Nikhil and I have blogged on stories about Intel’s low-cost PC plans for rural India and Microsoft’s attempts to provide farmers with agricultural information by setting up Internet kiosks. But this [subscription required] Wall Street Journal article illustrates that technology is not the only answer to such problems and more importanly, people implementing such initiatives need to constantly go back and assess the performance of their programmes.
One example the WSJ article gives is that of Princeton University’s rural education programme where researchers distributed DVD recordings of teachers. Problems they encountered: differing levels of student ability, different languages used by the teachers, and winning over teachers and officials who were suspicious of the initiative and protective of their turf. Here’s another example. In 1998, India invested half a million dollars in a project to connect 40,000 farmers in Maharashtra state via 54 Internet kiosks to access information regarding market prices etc. When a Microsoft researcher visited the villages last year he found that farmers had ended up using the kiosks as pesticide stores and the computers as places to simply record their sugarcane harvests and fertilizer usage. Since it was too costly to use PCs for such purposes, the research team replaced the PCs with a smart phone stored in the main village, that serves as a gateway to accept and transmit data to and from the farmers, who can now check how much sugarcane they have in the warehouse via SMS.