Report: PrepCom II of the World Summit on the Information Society (Phase I)

Volunteer Reporters
28 February 2003

Multi-stakeholder Roundtable 7 - ICT Applications and Services

Time: 18 February 2003, 10:00-13:00 Location: International Labour Orgnization (ILO) Chair: Ms. Claudia Oglialoro, Director for Digital Divide and Multilateral affairs, Ministry for Innovations and Technology, Italy. Presenters/ Participants: Mr. Zhong Zhou Li, UNCTAD, Division for Services Infrastructure and Trade Efficiency, Officer in charge, China
Mr. Ahmed Toumi, International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation
Mr. Michael Scholtz, World Health Organisation
Ms. H. Molin-Valdes ISDR (International Strategy for Disaster Reduction)
Mr. Toshihiko Hayashi, University of the Air, Japan
Mr. Gabou Gueye, SNTPT, Union Network International
Dr. T.H.Chowdary, IT advisor to government, founder of Center for Telecom Management and Studies, India
Dr. Malcolm Bryant, Satellife Reporter: Mr. Zhenying Wu, ICVolunteers Languages: English with interpretation in French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Chinese Key words: ICT, information society, health care, handheld computers, India, e-business, e-government, satellite, broadband.

This roundtable presented success stories and concrete applications of Internet and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in e-Government, e-Health, e-Education and disaster prevention. People from developing countries came to share how their countries are leveraging the possibilities of new technologies to improve their living conditions and education. A labour union leader also reminded us that while the talk is about technology, we must not forget that ultimately it is about the workers and citizens of the world.

The first presentation by Mrs. Oglialoro, Director for Digital Divide and Multilateral affairs of the Italian Ministry for Innovations and Technology, outlined the following as the main objectives for e-Government initiatives:

  • Improve efficiency;
  • Improve effectiveness (for instance provide more specific services by targeting specific groups of citizens);
  • Innovation;
  • Transparency and anti-corruption;
  • Empowerment of the citizens;
  • Decentralization and public reform;
  • Sustain demand for ICT services and applications and assist the national ICT industry;
  • Create a critical mass of local content (in the local language and locally relevant).

The main challenges to the success of e-Government projects lie in the following points:

  • Tendency to automate existing processes without rethinking them, leading to lessened impact;
  • Need for regulatory reforms (examples: protection of data, digital signatures);
  • High immediate burdens on finance combined with postponed or intangible result in difficulties to obtain the necessary funding;
  • Some governments are showing unwillingness to share the power with the people;
  • Governments change, but e-Government strategies need to be long-term.

The Italian Government is collaborating with many developing countries in order to provide support and know-how transfer. E-government initiatives have many specificities and the private sector often lacks the knowledge of how to tackle the unique problems they present, which is why government-to-government collaboration is essential. Efforts will need to be maintained in the future to discuss e-government at a global level, continue creating awareness and spread best practices and good experiences.

Mr. Zhong Zhou Li, Officer in charge of the Chinese Division for Services Infrastructure and Trade Efficiency of UNCTAD, talked about how to "Bridge the digital divide through an e-business development strategy". In his view, digital changes will only be meaningful if it results in economic growth and increased well-being for the people. ICTs are a major factor of globalization. SMEs in particular will be the beneficiaries, as they will be able to enter international markets thanks to the ICTs. There are digital opportunities in industries of specific interest to developing countries, like e-Tourism or e-Services.

Because of high labour costs many developed countries are now outsourcing business processes to the developing world. This market is projected to attain a size of 1 trillion dollars in 2007. To benefit from it, adequate national e-business strategies have to be implemented. Costa Rica and India are prime examples of success stories.

Action items proposed:

  • Support the design and implementation of national e-business strategies;
  • Develop reliable benchmarking tools;
  • Development of ICT applications in sectors of specific interest to developing countries;
  • Adoption of e-government applications.

Ms. H. Molin-Valdes of ISDR (International Strategy for Disaster Reduction) spoke about the role of ICTs at her organization, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. These are put to use in monitoring and early-warning systems, which can significantly reduce reaction time to the outbreak of natural disasters, help save lives by informing the population in time through the medias, and reduce the amount of damages suffered.

Ms. Molin-Valdes stressed the importance of establishing international systems and protocols of information exchange. As natural disasters have no regard for national borders, the international community has to work together in their fight against them. The Internet is an important part of that strategy.

Mr. Michael Scholtz of the World Health Organization (WHO) presented the "Role of Information and Communication Technology in Health".
The two main points of his speech were that:

  • E-health is not about IT applications, but an integrated system for health development;
  • Much has to be done to overcome the digital divide --a divide that also exists in rich countries- among the well-to-do and the poor.

The Internet provides extensive possibilities for health science. About 60 countries are conducting e-Health experiments right now. But in Africa, less than 1% of people have access to the Internet. The digital divide leads to a knowledge divide. A study has shown that in low-income countries, less than half of the health institutions polled were subscribed to a health journal. The WHO negotiated with publishers and today, more than 2000 journals are accessible online free of charge to participating organizations in developing countries.

The health system uses ICTs, and ICTs themselves make health science progress. Distant learning can play an important role in education about health. In need today are affordable tariffs and services, and products designed based on users in the developing world (cheap and rugged devices that are also easy to install and operate) Universal and non-proprietary standards for information exchange are also necessary, so are guidelines for reliable health information sources (Mr. Scholtz likened taking information from the Internet today to drinking from a hose without knowing where the water comes from).

Mr. Ahmed Toumi of International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation talked about the promises of satellite communications in bringing quickly broadband to countries without a reliable land communication system. He presented the Global Broadband Satellite Infrastructure Initiative as a possible answer to the problem between how to bring the content (ICT applications and services) to the users where the container (the Internet) is not available.

Traditional land and cable networks are extremely expensive to install. Satellite communication is by nature international and could be used to give access to all in equal fashion. The problem is that today satellite communication is only widely available in the rich countries that have already the other infrastructure in place, so satellite technology is actually deepening the digital divide instead of reducing it. The satellite technology sector needs reforms and support to be efficient, so that the emergence of a world system giving broadband access to all the countries can be made possible. This system would be based on 3 elements:

  • Dedicated orbit positions and frequencies;
  • Universal standard technology that will drive prices down and spur development;
  • Regulatory system about licenses.

Mr. Toshihiko Hayashi represents the University of the Air in Japan, an open university in Japan, where lectures are given through FM radio and TV broadcasting. It was created 20 years ago to give life-long education to everyone, including people who did not pursue higher education after high school. The University broadcasts lectures to all. Registered, tuition-paying students get credits and obtain degrees. There are about 300 courses in total taught now, with an enrolment of more than 100,000 students. It also offers a way for Japanese abroad to receive instruction in their native language.

In the traditional university model, the library sits at the centre, with the lab offices, professors and classrooms around it. Students only form the outer circle of this diagram. In an open university model, the student is at the centre, with direct connections to staff and library.

In order to further develop this system of education, there is a need for more penetration of PC ownership and network literacy, Mr. Hayashi stressed. Broadband, more server facilities and better compression technology are also necessary for the ideal on-demand, interactive multi-media way of instruction. The concept that e-Education is just a poor substitute for real education must be challenged.

Mr. Gabou Gueye of SNTPT-Union Network International talked about the "Social Dimension of Information Society", which must be centered around three principles

  • Economic efficiency;
  • Ecological prudence;
  • Social finality.

Mr. Gueye pointed out that the countries and workers most in need are those left behind in the digital revolution. The new conditions in our societies require from both companies and unions new flexibility and awareness for new needs. Is the digital future a threat or an opportunity? Mr. Gueye is neither optimist nor pessimist about this question. Both good and bad things can happen depending on what we do. The union movement is at a crossroads, where the flow of events must be inflected for the benefit of all the men and women of the world. 
According to him, many challenges lie before us, such as:

  • Loss of public service and national sovereignty;
  • Standardization of values and cultures;
  • Social security / employment threats. Emphasis on short-term planning.

Mr. Gueye also presented the "Uni online" project, which plans to connect 2,500 labour unions online by 2005.

Dr. T.H.Chowdary, IT advisor to Government of India and founder of Centre for Telecom Management and Studies, presented "Illiterate and Poor People - Applications and Services for Them".

In India, where 30% of the population consists of poor people and only 60% are literate, the Government has made a strong commitment to technological development in the past decades. Telecommunications must be ubiquitous, broadband, affordable, and reliable; the Internet must be accessible to all and affordable to many. The slogan used to be: "A radio in every home, a phone in every village", but now it has become: "A mobile phone in every hand, a public Internet kiosk in every village".

By privatizing telecommunications and promoting competition, India made the costs of communications very cheap. Today, there are 8,000 software companies in India and 600,000 professionals. The IT exports amounted to 8 billion dollars in 2002.

ICTs are put to use also for e-Governance. For instance, a state in India implemented a project by which all road construction and repair projects are published on the Internet. This helped greatly to check corruption.

The problems for the developing countries to make Information Society a reality are:

  • Content availability in the various languages and with local relevance;
  • Cost of dialup access;
  • Bandwidth.

Dr. Malcolm Bryant of Satellife gave the final presentation of this session, on the theme of "Handheld Computers as a means to improve health care delivery".
The problem: efficiency and speed of information management in health districts.
Handhelds offer some very interesting characteristics: mobility, ease of use, versality, inexpensiveness compared to PCs, on a power per dollar basis.
Possible uses are:

  • Provide static content;
  • Broadcast content;
  • Data collection;
  • Patient encounter and case management;
  • Decision making tools;
  • Continuous education;
  • Prospective evaluation.

Today, 72% of physicians in the United States of America have a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)/ handheld computer, and an important part of PDA software produced is for the Health Care sector. How can this be applied to developing countries? A study in three African countries has shown that handhelds can be an effective and viable technology. It proved to be an effective tool for collection of health data and information dissemination, and helped professionals who took part in the study improve their performance.

The lessons learned from that experiment were:

  • Basic training is indispensable;
  • Surveys need to be adapted to the PDA format;
  • Tech support is essential;
  • Content must be locally relevant;
  • Power supply (batteries or not) must be appropriate to the situation.

According to Dr. Bryant, the following challenges lie ahead to make the experiment viable on a large scale:

  • The costs are still too high for Africa;
  • More locally relevant content in electronic format is needed;
  • Repairs of PDAs are not feasible for the moment in Africa;
  • Broader ICT infrastructure is needed to support PDAs;
  • Issues of privacy data protection and security must be directly addressed.

Dr. Bryant expressed his hopes that, in light of the obvious market opportunities, the industrial sector will rise to the occasion and make the wide-spread use of PDAs in the health sectors of developing world countries a reality.

Interesting Questions
A participant contested the thesis presented by Dr. Chowdary that privatizing the telecommunication sector contributed to price reductions and argued that more affordable prices were instead due to advances in the technology. The rebuttal from the panellist was that even if new technology allowed for lower prices, these would never be translated in real price cuts in a monopolist system.

A member from the audience asked Mr. Hayashi whether the University of the Air (UoA) did research work and how, and also whether he thought that some day brick and mortar education institutions will disappear entirely. Mr. Hayashi confirmed that the UoA has indeed more that 50 facilities where research and experiments can be conducted, and said that traditional universities will probably co-exist in the future with open universities as they complement each other.
Another member commented that developing countries need not only to have access to medical journals, they also need to have the possibility to publish articles in these journals that serve their specific needs. Dr. Scholtz agreed and provided the information that projects are indeed being underway to scan and put online local medical publications from developing countries.

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