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Can ICT4D Keep Up With The Speed Of Technology Change?

By Guest Writer on January 25, 2013


What do the Consumer Electronics Show and the Hong Kong Electronics Fair have to do with ICT for Development?

The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – billed as the world’s largest exhibition of electronic gadgetry, just ended in Las Vegas. The event was ripe with innovation, as the world’s largest electronics companies exhibited alongside smaller, entrepreneurial firms to showcase their latest innovations. A similar event, the Hong Kong Electronics Fair, took place in November 2012, featuring thousands of mostly-Asian vendors.

I am James Teicher, and scouting for technology solutions and strategies to benefit CyberSmart Africa, I attended both shows, sustained with my most comfortable pair of sneakers in order to cover miles of exhibit space. CyberSmart Africa provides a whole-class learning solution through the use of a specially adapted interactive whiteboard, pedagogical content, and ongoing teacher professional development. Our objective is to reach deep into rural and underserved schools throughout the developing world with a highly scalable model for technology-integrated classroom learning.

Technology Advances Outpaces Their Use

At both shows, the level of innovation — in terms of variety, functionality, and low cost — was just astounding.

My big take away from these large exhibitions is that phenomenal electronics-based innovations exist that will have tremendous impact on developing nations’ ability to benefit from ICT. My concern is that the availability of these innovative technology solutions significantly out-paces the ability of the development community to put them to effective use.

For example, the ability to produce massive quantities of tablets far exceeds the pace to integrate them into well-supported technology-enabled learning solutions. Numerous manufacturers, including Kinstone, iSTARTECH,anc COBY sell 7” Android Tablet PCs for about US$40 in bulk. No doubt the price will drop. In the effort to catch-up with technology advances, schools are given equipment before they can possibly make effective use of it. This is what Mike Trucano of the World Bank has characterized as “dump equipment and home magic will happen.” Our challenge is to narrow the gap between innovation and implementation by integrating the real magic – teachers and students engaged in meaningful learning.

My Top 5 Observations

My top five observations from these large technology exhibitions:

  1. Tablets rule: Just as Steve Jobs had predicted in 2010, tablets have overtaken PCs in terms of sales, clearly becoming the computing device of choice for connected users who don’t need massive amounts of storage or gaming capabilities. What struck me the most was how the sale of low-cost tablets has become routine, with dozens of exhibitors selling Android (the clear OS winner) devices at the $40 price point.
  2. Power to the powerbanks: Powerbanks are small (most weight under a pound), external batteries that recharge and extend the usage time of devices. They are flooding the market due to the power demands of extended media viewing and mobile computing. The ICT for development community can use powerbanks to provide electricity to laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other devices off the grid, and even charge them with small solar panels. Small 1000mAh powerbanks are the size of a credit card, while the larger ones (maxing out at about 25000mAh) are about twice the size of a smartphone.
  3. mHealth monitoring goes mainstream: The mobile internet has spawned a number of health monitoring gadgets that operate both with and without a mobile phone. The value for the more economically developed nations is to reduce the cost of health care delivery through do-it-yourself monitoring. The value for developing nations is to provide affordable healthcare services that have never previously existed. Notable innovations include:
    1. imPulse, a new handheld electrocardiogram monitor
    2. Healthspot Station, a stand-alone kiosk packed with virtual diagnostic tools and the high resolution video capability necessary for doctors to perform virtual examinations and diagnoses
    3. Best Systems’s Healthcare Phone, integrating blood pressure, glucose, ECG, temperature, and blood oxygen monitoring.

    Still, the buzz focused on Qualcomm’s Tricorder X Prize, a US$10M global competition to bring radical innovation to mobile healthcare solutions.

  4. Lighting and power solutions glow bright green: Goal Zero’s solar-powered Yeti 1250 Portable Generator Kit captured a CES Innovation Award for its plug-and-play simplicity and feature-set. LEDs brings low power lighting to developing nations, and innovations abounded, including Lighting Science Group’s World Bulb, a 9W (60W equivalent) designed to last 17 years (used 8 hours per day) and handle the variable quality of power in many developing nations. Hook up a World Bulb to a powerbank and you’re good to go!
  5. Don’t just think ‘phone’: Like tablets, the buzz about inexpensive smartphones is, well, old news. Dozens of exhibitors displayed smartphones at a price point well below US$50. I didn’t see many new smartphone features per se, though most notable was Canonical’s announcement of its Ubuntu open OS smartphone. Instead, all eyes were fixed on the slew of new peripherals that take advantage of the smartphone’s ability to both compute and connect. Don’t just think ‘phone’ – mobile broadband is no longer a phone-specific phenomenon, with 3G card slots appearing more frequently in tablets, laptops, and even wristwatches.

The pace of innovation is startling. Both the International Consumer Electronics Show and the Hong Kong Electronics Fair attest to the fact that that nearly anything is possible with technology. My hope is that the global ICT development community will be able to harness a small fraction of these new products, and that tech wizards from developing nations will soon play a larger role in bringing their own innovations to major electronics showcases like these.

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