The digital display at the Gaborone airport read 40 upon departure,
and the temperture inside the ComAir flight to Johannesburg was
about the same. But as the door opened, we were blasted with
perfect South African weather, a cool breeze in the mid 20's, and a
cloudless sky, perfect for a conference on "development networking"
in Africa, hosted by SANGONeT, the Southern African NGO Network.
One of the participants characterized the communities of greatest
interest, typified by a rural group of women. In an industry where
conversations are so oriented around technology, it is refreshing to
sit in a room of people who start with people, working from there to
the technological tools that can be applied to empower people.
Empowering communities is the goal. I suspect this goal stems from a
fundamental belief in equality of opportunities. The Internet offers
new opportunities, but access is certainly not equitable. How can
access be made more equitable?
Is there a role for a non-profit (sometimes called a non-commercial)
service provider? How can these compete in a marketplace
increasingly dominated by for-profits?
We all access information through "information brokers" --
newspapers, libraries, consultants. There are many organizations
that serve in one way or another as information brokers or
intermediaries for disempowered communities. A short time ago, many
of these were united on common information servers operated by
non-profits (e.g. WorkNet/SANGONeT, PeaceNet). The principal
purpose may have been to solve the information needs of particular
communities, but by being on a single server, important
conversations took place among them. These communities, through their
information brokers and intermediaries, initially were among the most
empowered in the information age.
The Internet offers alternatives for basic communications, and the
communities once united on the non-profit servers are now
electronically dispersing. Can the non-profit service providers
find some way to reunite communities for the pursuit of equitable
information access and other common purposes?
Are there equity-enhancing solutions to be found in the marketplace?
Some argue that a lowering of prices will increase information
access equity, and there are various ways to do that. Others wonder
about ways to remove what economists might call the lumpiness of
prices -- allowing some minimal access at a very low price (e.g.
through a "telecenter" or "kiosk", instead of requiring everyone to
purchase an expensive account even to view one web page.
Must we not first determine what information content and packaging is
most useful for disempowered communities, before deciding on the
technology to deliver it? How can communities be empowered to
generate and package their own content, for their own uses?
Today is Monday, our second full day of meetings. The conference
ends Tuesday. I'm sure we'll have it all worked out by then. 8*)
Jeff @ Johannesburg