Monday, February 28, 2011

Leaving IBM after 25 years to pursue my passions

After a career of more than 25 years working at IBM, I decided to start a new project in my life.

For most of the younger people, a career of 25 years with the same company seems impossible as the world has changed and corporations are treating people more and more like commodity rather than asset. Only in public organizations or in academia can you still have such long career with the same employer.

However, in my 25 years at IBM I feel like I have been working for many different companies.
- I worked in 3 different IBM divisions and one partner company: Software Group, Research, Enterprise Initiatives, and ELiAS NV.
- I had 8 different jobs: system engineer, sales representative, worldwide marketing operations manager, CEO of ELiAS (detached by IBM), marketing manager, strategy program director, business development manager, offering manager.
- I developed market plans for more than 10 new software innovations.
- I worked in 6 different locations: Brussels Belgium, Milford CT, Leuven Belgium, Somers NY, Raleigh NC …and from home.
- I visited 30 countries in 5 continents on business travel.
But more importantly, I had the chance to work with some of the brightest and most passionate people and for a company that had the biggest impact on the IT industry and ultimately on people’s life over the last 100 years
So thank you IBM, I had a great time and will stay an IBMer at heart.

So what’s next for me in life? 

In my life after IBM I want to give back what I received from IBM to the community. I plan to pursue my passion for Africa where I grew up and for teaching. I want to go back to the academic world that I left 25 years ago when I joined IBM and I am interested in working on projects about the use of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D).

That is why I have accepted a position of Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie-Mellon University. I will teach innovation management at the College of Engineering and participate as Assistant Director in the future CMU project to create a Center of Excellence in Rwanda Africa to deliver Masters Degrees in Computer Science. This project is still under discussion and I will publish a special posting about it when it becomes official.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How could there be less "digital divide" in developing countries ?

The phrase "digital divide" initially referred to unequal PC ownership in the US. While the number of PCs was increasing, the ownership of it was limited to certain class of people with enough economic means in limited areas. That first definition was very limited and based on affordability, i.e. the cost of PC that was prohibitive for less favored populations.

Then the concept evolved to the use of information technology to access information. For example, rural regions in the US that didn't have Internet access and therefore were cut off from information even if they owned a PC. The digital divide then refers to accessibility, to the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all.

But access to information does not garantee that people can effectively use that information and therefore digital divide would mean the inequalities between groups of people in the ability to use information technology fully.

But in developing world, the digital divide is even more profound. Lets imagine for a minute that we can solve affordability and accessibility. Imagine that through some kind of miracle or a generous donor people in developing countries would get a PC. But they don't have electricity, so lets continue dreaming that they would get electricity, but they don't have internet connection. So again lets suppose that they have internet connection and that someone would teach them how to use it. Then based on the above definitions, that would solve the digital divide. Many NGOs and other organizations believe so and are working hard to make that happen.

But does that really solve the digital divide? The answer is no for several reasons: first of all is relevancy. The majority of Internet content is in English, a foreign language for most people in Africa. Secondly, the content itself is of no relevance to those populations. Latest news on Justin Bieber or the list of Oscar nominations are not of interest. What they want to know if when is the doctor coming to the village? How much will they sell their fish for in the market? Why is my crop not growing? When will the rain come? My child has diarrhea for two days, what should I do? etc

But there is another problem: literacy. In most of African rural areas people are illiterate or semi-literate, meaning that even when they can read and write, reading is not their main way for accessing information or writing is not their main way of communicating. Their main communication is oral. Most of Africa history has been transmitted by oral traditions. While in our culture, we absorb lots of information in writing through newspapers, magazines, mail and now email and internet, it is not the case in most of Africa. Information is exchanged orally between people and this explains the success of mobile phones with the less literate. Mobile phone penetration is reaching 50% in Africa compared to 90+% in developed countries. But the 50% may actually be more because cellular phones are often shared in rural areas. Several people may share the same phone. In fact, to support that type of usage, telecommunication companies are providing more than one contact list per mobile, allowing each user sharing the device to have his/her own contact list.

The tradition of oral communication is the reason why African people in general have a much better sense of evaluating someone through his words, voice tone and facial expression than we have. Sometimes you may have the feeling they can read in your mind! In our culture we lost that skill by using more distant communication or written communication. Young people prefer to use texting than calling on their mobile phone. Not only because it is cheaper, but also because it is easier to hide their feelings in a written text than in their voice.

Back to our subject: how can this digital divide be reduced? While I don't have the answer, I'll describe two solutions that may provide the beginning of an answer.

The first one is "SMS for Life". The basic idea is to use simple SMS to provide access to information. All the mobile phones used in Africa provide text messaging.

Malaria is a major cause of childhood deaths in Africa. The reason is often that medicine is not available when needed,i.e. in the first 48 hours of the sickness. The local health center may have run out of stock. Drugs are available, but they need to reach the patients.

SMS for Life will automatically send text messages to all health facilities workers on a weekly basis asking for their current stock of malaria medicine. When they provide that information, their phone receives airtime credit as an incentive for providing that information. The responses are collected and stored centrally on a website. Then using mapping technology, the system displays the stock situation by health facility at country and district level. The data is also used to produce reports and calculate average weekly usage by health facility for better prediction of future needs. Finally statistical tools can identify sharp rise in weekly usage in a number of closely located health facilities, thereby identifying malaria outbreak requiring immediate attention.

The use of SMS for collection and exchange of information can easily be used for other projects. EpiSurveyor is one example of an open source mobile health software for the collection, analysis and reporting  of public health data. You can find more information about mobile technology for developing countries here.

The second example is SpokenWeb in India. The project was first presented at the ACM SIGGCOM in 2007. As we have seen, the Internet is accessible largely through text-based technologies (text messaging, email, web browsing) in English and is thus not useful to the billions of people without sufficient literacy, without regular access to a computer, or speaking many thousands of other native languages. The concept of the SpokenWeb is to replace the "Text Web", the existing web of interconnected web pages containing mainly text with a network of interconnected voice sites that are voice driven applications created by users and hosted in the network. Those voice sites deliver information and services to a local community of underprivileged people over low cost mobile phones that are widely available and using the existing mobile networks. 

At the contrary of the WorldWide Web (WWW), the SpokenWeb is not targeted at the entire world but at smaller communities (village, district, region) of underprivileged, illiterate or semi-literate people in developing regions that need easy access to relevant information and services that can have a dramatic impact on their livelihood and help them out of poverty. The voice content of the SpokenWeb is created by people living in the community and therefore is most relevant to that community. The SpokenWeb allows users to easily contribute information and services to the network. A voice site can be created in less than 20 minutes through an interactive voice program. And because it is created by voice recording of local people, the content is available in the local language.

In addition to providing easier access to information for underprivileged populations, SpokenWeb can also be used to organize the unorganized. Motocycle taxi drivers can register their business in a voice site. Customers can then call SpokenWeb and search for a taxi. Using the customer's mobile location, the system can automatically identify the closest taxi and forward the call to that taxi driver's voice site where the customer will be offered with the option to call him directly. Payment can be done with mobile money over the SpokenWeb.This will spare the taxi operator to drive around searching for customers, using gas and polluting the city.

Other mobile voice based projects exist like LifeLines IndiaNokia Siemens Networks Village Connection, e-Choupal, Fisher Friend, Ubona.

In summary, if we export our Western IT solutions "as is" to the developing countries, we will only increase the digital divide. But with innovation addressing specifically the local conditions and needs, we can actually reduce the gap as showed in the above examples. Local entrepreneurs are best positioned to do this now that ICT is emerging in those countries.

See you later alligator...