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Digesting the digital divide

I was listening to technology podcast the other day and heard an interesting article about recent research into the 'digital divide' and the difference between how computers, the internet and technology are being used between developing and developed nations.

Over the years a common assumption has been that with the growth of the internet, and the transformance of the world into an 'information society', developing countries would be better equipped to compete with the developed world and pull themselves out of poverty. The university study which was featured on the podcast however has shown that, in collating data over the last 10 years or so, there is still a sizeable digital gap.

This finding in itself is not particularly surprising, but the research throws more light on the nature of the divide. For example, in its first key finding, it was observed that the equality of personal computer distribution in the world has actually worsened between 2000-2005. On the flip side though, the distribution of mobile phones has improved significantly, and is the primary means of technology in the hands of many everyday people in the developing world.

There are many great and varied reasons for trends such as these, and a key intention of the report is to help aid organisations and official bodies direct their resources more effectively.

Computer use in Latin America

Research like this is of particular interest to me, as I measure the impact of what I'm doing here in Latin America as a web designer, and in what direction I should best be focusing my efforts.

As such, I was particularly drawn to their fourth key finding. This in summary found that 'developing countries put more content online than into books'. The results were most distinctive for Latin America. By comparing book production with the number of web hosts, it found that whereas between 1997-2003 book production had increased by 25%, the number of web hosts has increased by whopping 2532%.

This is a curious finding, as according to the study, it's not the cheapest thing to use the internet in Latin America. For example, whereas the cost of using an internet cafe for one hour in London costs between 4-13% of an average daily income, in Mexico City it costs between 4-24% of an average daily income. In Buenos Aires it is between 11-26%, and in Sao Paulo that increases to 34%. And if you're in Cuba, forget it. My own experience a month or so back meant that for 2 or 3 US dollars, I got just half an hour. Bear in mind that most Cubans probably earn a fraction of that in a day, I don't think they get much chance to surf the web in their free time. Though Cuba maybe is an exception.

Whatever the costs, internet use does seem to be very popular here in Latin America. Anecdotally, a retiring missionary from Brazil told me last year that he was able to file his tax returns over the web in 1996 - when the internet was just a twinkle in the eye of the UK government.

What does this mean for me?

Well, this is all information to keep an eye on. I don't think it will have a great impact on the work I do for the moment, but with the internet evolving so quickly, I never like to take my eye off where things are going.

The exponential growth of web hosts here in Latin America may be one reason why my services are in demand, but I still lack solid information about actual internet use here, and how it is penetrated in the culture. Is this just Latin America's own 'dot com' bubble? Or is there a real critical mass of internet users here for which I am developing useful web services? I don't mean to be cynical, but I think these are useful questions to ask.

One benefit of my work here maybe to put publications online that we otherwise would not have the finance to put into print. It may also be that, in response to research such as this, I find myself developing more services for mobile phones in the future. It's interesting to see what the next 10 years will bring - let's just hope that the developing world will be a little more developed by then.

1 Comment(s):

Anonymous Air Jordan said...

What a great blog!There have a chance that we can have an furthur exchanges and cooperation.I will always pay attention to your should update it on time.I support you forever. Thursday, March 11, 2010 12:45:00 AM  

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This is an unashamed complaint. Please bear with me.

Q: What do you get when you put a Mexican in a room with a loud music sterio and a hammer?
A: A very happy Mexican.

Silence. I had to look this word up in the dictionary the other day, as I had forgotton what it was. I don't know why it is, but Mexicans are die-hard DIY'ers. They need their hammer and sterio fix, or they'll go mad, I swear.

I had it in the last house I lived in. Our neighbour upstairs thought nothing of it to hammer away at his plumbing at 3am in the morning right above my bedroom. Each 'klunk' would resonate through my skull, just to keep reminding me I was alive. Not that I wanted to be reminded of that at 3 in the morning mind. But that was just on occasion.

As I sit and write this, I have a loud radio and hammering noise coming from the front yard of the house where I live, and booming hammering and another loud radio reverberating through the walls from the house adjoining to the back of my bedroom.

It would be ok if this was the exception to the rule, but there is at least one set of hammers and sterios going at it somewhere in sound-privacy-invasion-shot of my room at most times during the day, nearly every day.

And even that might be ok, if it wasn't for the music at night. Oh yes. Fling open the windows, crank up the volume "Let's keep people awake at night!" I hear them chant in fits of giggled laughter with their mouth frothing with delight. Last Friday, the music actually didn't stop the whole night long. But don't worry, everything was ok, as I was greeted by hammering again at 8:30am the next morning.

Now, whenever I catch a bit of silence, I tend to think it's a blank slate, waiting for someone to paint on it.

The amazing thing is, the only time it usually stops for any reasonable length is Saturday night/Sunday morning, and that's when I need to get up for Church!

Mexicans are the true Picassos of noise. I've no idea on this earth why God chose to put someone like me in the centre of a city like this. Perhaps I'll learn to tolerate it one day. Or perhaps I'll go deaf first. I bet even the deaf can hear this though.

Well, I think I'll go and listen to some music now. Hang on, I'll just go and open the window.

3 Comment(s):

Anonymous daniel kirk said...

Ellelein, my wife, who is Mexican looked at this article & said 'que exageracion' - then I reminded her of the five years that I had to wear earplugs to be able to get to sleep. Guess in which country it was?! Having said that there are few other cultures that are so extrovert and fun to live in. Friday, April 14, 2006 8:45:00 AM  

Blogger St said...

I did the prayers in church yesterday evening over an ambient soundtrack with a few symbolic acts (as something different for Easter Sunday evening) and got a comment that complete silence night have been nicer. Perhaps there's some Mexican in me. Got some compliments too so I'm not changing. Happy Easter Tim; funny post, thanks. Monday, April 17, 2006 4:52:00 AM  

Blogger Martin said...

I understand the complaints about hammers, but I'm afraid if I was there, I would probably join in with the stereo usage. Music beats silence any day! Friday, April 28, 2006 11:44:00 AM  

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Discovering Milamex

In late March I found time to sit down with the Sally Isais, director of Milamex, and discuss strategically the website.

I find that discussing a new website with clients is quite an enlightening experience for them. In order for me to get an idea for how it should be structured, presented, what it should 'do' and so forth, I often ask probing questions about who the company is, it's history, structure and vision for the future etc. I find that this is quite a soul-searching experience for the client, as they often haven't given much thought to these questions in a systematic way for some time.

This was the same for Milamex, and we ended up discussing everything from how easy it would be to sell books online to how the mission statement is phrased. For example, their strapline 'not to be served, but to serve', though very biblical and noble, doesn't for me capture much about 'who' Milamex really is, or what they do.

As I asked Sally about their past, I discovered that one of the great passions of her late father who founded the mission was not that he himself should be a great preacher, but that he should teach others how to share the gospel in their own communities. Apparently he was a very gifted evangelist, and could have easily been the 'Billy Graham' of Latin America for the reputation he held, but chose to invest his time instead in showing how each person can share their faith, each using the gifts they have, and in developing a ministry to resource this goal.

This gem of knowledge began to capture my imagination, as I began to see how the various tentacles of Milamex pivoted around this vision. A strapline such as 'resourcing Christians to fulfil their potential in Christ', or something like that, would seem to me more relevant somehow.

Little things, but I think they're important in shaping how the organisation sees itself. Well, I'm working through some of these ideas with Sally now, and we'll see what comes of it.

I should say, and rightly so, that Milamex has been wary of using overly-commercialised marketing techniques to further it’s reach. This has resonated with me, as often I have felt uncomfortable in the past at some aspects of the commercial Christian sub-culture I see in the UK. The only thing is, I don't want to put out something drab and grim, for fear of being over glamorous, so I guess it's about finding the right tone.

I'll touch more on this maybe in a later update, but it's of note that while Milamex are struggling to make ends meet, they want to distribute reading materials and provide other resources for as little cost to the reader as possible. Their hope is that the skills I can bring will not only widen the reach of the gospel, but also help improve their financial situation, though in doing all of this, I'd like to do it in a way that is of Christ.

On the development side, I now have a better idea of the structure of Milamex, it's direction for the future, audience, and some of the things we want to achieve with the website.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be developing the architecture, visuals and testing technologies for it's implementation. I'll give some more info on it's progress, with links to some pictures of how its coming along, in a future update.

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Technical frustrations

Reviewing my time here, I've been in Mexico for just over 6 months now, and have about 1 year left, or a bit more at a stretch. It feels like my time is racing past. Though it doesn't feel like I've achieved that much as yet, as in part, getting things achieved here has been a little like wading through mud.

With my arrival to the mission, Milamex saw this as an opportunity to 'modernise' themselves. There are about 12 or so people who work full time in the office, and we recently had broadband fitted, not only for my benefit as web designer, but for the others too.

With my marketing hat on, one of the first things I identified was that we had no corporate email addresses, even though we have ownership of a website name. Our website is (which incidentally, is still sporting the design of an early contractor who failed to finish the job) but all our addresses were at AOL, which seemed somehow unprofessional to me, and inconsistent. AOL charge the earth for access, and I didn't like how we were tied to them for our email addresses.

So my first task in the new year was to set people up with addresses as a shift away from the money guzzling AOL. But this was a pain in itself, as I was struggling to get in touch with the person who could give me access privileges to create these new email accounts. Then it was a hard time configuring people's computers, because many of the staff use second-hand 'donated' PCs, with various limitations. I found myself scouring the web for legacy Windows 95 software, and then wondering how to install it, as there is no way of connecting my USB flash-disk to a Windows 95 machine.

Of course, then there's the issue of viruses. Since we're now a 'connected' office, suddenly everyone's PCs were getting infected left, right and centre. However, because some of the machines don't have original copies of Windows on them (quite normal in Latin America), we were unable to upgrade them with the Microsoft security patches. Being a Mac user, and having enjoyed a virus-free life all these years, I never realised just what PC users have to put up with! No way man, I couldn't live like that. I'm getting things fixed slowly, but the story goes on...

I know the above couple of paragraphs may have lost some of you, but I wanted to illustrate some of the frustrations that I have found working for a non-profit organisation in Latin America.

I think I'm getting on top of things now, but it has been a concern, as I don’t really want to while-away my next year 'firefighting' PC issues when I think I should be focusing on projects that will bring more lasting benefits.

1 Comment(s):

Blogger Martin said...

Broadband is cool. We've just got the projection PC (if you remember that) connected to the church's broadband. Not full of viruses like yours, but it will be if we don't get a new virus killers sorted. Still, apparently they use clamwin in the office (it's free, might be worth you looking at), so I'll get that installed soon. Friday, April 28, 2006 11:34:00 AM  

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A Spanish-speaking odyssey

This is the journey of my language speaking so far.

I'm pleased to report my language skills have noticeably improved over the past few months. Although my speaking is still a bit hit and miss, I can get by, and have a sufficient vocabulary to express most things I need to say.

I always felt that a threshold point would be where I would have sufficient fluency that if there was something I didn't understand, or know how to express, I could express it in more simple terms, and I would understand the explanation - thus not needing to turn to a dictionary or translator every time.

I think that I am nearing that point now. Probably my greatest weakness is in comprehension. The best conversations I have are with those who know to use more straightforward words, and know to speak a bit slower. If I meet someone who does not appreciate my level of spanish, I'm less likely to understand what they say.

For this reason, my ability to converse with people I don't know (such as in a shop), or to converse over the phone, is more limited, and I still have to keep pushing myself past the confidence barrier in those contexts.

I'll be taking some private classes in the evening from now on to keep brushing up, and keep optimistic that I will be more fluent in another 3 months or so.

You'll know when I've arrived, when my website becomes bi-lingual!

1 Comment(s):

Anonymous Kev said...

Keep going Tim. It sounds as though you are doing well, like you say keep pushing yourself to get past any feelings of fear.

People will know that you are not a native speaker and I'm sure that in many situations they'll be impressed by your grasp of their language and encourage you to improve and have patience with you. Thursday, April 13, 2006 3:29:00 PM  

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