Narrowing the Global Technology Gap with Support from Microsoft Research ‘Digital Inclusion’ Awards

REDMOND, Wash., Feb. 23, 2006 — An Internet-based healthcare information service targeting HIV/AIDS patients in Botswana. An early-warning system for flooding, using sensor networks on the Rio Aguán in Honduras. A project to determine if Wi-Fi-enabled phones can boost cognitive development in children, using Internet chat services in Santiago, Chile. And a project to explore long-distance learning at a village school in Tibet, using networking and audio-visual teaching equipment at Tibet University.

These are among 17 winning proposals from around the globe that will divvy up a US$1.2 million “Digital Inclusion” academic-research-funding award from Microsoft Research. Microsoft Research announced the funding opportunity through a request for proposal (RFP) process last fall. The goal: to empower academic researchers worldwide to tackle technological challenges to positively affect health, education and socioeconomic conditions.

To learn more about the Digital Inclusion RFP, the winning proposals and how technologies such as mobile devices, cell phones, and networking can unlock the potential of people everywhere by making computing affordable, accessible and relevant, PressPass spoke with Tom Healy and John SanGiovanni, the Digital Inclusion RFP program managers in the External Research & Programs (ER&P) group at Microsoft Research, and with the winning researchers: Thomas Anderson, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle; John Bennett, professor of computer science and associate dean of engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder; John Canny, professor of computer science at the University of California at Berkeley.

PressPass: Why did Microsoft Research issue the Digital Inclusion RFP?

Healy: The term “Digital Inclusion” describes the goal of expanding the capabilities of computing technology worldwide to better serve social and economic challenges of underserved communities, both rural and urban. Specifically, Digital Inclusion means that computing must be affordable, accessible and relevant. The External Research and Programs group is the arm within Microsoft Research that engages with the worldwide academic research community. Just as Microsoft Research is interested in advancing the state-of-the-art of technologies in the research areas in which we work, the worldwide academic research community is also working to advance the state-of-the-art of technologies. So there’s a natural intersection between the interests of the worldwide academic research community and Microsoft Research. The External Research & Programs group is always looking out for academic research trends, interests, and areas that are significant and relevant.

PressPass: Was this the first time Microsoft Research has issued an RFP of this kind?

Healy: The Digital Inclusion RFP builds on work that ER&P, Microsoft Research started last year in India, through the Information and Communication Technologies for Underserved Communities (ICT4D) RFP. The goals of that project were to incubate creative approaches to bring computing to the massive number of people who had no prior access to technology, and to support new research projects aimed at solving the needs of rural and underserved communities. We learned many things from the earlier project and used them in constructing the Digital Inclusion RFP.

PressPass: What sort of response did the RFP announcement get?

SanGiovanni: We received 162 excellent proposals from 34 different countries. The proposals were then reviewed by a team of 40 Microsoft subject-matter experts from across a number of different Microsoft groups. From that, we selected 17 projects representing 10 countries – India, Argentina, Chile, China, Botswana, Paraguay, Uruguay, Pakistan, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States. It’s worth noting that, even though seven of the winning projects were from U.S. research universities, almost all of them are working with non-governmental organizations located in another country; typically in a remote or rural setting. We’re excited to see these kinds of cross-geography collaborations happening where the research team is looking at the technology issues but putting it into a very practical, proof-of-concept application in a remote location.

PressPass: Tell us about the winning RFP’s?

SanGiovanni: We saw a number of technology themes recurring in the 162 proposals and the 17 winning projects are very representative of these. For example, one theme is the evolution of the cell phone and its ability to be used as a computing platform to provide affordable, accessible, and relevant technology services to underserved communities.

Anderson: One of the two projects we proposed at the University of Washington involves cell phones with built-in cameras. The paperwork involved in getting microfinance processed in rural areas of India can be a barrier for people seeking access to credit. The project, called CAM, is designed to reduce the paperwork and for other applications, using intermittently connected camera phones as portable data capture devices. The camera is essentially a cheap input/output device. It can be used to take a photo of a paper document, and the keypad can be used to enter data such as the name and address of the person who’s getting the loan, and this eventually gets translated back into a paper form at the bank. It allows for a local person to go and gather the information in a cheap and easy way without lugging around lots of paperwork.

Canny: Our project at Berkeley involves immersive language-learning, using cell phones, in rural India. Computer literacy is often seen as a fast track out of poverty for developing regions, but we found that literacy in a widely-spoken language like English is an even deeper prerequisite for economic success. Most developing-country governments strive to do this through public education but face many obstacles. The opportunity with phones was to try to build some language-learning software into inexpensive phones that the kids could essentially wear around the house and outside while they’re working and potentially spend a lot of time in an engaging spontaneous language-learning environment. Microsoft Smartphones will allow arbitrary software to be running, including language-learning software. We plan to use them with a large-vocabulary speech-recognition system we’re developing, as well as design patterns gleaned from the most effective language courses to create guidelines for new speech-based language-learning modules. We plan to develop several modules using these patterns, using templating and XML to support localization to various first languages. We see the phones as a good platform for that because they’re already selling well in developing regions and we’re hopeful they will be available at lower cost fairly soon.

SanGiovanni: Many of the projects have proof-of-concept or pilot projects that the research teams will implement. There’s a strong theme in telemedicine, which then brings into play a lot of the networking infrastructure challenges as well as various handheld form factors that can be used in remote locations. Other considerations are accessibility to the technology and sensitivity to the user interface in the computing experience that has to be put into place to make it effective in the remote location.

Bennett: Our project is called AIR – Advancement through Interactive Radio. Community radio is the dominant mass media in rural developing regions, but its potential as an agent of social and economic advancement is limited by its inherent uni-directionality. We proposed to develop and evaluate simple, rugged, portable and inexpensive computing devices capable of recording, storing and forwarding voice feedback from rural listeners. Think of a simple, cell-phone-sized device with one button that you push to talk, so listeners will be able to ask questions, provide feedback and respond to things that they hear on the radio. That feedback is then collected and perhaps aggregated and returned to the station in a way that can allow these individuals to be heard, to influence content and basically to be empowered.

A lot of community radio stations have content genres that we will work with, such as programming about farming and market conditions where listeners can go and sell their goods. One that’s particularly interesting is around healthcare information – childcare, nutrition, sexual health and so on – because without health and without women’s and children’s health there really isn’t a healthy community. We plan to deploy about 100 prototype devices initially, targeting disadvantaged women in five rural communities – perhaps in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia or Latin America. Somewhere where community radio is not outlawed.

PressPass: What are some of the main technology challenges?

SanGiovanni: A big one is the lack of mature networking infrastructures. In this context, we talk about reaching “the last mile.” How can we get technology out into those remote locations where there is anything but a mature networking infrastructure? One technology solution that people are looking at is mesh networks – decentralized networks that lend themselves well to a distributed wireless infrastructure model. Another theme that came out of this was the use of sensor networks for such things as disaster mitigation or monitoring the basics of life, such as water quality. We also learned that there are very specific human/computer interaction research questions that came up, especially around user interfaces for the semi-literate or illiterate.

Anderson: We attempt to address some of the main challenges in two common themes that run through our work. The first is cost realism. Many of the villages where we work lack basics, like clean water and blackboards, a fact that drives us to avoid expensive “wire the world” solutions in favor of the cheapest workable approach. Being inexpensive means we can scale to additional villages more quickly. The second theme is the importance of a total system approach. That is, instead of developing technology for technology’s sake, we have long-standing relationships with NGOs on the ground in India helping us focus our technical abilities on building and deploying real solutions to the problems of the rural third world poor. For example, our second project, called DSH (Digital Study Hall), is designed to address the limited educational opportunities for the rural and urban poor in the area of Lucknow in India by using video capture, the postal service, DVDs, cable TV and cheap hand-held radios.

Bennett: We wanted to take advantage of the already trusted communications systems that were in villages in remote areas to start with. That’s where the idea for AIR actually came from. The “Internet” in some developing communities is loudspeakers on cars and radios; that’s how everyone finds out what’s happening in their villages. Internet kiosks aren’t getting the usage people thought they would. If you look at the prevalence of Internet access in the developing world it’s something like 1 in 160. The penetration of community radio is something like 1 in 4, so it makes a likely platform for doing this kind of work. We’re also looking at things like mesh networking, Wi-Fi and VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) as part of our project. The computerized handheld device needs to be able to exist in a networking infrastructure that’s independent of the topology of the region, which is why we’re looking at mesh networking direct transmission back to a base station.

PressPass: What does Microsoft hope these RFP’s will contribute to the overall vision of Digital Inclusion?

Healy: We want to be able to show that we can advance the state-of-the-art of technology and prove relevance through proof-of-concept projects. It’s a multi-disciplinary approach. We have some very difficult technology issues to overcome but, we have unique technology opportunities. We can make a positive difference in the lives of people all over the world.

PressPass: Why are partnerships with academia so crucial right now?

Healy: This is something that has been part of our process from the very beginning of Microsoft Research. There’s mutual benefit in open collaboration with the academic research community. Investigating and experimenting with these technologies is consistent with what happens within the academic research community. Communication, collaboration, creativity, incubating new ideas, stimulating new thoughts, stimulating new direction – these are all things that we find as mutual benefits in collaborating with the worldwide academic community.

PressPass: How do you envision the Digital Inclusion program growing in the future?

Healy: That’s a great question. I can’t say that I have the crystal-ball answer, but there’s great momentum in this area. For example, a recent United Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) conference brought together 19,000 participants to explore how technology can impact the massive numbers of people who, to date, have not been able to benefit from the advantage of the technology revolution. The WSIS conference attendees represented 174 countries, 92 international organizations, 606 NGOs and 226 companies. There is tremendous worldwide interest in Digital Inclusion.

Anderson: We’re trying to solve real problems. A lot of the things that we do are the logistics of delivering a certain number of computers or cell phones to India so that we can put them in a certain number of schools. A lot of the things that we’re doing are not particularly high tech. The principal challenge is really how to get funding. I think it’s remarkable that Microsoft has stepped up to try to fund some of these efforts.

Bennett: The Microsoft Research RFP for Digital Inclusion is unique because it addresses both the social science and the high tech. This is a strange area – a place where most social-science funding sources look at our proposals and conclude that it’s technology and therefore out of their realm, and most technologists do not place much priority in issues such as cultural appropriateness. It takes both vision and boldness to fund work like this.

A complete list of 2005 Digital Inclusion RFP Winners:

  • Carlos Osvalod Rodriquez, Cequinor/Lanais EFO, CONICETUNLP, Argentina

  • Guillermo Marshall, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina

  • Henry Nyongesa, University of Botswana, Botswana

  • Srinivasan Keshav, University of Waterloo, Canada

  • Miguel Nussbaum, Universidad Catolica de Chile, Chile

  • NyiMaTraShi, Tibet University, China

  • M.B. Srinivas, International Institute of Information Technology, India

  • Jan Carel Diehl, Delft University of Technology, Netherlands

  • Umar Saif, Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan

  • Eduardo Grampin, Instituto de Computacion, Universidad de la Republica Uruguay, Uruguay

  • Roni Rosenfeld, Carnegie Mellon University, USA

  • Daniela Rus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

  • Joseph Rosen, MD, Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College, USA

  • John Canny, University of California, Berkeley, USA

  • John Bennett, University of Colorado at Boulder, USA

  • Thomas Anderson, University of Washington, USA

  • Suman Banerjee, University of Wisconsin- Madison, USA

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