As announced in a recent posting Tim Berners-Lee and I visited Ghana a couple of weeks ago. Here’s my personal account of our activities in and around Accra between Friday 18th of September and Monday 21st.
Some context first. We’ve been working on scheduling a series of WF staff visits in Africa in the coming months. The main goal is to make great connections with people, projects and organizations we’d been partially in touch with in the past through joined participation in various international fora (e.g. UN/IGF, Digital World Forum, ICANN, W3C, etc) and also to learn how the Internet is being used and understand better the barriers and opportunities special to each region. Our Mobile Web for Development ideas are clearly an important driver for this outreach. Issues around eGovernment best practices, open linked data and building effective user and social communities are also very relevant.
This trip was also motivated by a filming opportunity for the BBC series “Digital Revolution“. Thanks to Nii Quaynor, with whom I work with at the UN/IGF, a highly respected expert in the Internet and Web field in Africa, and thanks to the professional BBC handling of logistics, we were able manage our agenda with no stress.
In the next paragraphs, I’ll give a short summary of our three-day journey in this wonderful country. Then I’ll mention some of the things we learned.
Upon our arrival in Accra Friday evening, we were welcomed by the deputy Minister of Communications, Gideon Quarcoo, and together with Nii and Aleks Krotoski, the BBC anchor, we had our first discussion related to local ICT access and usage in Ghana, in particular in rural areas. During this first exchange, it became clear, at least for me, that Ghana has taken a positive approach to harness the power of the Web for their society: open principles, international participation, and serious focus on education and local connectivity.
Saturday morning, after an interesting breakfast meeting with a local entrepreneur, Mark Davies, who runs busyinternet, a internet cafe/incubation center, we took the road for Aburi, a village north-east of Accra in the Akuapem mountains, with the entire filming team (director/producer, assistant, cameraman, audio, interviewer, local contact, two drivers, Tim and I).
On Sunday, we visited two recently connected community centers, in Apirede and Abiriw.
There, we had the opportunity to interact with users. Tim and Aleks showed them how to edit Wikepedia to add information about their town/region. Hopefully they will teach the others in return.
The afternoon was spent in a farm community near Adwaso, a fear miles south, literally in the plantain fields, to film our dialog with a local producer about his use of ICT technologies. Basically, he finds useful information on the Web already, from the center, but would like the same services from here in the fields, rather than walk or drive 5 miles north to the local cybercafe.
Finally, on Monday, we left the BBC folks and came back to Accra for a lunch and workshop hosted by Dorothy Gordon at the Kofi Annan Center (for ICT). There we heard from local initiatives and organizations. Tim presented his principles and vision for the Web Foundation and the Web itself. A long and interesting Q&A session ended the program.
Beyond the goal of introducing the new Web Foundation and learning more about the current ICT situation in this African region, the presence of Tim was a real opportunity to gather and motivate all the actors in various sectors, starting with government officials, academic, and the net technical community, to move into the direction proposed by the Web Foundation’s messages: open Web standard, open linked data, participative Web, mobile Web, transparent government, universal access, etc.
Improving ICT penetration in Ghana, opening the online government, educate the population with Internet/Web skills, is a clear goal of the current administration, something they promised during the last election, witness the opening of two hundred community centers around the country – like the ones we visited on Sunday – providing free connectivity for local students or farmers. This sort of development is really something to take into account for our future projects in the region.
Indeed, with such an infrastructure in place, it becomes much easier to train local programmers with the goal to develop local adapted services for a community they know really well. Of course, they need to learn and adapt to their use existing open platforms for trade, social network, and together we can improve the overall Mobile Web experience in the region.
As Nii put it, in Ghana, and in many parts of Africa, it will be years before most users get permanent connectivity. So we need to focus on more readily-available solutions for accessing the Web, e.g. using SMS technology, already well deployed. While doing that, paying attention to re-purposing information depending on the capacity and the variety of user interface is key, as they range from plain text with a limited number of characters (e.g. SMS) to java enabled UIs and full voice and Web UIs. The W3C has worked in these sorts of protocols and should be put in the loop as well.
As a conclusion, I’ll note that there are many technical and economical questions and challenges with an SMS-Web approach, and they can be analyzed at various levels (e.g. using new government/regulation, negociating with the operators, working with the community centers resources, develop new tools, create a keyword ontology platform for SMS applications, study revenue models based on prepaid vs. advertising, etc), and our next steps should be to lay out some of these options where WF can have the best impact, and build up the partnerships that are required to make them successful.