I spent the last three days visiting the International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD). Among the numerous discussions we had with the staff and the other invited guests, one was about how to achieve global impact. As this is our major objective at the Web Foundation, I would like to share my view on this topic. Obviously, I don’t want to lead people to think that I have the solution for the complex problem of how to reach a global impact, but sharing views and discussing with others is surely constructive.
Our objective, in the Web in Society domain, is to extend the benefits of the Web to a big part of the 75% of the World population which is not connected to the Information Society today. To achieve this goal, it is important to explicit what we learnt while moving from 1 user to 1.5 billions in 20 years.
The first important concept that explains the incredible success of the Web is the notion of global huge impact with millions of minimal local actions. The Web is not a big central system but a set of small nodes, each concerning a small number of users and authors. However, globally there are now more Web pages than neurons in a human brain, and information and knowledge is available about almost all possible subjects. The question is, what drove proliferation of the number of nodes from 1 to many millions?
Of course, there is a bit of luck, to propose something to the right people at the right moment in time. But the technology proposed by Tim took over all other options existing at that time. So it probably has some specific, critical characteristics. In my view there are 2 pieces: the specific features of the solution, and the viral growth. To be provocative I would say that the first part can be summarized in one word: replicability.
What is a replicable solution? That’s the though question! There, IMHO, are a number of elements that are required:
- Interoperability: This is the most important factor. Having interoperable technologies allows the realization of a global effect from local actions. In that area, the role of W3C has been critical as a global organization ensuring the interoperability of the fundamental standards that make the Web work.
- Visibility: People that have problems and are looking for solutions have to be able to find and see what others are doing. Otherwise, they will start from scratch and make their own choices, leading most of the time to the same issues that others already experienced. Getting ideas by looking at what others are doing is an important part of the Web culture.
- Openness: It is good to know that someone did something similar to what I want to do. But if I cannot look in depth at the solution, if I cannot use the same technology or the same tools, if the solution is more advertised than shared …then this is not really useful. The fact that, for example, HTML is fully accessible and readable was a critical factor for people to understand how to achieve desired behaviors.
- Customizability/modularity/extensibility: It is very rare to be able to use a solution out-of-the-box. One’s conditions and use-case are rarely the same as one’s neighbor’s. The ability to take pieces of what someone did on a Website, and combine it with what someone else did somewhere else, is also one of the critical factor of success. I include in this theme the ability to use many languages, which also an essential factor of universality. More work is required to ensure that the Web can handle all languages of the World. However, a tremendous quantity and quality of work has already been achieved by the Internationalization community.
- Simplicity: simplicity is also an essential feature. What is the percentage of Web authors today who have a computer science background? I guess a very small minority. And that’s another reason for the Web’s success: everybody, a 12 years-old child, a old grandma, almost everybody, in the developed World, is able to contribute to or use the Web today. While the technologies are simple (HTML, etc.), by themselves they are not enough simple to allow non-technical users to contribute. The availability of different kind of tools and services (free or very cheap hosting, authoring tools, monetization services such as PayPal, etc.) is an enabling factor.
- Accessibility: Accessibility of Web content is a critical factor, allowing people with disabilities to access the same information as everyone else. Obviously, in this area, further work is needed e.g. to make Web content accessible to more people, including those with low reading skills.
Now let’s have a look at the possibilities for viral growth.
Obviously viral or organic growth requires replicability, as noted above. However, such growth also requires a vector of dissemination. As always, one has two options: either using the grass-roots model, or using a more formal, top-down approach via traditionnal vectors such as governments. I believe that the Web largely demonstrated the power of the first approach, but this is possible only when IPR is not a major, inhibiting factor. Tim very often mentions the importance of the decision of CERN to make HTML and HTTP available to the world for free. This is a critical requirement for viral growth to happen.
I personally believe that all these concepts are directly applicable to the development sector, and particularly concerning the development and deployment of mobile services. I see evidence that illustrates this opinion. First of all, the proliferation of competing platforms and solutions for the same problem. For instance, this is impressive in the agriculture domain. The number of projects, the number of platforms, most of them being specific, non-interoperable, is incredible. Because most of these solutions are developing their own methodology from scratch — without reusing what exists, without being open, without offering their learning and expertise to others — people who want to setup similar solutions cannot reuse and adapt what’s existing, and therefore redo their own thing, at a very high overall cost for society. On the opposite side, when you have a simple tool, which is free and open source, usable in many domains, and where one can see how others are using it, the success is impressive. The best example for me here is Ushahidi. Obviously, we need more Ushahidi-like solutions, in many domains. But i strongly believe this is the way to go. The critical steps, and that’s what we plan to do within the Web in Society program, is to identify those missing enabling blocks, and raise awareness among potential users, NGOs, entrepreneurs, people working in the development sector on the potential of these solutions, and the easiness of use.
To conclude, I’m convinced that the Web is incredible potential as a platform for communication, creativity and commerce in the developing world. The Web offers a way to provide visibility, and scalability through viral replication. It is already accessible, using different channels, on mobile phones. It is essential now to develop the key enabling blocks, and raise awareness in this community about the potential. Now, let’s hope that we will be able to convince potential funders of our work that the above concepts are sound. Certainly the success of the Web over the past 20 years is not something one can ignore, when looking for solutions to the problems that face us in future.