Microsoft Research India Partners with the University of California Berkeley and Others to Host Academic Conference on Technology for Developing Countries

BERKELEY, Calif., May 25, 2006 – Can existing technologies be adapted to meet the diverse needs of people living in developing countries, where local languages vary, literacy is low and access to electrical power, not to mention bandwidth, is limited? Or are new technologies needed instead? Can lessons learned in one part of the world be transferred to other regions?

These are just some of the questions Microsoft Research India, one of five Microsoft Research labs worldwide, attempts to address in its research. They are also the questions that nearly 200 academic and industry researchers and students from around the world are gathering to discuss today at the International Conference on Information and Communications Technology and Development (ICTD) 2006. The first in what will be a series of such conferences, ICTD 2006 was jointly developed by Microsoft Research India and the University of California, Berkeley.

Projects focusing on designing information and communication technology (ICT) for developing countries have come to the forefront in the last decade. Public, private and nonprofit organizations are engaging in a wide range of initiatives, from setting up shared-access PCs in rural villages to integrating mobile phones into rural agricultural supply chains. Despite the boom in activity, scientific research in this area is scarce.

Kentaro Toyama, assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India, and AnnaLee Saxenian, dean and professor of the School of Information, University of California, Berkeley, talked a year and a half ago about the need to bring together a multidisciplinary community of people doing academic research in ICT for developing economies. Both were enthusiastic about the idea of organizing a series of conferences that would enable such a community.

“Conferences and workshops that bring together nonprofits, governments and large international organizations to discuss ICT for developing countries are common, but they’re focused on aspects other than scholarly research,” says Toyama. “By providing a venue for academic researchers, we hope to bring academic rigor to ICT projects.”

Multidisciplinary Focus and High Standards Define Collaborators’ Approach

Shortly after Toyama helped establish Microsoft Research India in early 2005, he and Saxenian began collaborating with another researcher, Raj Reddy, a renowned computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, to plan ICTD 2006.

Saxenian, Reddy and Toyama wanted to take a multidisciplinary approach to the conference, so they selected a range speakers and research papers that reflected both topical and geographic breadth.

“The focus of the ICTD conference is very much on scholarship and maintaining high-quality standards of academic research,” says Saxenian. “We developed a rigorous double-blind peer review process to select conference speakers. Kentaro played a central role in overseeing the complex and demanding process of ensuring the quality of the presentations.”

Of the 140 papers that were submitted for consideration, the committee accepted 16 for presentations and another 22 to be presented as poster displays. The papers and posters were written by researchers from a variety of fields, including anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, computer science, electrical engineering, industrial, design, and schools of information. (Six of the conference papers accepted through the double-blind peer review process were co-authored by Microsoft Research India scientists.)

The opening keynote speaker at the conference is Dr. Brij Kothari, who along with his research team has created and nationalized the use of Same Language Subtitling (SLS) on Bollywood film songs to encourage mass literacy in India. Kothari is the founder and president of PlanetRead, a nonprofit organization involved in scaling SLS efforts in India and other countries.

Other keynote speakers include Ananya Roy, professor and associate dean of International and Area Studies and assistant professor of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, and Zhiwei Xu, professor and deputy director of the Institute of Computing Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

Roy’s talk, “The New Global Order of Poverty Management, or Why Everybody Loves Microfinance,” analyzes the significance and popularity of microfinance as a strategy for alleviating poverty. Microfinance, which is the provisioning of financial services such as small loans to poor entrepreneurs, is an increasingly popular strategy for helping people in developing economies.

Xu will share with international colleagues emerging efforts in China to enable half of the population to access information technology in his talk, “Empowering 800 Million People Through Low-Cost IT.”

Microsoft Research India and the University of California at Berkeley founded the ICTD conference. Co-sponsors and co-organizers include Siemens Corporate Technology, China; The IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology; and ACM-SIGCAS: Special Interest Group on Computers and Society; and Carnegie Mellon University.

Partnering with Academia to Broaden the Impact of Computing

The collaboration between Microsoft Research India and University of California, Berkeley, is just one more example of Microsoft’s commitment to narrow the technology gap through partnerships with academic researchers worldwide.

Microsoft researchers have a long history of collaborating with university and industry partners to publish and review papers, sit on committees, present their work at conferences such as ICTD, and foster the advancement of technology.

For example, Microsoft Research External Research & Programs announced last February the recipients of US$1.2 million in funding for academic research that focuses on how technology can unlock the potential of people in underserved communities by making computing affordable, accessible and relevant.

The 17 winners of the Digital Inclusion request for proposals (RFP) represent teaching universities from 10 countries, including India, China, Pakistan, Uruguay and the United States. Many of the winners, not surprisingly, will participate in this year’s ICTD conference at Berkeley.

Grant winners will delve into research that includes telemedicine and the use of the cell phone as a platform to provide affordable, accessible and relevant technology services to underserved communities. Other winning proposals will look at delivering an integrated Internet-based healthcare information service targeting HIV/AIDS patients in Botswana and finding out if using Wi-Fi-enabled phones can boost cognitive development in children using Internet chat services in Santiago, Chile.

Parallel Missions: ICTD 2006 and Microsoft Research India

India has a population of over a billion people, more than 20 officially recognized languages and startlingly different terrains and cultures. While 60 percent of the population derives its income from agriculture and related activities, the country also has one of the world’s fastest growing and most dynamic IT industries. This wide and sometimes stark diversity makes it an ideal environment for research in a number of areas.

Microsoft Research India is engaged in cutting-edge basic and applied research in multiple fields in computing, information technology, and related areas. In addition to innovating and contributing key technologies to Microsoft products, the lab collaborates with a wide range of scientific and academic institutions to advance the state of the art in computing research.

“India is one of the few places in the world where across the street from the most impoverished communities, you can walk into a store and buy the latest electronic gadgets. If research in ‘technology for development’ ought to happen anywhere, it’s here,” says Toyama.

A significant portion of the population in India is very interested in the promise of using technology for development, according to Toyama. “The booming IT industry and a strong cultural inclination toward non-profit work contribute to this openness,” he says. “Just the sheer number of non-government organizations (NGOs) is amazing.”

The Microsoft Research India Technology for Emerging Markets group, which is headed by Toyama, was the first of six research groups formed at the company’s India lab. Its mission is identical to the mission of the people who are attending ICTD 2006, in that researchers are looking for viable ways computing technology can make an impact on socio-economic development.

Research comprises social-science research, such as ethnography, sociology, political science and economics, all of which help researchers understand the social context of technology. It also includes technical research in hardware and software to devise solutions that are designed for emerging and underserved markets, both in rural and urban environments.

For example, a number of research projects are geared toward understanding the effectiveness of rural kiosks, or shared-access computers, in rural villages. Rural kiosks are sprouting all over India, so the Emerging Markets group is doing research to determine how well they work or don’t work, what types of products and services are in demand, and whether they are having a socio-economic impact.

“Are rural PC kiosks meeting their goals? When they succeed, how do they succeed? When they fail, are there other ways that technology can help?” asks Toyama.

Renee Kuriyan, a research intern at Microsoft Research India and a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, will present at the ICTD conference findings by her, Toyama, and Isha Ray, in a talk titled, “Integrating Social Development and Financial Sustainability: The Challenges of Rural Kiosks in Kerala.” Kuriyan finds that the tension between meeting social causes and running a viable business is difficult to resolve, both at the village and at larger political levels.

Another project the Emerging Markets group is working on is the development of a text-free user interface that relies on multimedia to enable as much computer functionality as possible for illiterate or semi-literate users. With this project, Indrani Medhi, an assistant researcher at Microsoft Research India, collaborated with a nonprofit organization that works to address labor rights in India, to figure out what might be the best ways to help illiterate women who do domestic work find jobs.

Researchers have succeeded in developing an application that even novice and illiterate users can use with absolutely no intervention from anyone. It is based on many hours of ethnographic design, conducted in collaboration with a community of illiterate domestic laborers in three impoverished communities in Bangalore, India, to understand what kind of application people would be interested in, how they respond to computing technology and how they react to user-interface elements.

The interface uses unabstracted cartoons versus simplified graphics, provides voice feedback for all functional units, and provides consistent help features and a movie dramatizing the purpose of the application. Results show that the communities the lab has worked with strongly prefer text-free designs over standard text-based interfaces, and that the explanatory video makes all the difference in helping people understand how that particular computer application can help them.

Adhering to Reality

Most computer scientists would love to believe that computers can change the world for the better, so it’s easy to be lured into grandiose visions of the potential of ICT projects, according to Toyama.

“But as scientists, the one thing we have to adhere to is the truth,” Toyama says. “At Microsoft Research India, we try to realistically assess when technology for development works and when it doesn’t. It’s also what we’ll be doing at the conference. Once we cut through all the hype, we still believe that technology can make a difference.”

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