Chengdu, China, December 19, 2007 – “From here, go to the world”: the words written in bold, red Chinese characters on the wall of a classroom in Datang Nine-Year Compulsory Education School, in Pujiang County, remind students about the greater goal of their education. They also succinctly describe a unique phenomenon that is happening in Pujiang – a phenomenon that has implications for people who have never even heard of this small, rural community in Sichuan Province, China.
Located in Chengdu, deep in China’s western interior, Pujiang is a pilot site for Microsoft’s ambitious plan to help share the digital revolution with the billions of people worldwide who do not have access to information and communications technology (ICT).
While most of urban China has successfully entered the information age, there are hundreds of millions of rural citizens who are still divorced from ICT – a situation that is exacerbating the country’s poverty-wealth gap and an urgent priority for the government. It is widely agreed that digital inclusion is a necessary element in any economic development plan, but how to effectively introduce technology into disparate and dispersed rural communities is a complex issue. The Chinese government’s Ministry for Information Industry (MII) sees access to ICT in a relevant and measured way as central to solving this challenge – a vision that aligns with Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential initiative.
Through Unlimited Potential, Microsoft is working to transform education, foster innovation and create jobs and opportunities by removing the barriers that prevent underdeveloped communities entering the digital age. Microsoft’s approach is to work closely with local communities, assessing the best ways to address their specific ICT needs through pilot projects that can then be adapted and applied on a wider basis.
“Understanding the needs unique to the person’s circumstances and locality are paramount before we can really apply technology in a meaningful way,” says Karishma Kiri, Director, Unlimited Potential, Rural Computing. “Rural pilots like the programs underway in China are invaluable for honing how we approach digital inclusion to meet the diverse needs of rural areas both in China and around the world.”
On April 19, 2007, speaking at the Government Leaders Forum in Beijing, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates announced an expansion of Microsoft Unlimited Potential, renewing the company’s long-term commitment to use technology, training and partnerships to sustain a continuous cycle of social and economic growth for everyone. As part of that expansion, Microsoft is collaborating with the MII and local government organizations on rural projects that will incubate ideas for how to realize the goals of Unlimited Potential, not only in China but around the world. For MII, which is responsible for formulating China’s information industry policies and strategic development, such innovative approaches to improve the welfare of the population in remote areas such as Chengdu were in line with their ICT goals.
At a local agricultural training center near the township government of Pujiang, people gather to receive ICT training.
Microsoft is supporting the MII to run pilot projects in Sichuan, Henan, Guizhou, Guangdong and Shandong provinces that test how to deliver the benefits of ICT to rural communities. In cooperation with the government, Microsoft has started running several rural projects such as InfoWagons — mobile ICT training labs – and Information Service Centers (ISC). The latter are village-level centers that provide e-government and information services, ICT access and training and agricultural training. In the ISC pilot in Chengdu, an ISC consists of 10 PCs with Internet connections and one full-time employee, called InfoStaff, to manage them. As the guardian of the ISC, the InfoStaff is a government employee that is a university graduate selected by the Ministry of Organization as part of the “One college student per village” program for his interest in the promotion of digital literacy to villagers.
On October 29, 2007, the first Microsoft ISC in Pujiang, and the second in Chengdu, opened to the public. This latest ISC is housed in the Residents Association of Guantang, a village of 2000 people, most of whom are orange farmers.
The Chinese government aims to bridge the digital divide between the country’s rich and poor by setting up projects, such as ISCs, in rural areas nationwide – village by village. First, however, they need to collect data on how these projects can be as effective as possible. In Pujiang, Microsoft is starting to provide this information.
Connecting Rural Chinese Citizens to the Information They Need
The ISC functions as a centralized location for citizen information. All the PCs have official information Web sites saved as favorites, giving locals a new and convenient experience of e-government. Residents can use the ISC to learn about and apply for official certificates and documents online and apply for them through the InfoStaff – tasks that otherwise require visiting government departments in different locations.
Su Xiaoyan, a Guantang local, uses the ISC to scan local employment-information Web sites. Su graduated from college in 2006 and is currently unemployed. She has been visiting the ISC in Guantang almost daily since it opened to search for a job online, something that previously required her to travel 18km to Datang town. “Not only is the ISC closer to my home, the Internet speed here is fast, the computer desktops have useful Web sites saved on them, and if I meet a technical problem there is a staff member on duty to help me,” said Su.
Children at the Datang Nine-Year Compulsory Education School learn basic computer skills as part of the ICT pilot project in Pujiang County.
ICT Training: A Two-Way Learning Process
The center also plays an important role in teaching local farmers how to use computers to their advantage. Feedback received from other rural projects sponsored by Microsoft in China indicates a tremendous desire to learn about ICT. In a survey conducted by four of the 11 Microsoft InfoWagons in China, it was found that 40 percent of trainees had never used a PC before. Those that perceived computers as having a real value for their lives jumped from 63 percent to over 80 percent after the training. The initial response to the ISC in Guantang mirrors this feedback. The local InfoStaff member Yin Bo notes that despite their lack of familiarity with computers, the local community is keen to learn: “The (ISC) e-library is the busiest room here. It is opened and free for the local farmers to go online and there are people coming and going all day,” he says.
A key reason for this enthusiasm is the style of training offered. Breaking away from traditional methods of computer training, Microsoft, in consultation with rural communities in China, has developed a three-step program with content that is relevant to the farmers, and lessons that allow them to experience instant results as they learn:
In phase one farmers learn the basics of using a PC and how to open links to Web pages with agricultural information;
In phase two they learn how to search for information within government and agricultural Web sites, save documents and input Chinese characters; and
In phase three they practice using e-mail and instant messaging as well as basic financial and supply-chain management tools.
The trainees can put what they are learning into practice as they are learning it by searching for gainful information, such as crop pricing and other market data, on the PCs at the ISC.
“The only approach to take to ICT training in underdeveloped rural areas is a humble one,” says Rau Chang, General Manager of Public Sector Group for Greater China Region. “Our rural projects in China are an experimental process in which everybody is learning, not least of all Microsoft. If we want to encourage farmers in Sichuan to use ICT we must first learn from them how they can actually benefit from it.”
Making Technology Work for China’s Farmers
To help develop relevant ICT solutions for Pujiang’s farmers, Microsoft is working on an information portal prototype with the Heshan Fruit Product Association. More than 10,000 of the farmers
Microsoft Senior Vice President, Unlimited Potential Group, Orlando Ayala speaks with the principal of Beijing Chen Jing Lun school during a recent trip to China.
in the county are members of the association, which provides a vital link to markets and knowledge outside their communities. Like other similar organizations in rural China, the Heshan Fruit Products Association offers its members nationwide sales channels and training courses in the latest agricultural methods and techniques.
In Pujiang, the association’s president, Chen Weijun has been personally delivering these training courses since the association was established in 2001. This involved a laborious schedule of travelling lectures. “Previously, I would visit 109 villages to meet with farmers face-to-face and deliver lectures on practical agricultural techniques,” says Chen. “It would take one quarter just to do one course, which was really exhausting. Now, with the Guantang ISC and Microsoft’s help in developing a training system, I won’t need to travel; most of the fruit farmers will be able to participate in the training long-distance.”
Currently being tested on a pilot group of fifty users, the prototype video training system will offer Chen’s courses to farmers throughout the county via the Internet.
The results of this and other Microsoft ISC projects are shared with the government to help them plan and execute digital inclusion policies for the country of 1.3 billion people. Li Banghua, vice director of the Chengdu office of the MII points out the importance of this geographical area in the government’s plan to bridge the digital divide in China: “Chengdu is a focus point for the national digital inclusion plan.” Li is also confident that the ISC project in Guantang will provide important data for future rural projects – “In Xinjin, where Microsoft opened an ISC in April, sixty percent of the local farmers now have greater access to important agricultural information and new sales channels.”
While Chang stresses that the project is still in an early and experimental stage, governments in Henan and Guizhou provinces are already planning to setting up similar ISCs with Microsoft. And, with rural administrators in other parts of China watching events in Guantang with growing interest, the drive to share the digital revolution with everyone might just, from here, go to the world.