of the American Society for Information Science and Technology   Vol. 28, No. 2    December / January 2002

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SIG/III Digital Library and Information Science and Technology Competition

Editor's Note: Throughout the last volume year of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, we featured several of the papers selected by SIG/III as winners of the 2000 SIG/III International Paper Competition.  These papers were deemed the best on practical collaborative applications of digital libraries or information science and technology in advancing communications, information and knowledge in the developing world. In this issue, we feature one more paper from the 2000 competition.

In future issues of the Bulletin, we will announce the winners and feature several of the honored papers from the 2001 SIG/III contest, for which the sub-theme is "Information in a Networked World." Information professionals from and residing in developing countries were eligible.

India's Development Information Network: Lessons Learned

B. Shadrach

B. Shadrach, one of the founding members of indev, established and managed the project until November 1999. Shadrach is an Indian national, currently pursuing higher studies, and can be reached at Department of Information Science, Loughborough University, Loughborough LE11 5DL, United Kingdom; phone 0044-1509-223079; fax: 0044-1509-223053; e-mail: b.h.shadrach@lboro.ac.uk

The so-called digital divide between the industrialized and developing nations is being replicated within many developing countries like India, widening the big gulf between the majority poor and a minuscule English language-speaking population. Though the percentage of the English-speaking population is less than that of native language speakers, the gulf is fast becoming yet another divide of the social order. In the past half century, South Asian nations have done little to raise living standards of the majority poor who are a world apart from this microscopic, urban-based elite that is close to the centers of political and economic decision making. The big Indian names in the global IT industry such as Sabeer Bhatia, creator of Hotmail, and Azim Premji, rated by Forbes magazine among the world's five richest people, belong to this class.

Present Global Scenario

While it took radio broadcasting 38 years and television 13 years to reach an audience of 50 million, the Internet needed just four. The number of Internet users is expected to exceed 700 million by 2001. But more than 85% of all users in 1998 lived in industrial countries, home to less than 15% of the world's people. In several African countries the average monthly cost of Internet connection and use runs as high as US$100, compared to $10 in the United States. A computer costs one month's salary for the average American, compared with eight years' income for the average Bangladeshi. One quarter of the world's countries still have less than one telephone per 100 people. The United States has more computers than the rest of the world combined, and Thailand has more cellular phones than the whole of Africa. In Bangladesh, an investment of $80 million by Grameen Phone has provided cellular phone service to rural areas, covering 100,000 subscribers in 250 villages. The demand for computers, telephone service and Internet connectivity in the developing world is great, but the capacity to meet the demand is unsurprisingly low.

Indian Scene

On an average, less than one out of every 10 of the 1.3 billion people in the Indian subcontinent have access to computers and only a small fraction of these use the Internet (www.undp.org/hdro/99.htm). A recent survey conducted by the Indian National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) (www.nasscom.org) revealed that in 1995 the Internet connectivity in India was as low as 2000 connections, whereas the present connectivity stands at a whopping 1.04 million. As against 10,000 users seven years ago, there are more than 3.7 million Indians browsing the Internet today. Their survey projects a user base as large as 23 million in 2003, a 700% increase in three years time. Yet, that figure would be just about 2% of the total population.

The Internet and the Digital Divide: A Development Issue

Developing countries face four main constraints in improving Internet services rapidly: poor telecommunications, inability to afford computers, lower levels of education and the high costs of providing Internet services. Thus, the Internet is prompting a sea change in international development thinking, and many donors and multilateral lending organizations are radically reshaping their policies in the new information age.

The World Bank, for example, has begun to describe itself as the "knowledge" bank and devoted its annual World Development Report in 1998 to the role of knowledge in development. Apart from the World Bank, many development organizations, including the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), various UN organizations and multilateral donor agencies, have taken up the agenda and are working towards developing wider access to knowledge by communities. All these organizations recognize that the need to build capacity to acquire and communicate knowledge is the foundation of development.

Non-Governmental Organizations as Champions of Development. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have come to be the champions of development in the absence of governmental initiatives. Most governments of developing nations face problems such as red tape bureaucracy, corruption and lack of commitment to uplift the poor. As Swaminathan points out in his 1993 book, Information Technology: A Dialog, taking the benefits of new technologies to the economically and socially disadvantaged sections of the rural population is a prerequisite for promoting a new paradigm of rural development. That paradigm is based on concurrent and integrated attention to the imperatives of ecology, economics, employment and equity. This delivery can be achieved by the NGOs, who are increasingly regarded as important in their capacity to influence global policy on development issues such as poverty alleviation, sustainable development and human rights. NGOs find this possible through their simultaneous attachment to local places and cultures on the one hand, and their critical engagement with global institutions on the other, as Shirin Madon has pointed out in his Development Informatics Working Paper, No. 8 on NGO networking (Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester http://idpm.man.ac.uk/idpm/diwpf8.htm

In India alone, a rough estimate suggests that more than three million NGOs exist. Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) puts the figure of active NGOs at around 50,000. It is very evident that, with the changing pattern of aid from multilateral donor organizations, these NGOs can make the difference. NGOs have already started experimenting with information and communication technology (ICT) in rural situations with the experience available on the InfoVillage project of Dr. M. S. Swaminathan Foundation in Pondicherry. This project clearly indicates that social and gender barriers to information access in a rural system are not insignificant, and special efforts are required to lower them even if it is by a small measure.

Empowering NGOs for Social Development. The World Bank's World Development Report 1998/99 points out that the governments of developing countries, multilateral institutions, non-governmental organizations and the private sector must work together to strengthen the non-governmental institutions needed to address information problems.

With recent advances in information and communication technologies, an increasingly connected international NGO community is finding considerable scope for networking and information sharing at multiple levels. The widespread use of ICTs has facilitated the organization of these networks of groups, which derive their strength from the commitment and energy of activists' worldwide as Mansell and Wehn discussed in their 1998 book, Knowledge Societies: Information Technology for Sustainable Development www.susx.ac.uk/spru/ink/knowledge.html

The NGOs and the Digital Divide

NGOs have historically survived by owning their information and that of their constituents. This constituted their value and substituted for significant financial assets. Yet this behavior is antithetical to effectively leveraging the Internet to meet their missions. Because of resource constraints, many continue to be behind the technology curve. The technology is not intuitive, and many NGOs don't have the requisite experience with it. Consequently, many still mistakenly judge their organization's value on pre-Internet criteria and modes of operation as Peizer has pointed out on the Media Channel (www.mediachannel.org/views/oped/peizer.shtml). For NGOs, the challenge is accepting the fact that information once unique to them is now widely available over the Internet.

NGO Information Networking: The Long-Felt Need. In the development world, it has always been felt that there was too much information with very large volume but little content or that desired information was hard to find for other reasons. A series of consultations with a group of development experts and information professionals organized by the British Council in India identified the need for an electronic gateway to development information on India.  The indev Project Draft Report (1999, available from the British Council in India, Delhi, on request) covers the Council's consultation with the NGOs in India. It lists the following long-felt reasons for establishing a knowledge base containing development information on India:

  • Development organizations need to present their initiatives, goals and missions.
  • The recipients should be able to scan databases for their information needs and to find competence for defining mutual projects.
  • All agencies and brokers should be able to find projects to co-support and share.
  • Due to large distances, both geographically and culturally, the content must be made very clear and unambiguous.
  • A knowledge base would also increase opportunities for general partnerships.
  • And, last but not the least, NGO networking will lead to saving money and energy spent in otherwise re-inventing wheels.

Global Initiatives. Realizing the potential of the Internet, and the crucial role of NGOs in solving global problems, global organizations have started supporting ICT-led initiatives in developing nations. The Information for Development Program ( infoDev) began in September 1995 with the objective of addressing the obstacles facing developing countries in an increasingly information-driven world economy. It is a global grant program managed by the World Bank to promote innovative projects on the use of ICTs for economic and social development, with a special emphasis on the needs of the poor in developing countries. Various other organizations like IDRC, the Swedish Agency for Development Cooperation (SIDA), the Department for International Development, UK (DFID) and the Danish Agency for International Development (DANIDA) have started supporting initiatives to network NGOs for exchanging their knowledge with one another. A few global initiatives to name include One World International, Bellanet, the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) and the Sustainable Development Network Programme supported by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Based on recent experiments in other parts of the world, Indian portals have started developing their sites very constructively. Most of these portals have designed their systems based on the GKP initiative, Global Knowledge Activity Information Management System (GK-AIMS) (http://gkaims.globalknowledge.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=info). Using the Internet and a Web-based interface, GK-AIMS positions itself to be a set of online tools which facilitates information sharing on "who is doing what" and allows for greater collaboration among project planners. As a result it acts as a central information resource for all those interested in building the information, communications and knowledge resources of developing countries. All portals from India follow GK-AIMS organization of information in the following pattern:

  •   Organizational profile
  •   Projects and activities
  •   Document repository
  •   Events database

Indian NGOs and the Information Networking

Early in 1998, a group of 4508 Indian voluntary organizations were mailed a questionnaire survey aimed at gauging their use of the Internet and e-mail. An impressive 20% responded and the survey revealed the following (CAF, 1998):

  • 4.5% of all respondents had already developed their own websites.
  • 25% of those surveyed indicated that they had definite plans to gain Internet access by May 1999, with a further 21.5% likely to follow suit.
  • 60% had plans to gain access by early 2000, an increase of 150%

The survey pointed to the tremendous potential for e-mail and the Internet to become significant communications tools benefiting the work of Indian voluntary organizations as well as aiding their relationships with donors.

Digital Divide Among Indian NGOs. It was evident from the CAF survey that only a handful of the NGO community was taking advantage of the potential of the Internet in India. In 1998, only about 200 NGOs out of an active 50,000 had their own websites, and about 600 of them were using e-mails. A series of consultations led by the author for the British Council in India around the country clearly identified the need for promoting the use of the Internet among NGOs. Many of them were ignorant of the fact that the Internet was a simple tool that could be exploited. Low self-esteem and the fear of using technology were the two barriers to the use.

Needs of NGOs. The British Council's consultation with a number of development organizations around the nation from November 1997 to May 1998 revealed ICT-related needs of NGOs, which can be classified as follows:

  • Technological needs: Though NGOs recognize the potential of the Internet, they are not in a position to assess their technological needs for exploiting the tool. With a small budget, NGOs often find it hard to meet the cost of the Internet connectivity and related training costs for using computers in their day-to-day work. Project funds are usually available for programmes, and rarely for equipment and infrastructure. Even if funds are available for buying equipment, due to lack of awareness, NGOs are not in a position to exploit the resources. Surprisingly, most of them recognise the need for getting hooked onto the Internet and developing their own Web pages. Almost all of them who took part in the consultation felt the need for reliable e-mail connectivity.
  • Software needs: In spite of realizing the need for the Internet and setting up their own websites, most of the NGOs are not quite aware of their software needs. NGOs primarily have two types of software needs:
    • An office management system for maintaining their various day-to-day operations, including library management, budget management and word processing;
    • Internet-related software for e-mailing, browsing and Web authoring.
  • Training needs: Both the so-called computer-savvy NGOs and computer-ignorant ones always feel the need for building capacity within their organizations for exploiting new  technologies. Most often, NGOs have to work within budget constraints and with a small number of staff members with commitment and grass-root level experience. With limited knowledge of computers and the technologies, NGOs find it hard to appoint computer specialists. They have no choice but to train the existing staff in the use of the Internet and Web page creation.

Indev Bridges the Digital Divide Among NGOs

Based on the various existing models around the world, such as Bellanet, ENRAP and so on, the British Council's consultative process with the development community in India led to the identification of the following priorities:

  • Need for a warehouse on development information acting as a single window for all information needs of the development community
  • Need for electronic networking of NGOs for information sharing and dissemination
  • Identification of an umbrella organization to take forward the challenge of electronic networking
  • Support from multilateral and donor agencies in terms of periodic advice and, if necessary, recurrent funding
  • Collaboration among NGOs, government departments, donor agencies and private industries.

Based on the above recommendations, the British Council in India initiated an electronic networking project called indev in November 1997 with a view to collating, publishing and sharing development information pertaining to all developmental needs of NGOs in India. India's first development portal, it is accessible at www.indev.org

The main aim of the indev project was to bridge the digital divide among the NGO community and create a platform for sharing and exchanging their rich experiences. Three issues indev aimed to address were:

  • Access promoting equitable access to the information on the Internet for effective generation, exchange and use of information for development by Indian NGOs
  • Empowerment and capacity building identifying the training needs of NGOs and  building capacity within their organizations for effectively using the new media and Internet technologies for information sharing and dissemination
  • Networking Exploring the ways and means to exploit the tools on the Internet for effective networking and collaborative learning.

Indev was initiated as a partnership initiative to bridge the digital divide among NGOs. A number of members and partner organizations joined the initiative and strengthened the network within the first year of its inception. At present indev has more than 300 members.

Learning Points

In the process of identifying and supporting the development information needs of the Civil Society in India, indev has been learning lessons since its inception. The interim review suggested a new direction for indev, and the current mid-term review is expected to give clear directions for the future of indev.

Training of Trainers. As McConnell observed in 1999 in an article in the Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries (www.is.cityu.edu.hk/ejisdc/vol2/v2r5.pdf), indev may also have to attempt to train NGO champions as trainers in order to have multiplier effect in its programs.  Indev training programs may have to generate increased user participation and should be conducted in a fashion that the users are able to see Web development as fun and as a marketing opportunity for their organizations. Intermediaries are vital in making this happen, as I argued in a 1999 article in Voices for Change . Hence, there is need for a shift in indev's training strategy. Instead of indev wearing the hat of the trainer, it should become a facilitator of training events in semi-urban localities and small cities, taking advantage of available training centers like the National Institute for Information Technology.

Participation vs. Collation. At present the indev news editor is mainly engaged in collating news items from various Web sources. This activity leaves very little likelihood for partner organizations to see the newspaper as their vehicle to promote their ideas, tools and services. Indev may have to attempt to encourage its partners to use the newspaper as a vehicle for campaigning and awareness raising. Further, indev will have to adopt a bottom-up strategy in order to become the real voice of the civil society in India.

Collaboration with Other Portals. A number of portals such as Propoor, SDNP, OneWorld South Asia, Bytes for All and Development Alternatives are engaged in similar activities in India. Indev will have to work in collaboration with these organizations and find common elements and synergies for supporting each other. Indev should aim at avoiding duplication of efforts by taking advantage of the expertise available with these portals.

Portal or Vortal. Indev is seen as a best example for a development portal. But, it only stands to gain if the project aims to be a vortal for the NGO community in India. Indev should aim at becoming a total technological solution provider of these organizations, even if this means losing some of its existing members. It should try to follow the footsteps of its present guardian, the British Council, in establishing a long-term relationship with its members and address their information and training needs as appropriate on a one-to-one basis.

Marketing and Replication. Indev is a success story that needs to be marketed among other nations. A step-by-step guide to build a partners-driven portal needs to be developed and made available to various national networks around the world. It took just 10 months for indev to become a reality from its conception. This quick start was possible only due to the commitment of the core team, the partners and above all, availability of funding from the right sources. The indev model is replicable. Attempts should be made by partners and the indev team to share their experience and expertise around the world.

Language Related Issues. Only SDNP-India has taken on the issue of vernacular languages. Indev hasn't yet attempted to provide its information in Indian languages. The success of indev lies in the participation in the network of grass-roots level organizations whose working languages are not English but  rather local languages. Hence, it is imperative for indev to take advantage of Indian language software and make its vital information available in major Indian languages such as Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali.

Conclusion

Indev has been a clear example for a partnership effort in India to narrow the digital divide. Clearly, NGOs have benefited from indev's efforts and a new electronic network is emerging strongly and proving to be the voice of the NGO community. Indev needs to learn a lot in the process and continue to support the development information needs of NGOs. With initial funding from the Department for International Development and later from the infoDev fund, indev has secured its financial needs for the first four years of the project period. However, indev can become a real savior of the digitally divided NGO world only by addressing the technological, training and software needs of the NGO community. Further, indev should look into the various forms of digital divide based on gender, age, prosperity, geographical location and language.

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