the most interesting part was that the conference was multi-disciplinary and embraced a variety of development issues. They organized a poster session with DECI-2 posters on UFE, which was very well received. They had discussions with participants from various development projects from about how to evaluate using the UFE &
ResCom specific approach.

As Vira suggested in her review of ICTD 2015 journey “this event involves effective capacity building activities, I wish that ISIF Asia could stay committed to provide support for grantees to attend this kind of conference”.

The day before the ICTD2015 conference started, the Seed Alliance organized a session where Mr Michael Lints (Venture Partner at Golden Gate Ventures) presented fundraising strategies and the need to engage different stakeholders to scale-up and grow. The ISIF Asia mentors got a chance to share with the FIRE and FRIDA coordinators and funding recipients, about their experience providing UFE & ResCom mentoring to three projects in Asia Pacific.

Overall, the event provided unique networking opportunities for Seed Alliance recipients, as well as a place to share their innovations with the academic sector researching about technologies for development. ICTD 2016 will be hosted at the University of Michigan, USA, from June 3rd to 6th, 2016 http://ictd2016.info/cfp/.