Off the Beaten Track: Bringing Relevant Technology to Rural Areas

(Editors’ note: Published Sunday evening, April 22, 2007, Pacific Daylight Time.)



The InfoWagon brings high-tech buses to some of China’s most populous provinces.

ZHENGZHOU, China, April 23, 2007 – Today in Henan province, Chinese government officials take ownership of two “InfoWagons” designed to open up new avenues of digital literacy for rural citizens.

At a small village at Luohe, Henan Province in Central China, Will Poole, corporate vice president at Microsoft, participated in a rollout ceremony marking the delivery of two of six InfoWagons donated by Microsoft as part of an innovative rural computing pilot program. The high-tech buses — each outfitted with 15 student PCs and one instructor PC — will serve as computer training centers on wheels as they circulate to rural villages throughout one of China’s most populous province.

Poole and other Microsoft executives also attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony to launch the Integrated Information Training Center at Luohe township.

A relatively underdeveloped and primarily agricultural province, Henan is identified by Microsoft and MII as well-suited to a rural computing general services pilot program. The overall goal of Microsoft’s rural computing programs is to empower people by introducing them to the benefits of information and communications technology (ICT). The effort is central to Microsoft’s global rural computing vision and comes under the umbrella of Microsoft Unlimited Potential, an initiative that reflects the company’s commitment to promote sustained social and economic opportunity for the estimated 5 billion people worldwide who are underserved by technology.

“The entire IT industry agrees that technology access and affordability in the rural computing space is required, but relevance is an equally important consideration,” Poole says. “We, as an industry, need to work together to provide technology that has real application and usefulness in people’s lives. For example, delivering services that people find relevant for agriculture, healthcare, education and skills training, will help to address the unique needs of rural communities.”

Microsoft is working with China’s MII and the provincial governments to extend the benefits of technology to rural populations. Leading the drive are the six InfoWagons equipped with desktop PCs and IT tutors. To deliver services relevant to Chinese farmers and their families, the proposed InfoWagon pilot applications target real-life scenarios accruing to home, work and community. The concept includes PC@home to deliver healthcare information, entertainment and education; PC@work, which focuses on information browsing related to agriculture, crop prices and supply chain management; and PC@community, which focuses on an Information Center for computer training, information search, e-government and e-commerce experiences with the intention of improving the connection of China’s rural farmers with the global marketplace and the government.

Deployed initially in Henan and later expanding into the four additional provinces, the roving InfoWagons will give rural villagers the opportunity to experience and learn basic PC skills. Microsoft estimates that as many as 8,000 people will get trained this way by the end of 2007. Within five years, the InfoWagons are expected to reach 6,000 villages and bring digital literacy to 150,000 people.

To help sustain the digital literacy efforts initiated by the InfoWagon program, Microsoft plans to establish a permanent Integrated Information Training Center (IITC) in Henan. Also as follow-up, Microsoft plans to create a social computing environment in which wealthier farmers in dozens of villages agree to host donated computers in their homes and make them available for other farmers and community members to use.

Furthering Rural Information Efforts in China

Microsoft has also teamed up with partners in Shandong province on another endeavor to promote technology access for rural residents of China. Called the Shandong Rural Worker’s PC Program, the effort is part of the global Microsoft Partnerships for Technology Access (PTA) initiative. The Rural Worker’s PC Program, which is the first PTA in China, links Microsoft China and Shandong’s provincial government, the Department of Information Industry (DII), along with Intel Corp., Chinese PC manufacturer Haier and local broadband provider ChinaNetCom.

As with other Microsoft PTA projects implemented around the world, the Shandong Rural Worker’s PC Program is tailored around a government priority to improve the delivery of services using technology. PTA programs typically combine the know-how and resources of governments, technology companies, banks and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to help increase access to PCs and use technology to build economic and social opportunity within developing economies.

In support of the government’s commitment to a more “harmonious society” across the rural-urban divide, and as part of Microsoft’s Partnerships for Technology Access (PTA) initiative, Microsoft formed a public-private partnership (PPP) with the government of Shandong province, ChinaNetCom (CNC), Haier, and Intel to put a PC purchase within reach of rural workers. To make the PC relevant, as well as affordable, the Shandong Rural Worker’s PC Program is designed around four modules of applications relevant to farmers – farming activity, education, health, and entertainment. This effort is complementary to the government’s service transformation initiative to better serve farmers through e-government. To enable e-government, farmers need technology access and targeted services that will make technology adoption worth their while.

The stations are also designed to be self-sustaining models that benefit the rural communities that host them, while also providing retail or catalog outlets for the partners Haier and ChinaNetCom. The retail enhanced business model allows partners to provide technology solutions at a free or discounted cost to the government, who then offers the PC usage for free to the community.

Applications packaged on the PCs will focus on the four key areas identified as most user-relevant: agricultural production, such as giving rural workers access to online market information, crop pricing and government regulatory information; entertainment, such as movies and photo albums; access to healthcare resources and information; and access to educational content available on the Web.

Enabling Access to Basic Needs and Growth Opportunities in Rural India



Bipin Mishra, a kiosk operator in rural Madhubani, Bihar State, India, facilitating a videoconferencing session for Lalita Devi with a doctor in the city of Patna, India. March 2007

In India, Microsoft’s efforts to empower digitally disenfranchised rural populations include teaming up with an industry partner, Drishtee Dot Com Ltd., to implement pilot programs addressing e-commerce and e-health, and small scale business process outsourcing needs.

The e-commerce program, is a grass-roots effort that aims to provide global market linkages and a transparent, fair distribution channel to poor rural artisans with ICT intervention. The primary component of the project is a Web-based marketplace (http://www.drishteehaat.com/) where creations by rural artisans (paintings, cloth embroidery, bamboo crafts, etc.) are showcased. Customers can browse the wares online, place orders and even request custom merchandise. Artisans access ICT kiosks in their villages to add product information to the portal and collect customer requirements. Some success has been demonstrated – artisans have experienced a 35-percent increase in income as well as greater process transparency, with final payment within 15 days of customers making a payment, as opposed to four months in the conventional distribution chain. Artisans also express a greater degree of comfort with and trust in the system.

Bachcho Devi of Jitwarpur village explains: “I have been painting for the last 40 years. But I have never received so many orders within such a short period as I have done since I registered with Drishtee. In two months, I sold 12 paintings and earned 10,000 rupees. I have never been able to earn such a big amount within 60 days before.”

“We’re proud to be middlemen, but we’re passing on information along with the product,” explains Satyan Mishra, managing director at Drishtee. “Our survey revealed that if a painting was being bought for 1,000 rupees in Delhi or the U.S., excluding freight cost, then the artist was only 100 rupees for it. Now if a painting is sold for1,000 to 1,200 rupees,then the artist gets at least 250-300, so we’ve added a substantial value to their work.”

Meanwhile, an e-health pilot program that Microsoft has undertaken, again in partnership with Drishtee, aims to provide an affordable, reliable healthcare alternative for rural communities in India. To address the lack of doctors in the villages — and the time and cost associated with traveling to a primary healthcare center — the telemedicine program provides medical assessments and counseling at ICT kiosks, through videoconferencing sessions with doctors. This is supported by linkages with a network of rural healthcare centers and district hospitals. The community thus has the option of first-level interaction with a genuine, qualified doctor within walking distance of their homes.

The kiosks at the front end of this system are equipped with a remote diagnostics kit for monitoring patient vital signs, such as temperature, blood pressure and cardiac health. These readings are then transmitted in real time to a doctor in a different location. The application built into the kit also enables storage of the patient information at a secure, centralized server, and enables the patient-doctor videoconferencing, which is currently being tested. In the future, testing of the videoconferencing tool may also extend to effective doctor-to-doctor interaction. For example, a primary-care doctor who conducts mobile health camps in villages could use the system to link up with a specialist for further consultation.



A doctor at a clinic in Patna, Bihar State, India talking to patients in remote villages. March 2007.

A third type of Microsoft pilot program deployed in India is rural business process outsourcing (BPO), an initiative that aims to increase job opportunities and improve skill development. This initiative works towards setting up ICT kiosks in rural areas. These kiosks provide employment and skill-building opportunities for the local population. The kiosks offer services (such as data entry, data management, content localization, and engineering drawing) to companies located in urban areas at lower costs, with quality levels equivalent to similar service offerings in towns. Further benefits to urban industry include access to an untapped workforce with lower rates of attrition and multilingual capabilities. For the rural community, these centers provide earning opportunity along with learning and capacity building, particularly for local youth and women.

The Rural BPO initiative in India is led by the TeNet (Telecommunications and Computer Networking) group at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, (IIT-M) in Chennai with ideation and concept development participation by Microsoft.

Microsoft also supports digital inclusion in India through an innovative multi-party research project called Digital StudyHall. A collaborative effort supported by Microsoft Research India, Digital StudyHall seeks to improve education in low-income areas by establishing a low-cost infrastructure for sharing user-generated video. Digital StudyHall is building an extensive digital video database of K-12 materials generated through grassroots contributions. Simultaneously, education experts and teachers are exploring pedagogical approaches in which local teachers actively mediate the video lessons. Project supporters hope this community participation model will help train better teachers while delivering high-quality instruction to underprivileged children.

Digital StudyHall has deployed pilot “hubs” in three cities in India, and the digital video database currently includes 550 high-quality recordings of lessons in English, math and science spanning five languages. The research project shows promising change and is expected to be expanded to two additional countries over the next year.

Scalable, sustainable approaches to shared access and delivery of ICT

Microsoft’s commitment to create sustainable ICT access for underserved populations also spans a range of work in the area of telecenters — shared-access sites where public computers are made available on a no-charge or low-cost basis and provide additional services. Telecenters can be configured as community centers, learning centers or business centers, providing places where people can meet, communicate, learn new skills, get an online degree or access other relevant information resources.

Microsoft recognizes that the need for telecenters is greatest in underserved and rural communities. In India, for example, 70 percent of the population resides in rural areas, and an estimated 90 percent of the country’s labor force remains trapped in low-productivity, informal-sector jobs, according to the May 2002, People’s Daily News. In China, 61 percent of the population resides in rural areas as sited in the Worldbank India Country Overview 2006. The need for ICT access also extends to general rural areas and underserved communities in urban areas. For example, even people living in rural areas of the United States or Western Europe may need to travel half a day to access basic healthcare such as primary diagnostics and preventive medical advice.

To help alleviate such problems in developing as well as developed countries, Microsoft works with various governments and telecenter networks worldwide in an advisory role and technology provider capacity to collaborate on creating sustainable, scalable approaches to shared access. One recent effort is “Making the Connection: Scaling Telecentres for Development,a resource guide targeted to governments, entrepreneurs and private-sector and community leaders. The book — a collaboration between the Academy for Educational Development, telecentre.org and Microsoft — provides a set of frameworks, best practices and case studies to guide telecenter development and helps organize the collective thinking that has accompanied the telecenter movement. Intended as a catalyst for new projects, it includes successes and failures as well as a specific focus on the factors critical to sustainability and scalability at national levels

Microsoft also recently announced the launch of a community Web site called Telecenter Knowledge Network, created in cooperation with telecentre.org. The site is intended to serve as a constantly evolving community site where those involved with telecenter programs can share their findings, experiences and best practices with the broader community. The Web site also serves as a repository of peer knowledge and resources that can be used by individuals or organizations planning to develop or scale telecenter programs. For example, the content in the “Making the Connection” book is posted on the Telecenter Knowledge Network site in an open format where the worldwide telecenter community can access it and expand upon it in a variety of ways, from topically oriented expertise, such as networks or services, to country profiles, intended to create a snapshot of local initiatives.

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