Michael Best is challenging the entire premise of a PC, throwing the notion into a spin to have it become a CC — community computer. A former director of MIT’s Media Laboratory Asia and currently head of the Media Lab’s eDevelopment group, Best, who received both his master’s in ’96 and Ph.D. in ’00 from MIT, is looking well beyond the First World’s obsession with bandwidth and megabytes to explore how information and communication technologies can improve life in the developing world.
Best’s driving focus is to show how the Internet can be economically self-sustainable in poor, rural economies. “The Internet is power,” he says. “It can help people improve their health, manage their crops, connect to family and business opportunities, and even provide fun and entertainment. It and other technologies can empower people in developing countries to solve their social and economic development challenges.”
In Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI), one of half a dozen projects he has spearheaded, Best is exploring the costs and benefits of linking 50 villages in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu with wireless technologies. “One of our goals is to dramatically bring down the price to provision the Internet in rural areas,” he explains. “For $1, 000 we can take a village that was completely off the telecommunications grid and provide phone lines, Internet access, and a cyber café for shared communal use.” SARI connects 50 villages with such tele-kiosks, each averaging 25 visitors a day, or 30,000 collective visits a month.
The kiosks offer several e-applications. Users gain access to traditional e-mail and Web; information technology training — such as Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office; government services — which allows users to apply on-line for social service programs and government certificates; and entertainment, the ever-popular Tamil movies and horoscopes.
The e-ventures are entrepreneurial and revenue-producing. “All the systems we’re deploying thrive or die on their ability to self-sustain,” says Best, adding that the kiosk entrepreneurs take out loans to finance their sites. “To really drive the kiosks, you need a sense of ownership,” he explains. “Ultimately, the success of these rural Internet ventures is predicated on the fire in the belly of the local operators. That’s why we have no interest in gifting the sites.” Each community kiosk must see a daily profit of $2.20 to break even, which they are doing, Best says.
In addition to these fee-for-service areas that are ringing the cash register, Best has initiated other research projects aimed at addressing larger social and economic development goals while demonstrating the Internet’s self-sustainability. “In India, everyone’s concept of the road out of a rural village to nirvana is computer training. So there’s a hunger for computer knowledge and experience,” says Best, , who has launched several projects to address this hunger while taking into account southern India’s low literacy rate. In one of his projects — CONVIVO Communicator — Best is researching building Internet-based communication systems for a range of literacy levels, including those that require no keyboarding skills and rely solely on voice messaging in Tamil or Hindi.
Other research projects involve tele-medicine and tele-agriculture. In one, a village used the Net to consult with agricultural experts about their diseased okra crop. The proposed solution was a borine spray, which saved the harvest to the tune of several thousand dollars.
This success exemplifies the projects’ aim to deliver “high impact and high payback for the community,” says Best. . “One of the fundamental keys to the growth of the Internet in the developing world, particularly in rural parts, is it should be bottom up, locally driven, and viral in the sense it can contagiously flow from community to community.”
The challenges to the various enterprises are rife. One elemental problem is maintaining electric power, which is off about three hours a day in southern India. To address the issue, SARI has spent much time engineering un-interruptible power supplies. Another challenge is dust and air pollution.
“We have horrible problems with roller-ball mice becoming completely encrusted with filth,” says Best, adding that this dilemma points to a central problem. “People are designing mice for the pristine, air conditioned environs at MIT and in Seattle. They don’t think about the southern hemisphere, which has all sorts of environmental issues, including moisture in the air and particulated dirt that make the mice fail about every 10 days.”
Yet Best feels progress has been made on this front. “We’ve been successful simply in our ability to raise this question, especially among industry stakeholders. We’ve begun to plant the seed among major IT industrialists that the nearly five billion folks who live beyond traditional markets might be customers too.”
What Best finds most gratifying, however, are successes in the field — “that a community was able to empower itself through the Internet to solve an agricultural problem, for example. These are the stories that make it all worthwhile.”
A self-described nerd, Best says he has spent a great deal of time during his career “drilling deep into some engineering or science question. But ultimately, I was left somewhat unsatisfied, because I didn’t see the importance to people. One of the things that make this job so exciting is that the importance is palpable. It’s one of the real paybacks for me.”