Electromagnetic Savannah
Commentary on science, technology and economics in Nigeria and beyond

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Nigerian Federal Government Organises ICT Summit for LGs

From ThisDay comes a news story about an ICT/e-governance compliance summit being held next month for Nigerian local governments. The idea, according to Mrs. I. A. Akhigbe, Director of Local Government Affairs and a facilitator at this event is to enable Local Governments implement the SERVICOM dictates to the fullest, SERVICOM itself being a social contract between Nigerians and their government which gives them the right to demand good service.

Leaving aside whether SERVICOM itself is a realistic idea, my problem with this summit (as with so many summits involving technology) is that it seems about information delivered from the top rather than information requested from the bottom. Looking at the story in detail, I see the usual buzzwords about "e-governance" and "web portal" and I wonder whether the usual idea of technology as a silver bullet isn't rearing its ugly head again.

I know that information technology is a tremendous enabler - but there are many other things that need to be in place before the benefits can be felt. First of all, the local governments have to define exactly and in great detail what they want to achieve. Then they should define with the same exactness and detail the different kinds of activities they should be performing to achieve their goal, and they should concentrate on the activities where information is passed around or stored. Then they should look at all the possible ways of handling this information (including, of course, using information technology) and determine which is the best both on cost and efficiency. And cost isn't simply about buying computers - it includes training, it includes maintenance, it includes Building Your Own Infrastructure if the government hasn't yet been kind enough to supply you one. Given all this, IT will typically only justify itself if there are such large volumes of information being shunted around that it would be impossible to achieve anything with a manual system. But that is rarely the case with most Nigerian local governments.

But it's not just the cost of providing IT that makes me sceptical of its application in local government. I believe that the real problem is actually a management one. The staff suffer from low morale and don't really care about their work - so there's not much point in trying to improve the efficiency of an activity that nobody really cares about doing. However, when all that is weighed up against the opportunity to go a-junketing in Abuja, I think it's a no-brainer for local government bosses...

Friday, April 20, 2007

Biofuel plantations fuel strife in Uganda

I think it's great that people are waking up to the fact that it's unwise to rely excessively on non-renewable sources of energy, especially when we truly don't know exactly how much of these non-renewable sources are still left to be tapped. That's why more interest is being taken in biofuels - cleanly combusting fuel that is produced from biological matter such as dead plant material.

So you can be forgiven for thinking that on reading
this story from the New Scientist about the controversy surrounding the conversion of forests into sugar plantations for biofuels, I'd be taking the side of the plantation owners. In fact, I have a problem with the idea of converting a commodity like sugar that is already useful in other ways into raw fuel. I'm also not entirely convinced that converting sugar into ethanol will be commercially viable in Uganda - in Brazil, where ethanol is widely used, there has had to be a massive amount of government support (including subsidies and taxes) to get the ethanol production industry off ground so that it could become competitive. I don't know whether the knowledge on how to produce sugar and alcohol cheaply and efficiently will be available to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda which plans to run the Ugandan plantations.

I do know that there is
research going on on how to convert dead plant matter (such as stems and leaves after a harvest) into ethanol. I believe that it would be much better to use this technology once it matures, especially because it will not require any extra expansion of cultivated land and the destruction of forests with their ecosystems. And another good thing is that alcohol produced using this technology won't be susceptible to shortages of raw material due to the increase in the demand for refined sugar (which will divert some raw sugar cane away from alcohol production).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Wikipedia offers access offline

Here's another news story from the BBC about plans to provide offline access to Wikipedia content by putting selected articles on a CD. The idea would benefit those not connected to the web access to knowledge in the online encyclopaedia, says Wikimedia, the organisation behind the the plans.

I'm not really sure at who precisely these plans are aimed at. There's talk of it benefitting people who don't have web access, so perhaps it's targetted towards places like Africa where web access is patchy, to say the least. And perhaps it would be useful as an introductory medium, for example in schools. But beyond that, I can't really see how useful it would be - even in internet-starved countries, people still want to do serious research, not dip in and out of a selection of articles. And at £7 a disc, I think the appeal would fall even further.

But I do like the idea of an offline Wikipedia being provided for schools in Africa. The thing is, it wouldn't make much sense to provide all the content of Wikipedia at once - let's be honest, very few African children are likely to be interested in subjects such as
the Philadelphus purpurascens plant. So what would be a good idea is to provide a kind of proxy Wikipedia site that held content on a local hard disk and was updated with content periodically, depending on what search requests were made or links were clicked.

So if a student searched for a subject or if a link was clicked and the corresponding article wasn't found on the local hard disk, then the request for the page would be queued to a file on the disk, and periodically, this file would be taken another location where there was internet connectivity to get the articles that had been requested.

Yes, I know this would mean long waits at first - but the hope is that most students would tend to want to visit the same pages and after a while, the number of unsatisfied requests would get smaller and smaller. In fact, at such a point, the material collected could be used as a template for offline Wikipedia material for other schools (whose students might make similar requests). I also think that periodic wholesale refreshes of the information on the disc will be necessary because the articles may have been updated since.

Of course all this is just a stop-gap measure - the ultimate destination should not just be online access for all schools, but the proper training on how to use online media for maximum productivity.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The BBC Reith Lectures 2007 with Jeffrey Sachs

Every year, the BBC organises a series of lectures to be given by someone who has distinguished themselves in a particular field. This year, the Reith Lectures (as they are known) are being delivered by Jeffrey Sachs (who some may know as an economist who crusades against world poverty).

I listened into the first of his five lectures, and his theme was the danger that faces the world if it does not co-operate to deal with the various crises that have been brought about by man's activities. He stressed that more than ever, the world is interconnected to the extent that it is impossible to carry out unilateral solutions to global problems, and that if there were problems in one part of the world they would inevitably affect other parts - and this was why it was necessary for nations to set aside their differences and come together to deal with these problems.

Several of the audience who questioned him were sceptical about whether humans with their very different cultures and agendas could actually change their selfish behaviour and instead co-operate and work together in the way he envisioned. I have to say I'm similarly sceptical. Professor Sachs sought to counter such criticism of his optimism by pointing out the many instances where change had come about even when it seemed unlikely (like female enfranchisement and the ending of apartheid), but I believe these changes pale into comparison with the changes and sacrifice needed to tackle global problems like climate change and poverty.

At any rate, Professor Sachs is right that you has to believe that you can fix a problem before you go on to fix it... but I'll be listening out to what solutions he proposes and how they should be implemented in the rest of his lectures.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Google Earth turns spotlight on Darfur

Here's a news story reported by the BBC about Google Earth teaming up with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to highlight the killings in the Darfur region in Sudan. The idea is to draw people's attention to the issue by not only providing high resolution maps that show burnt homes and villages in detail but to also provide annotations with personal stories behind the violence.

So, being the curious nosey parker that I am, I thought to take a look and see what exactly Google Earth were offering. I downloaded the software
here, then installed it and ran it. The first thing I noticed on rotating the globe round to Africa was that Darfur was highlighted.

I zoomed in on the highlighted area, and I must say that there was a lot of detail provided on the killings there... which villages had been destroyed, how many structures there had been there, camps that had been set up for refugees, testimony from victims and photos and videos of the affected areas. There had even been high resolution satellite photos taken to show villages with structures that had been burnt down.

Certainly there was enough information for the issue of whether there was a crisis to be beyond dispute. The critical question is whether the information will reach beyond the logical part of the viewers and touch their emotional part to move them to help, or whether it will embarrass the Sudanese government into getting serious about ending the conflict there.

The idea of remote satellite imagery works here because the result of the violence is very visible. I wish there was an analogous idea that worked for other acts that weren't so visible but were just as injurious to African citizens. For example, it would be great if there was a satellite that could take pictures not just of buildings but of what was going on inside buildings... then perhaps corrupt government officials would be shamed by seeing pictures of them taking kickbacks and bribes on Google Earth. Of course, I can't see such satellites being allowed anywhere in the airspace of such governments "for security reasons", you understand. ;)

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Money transfer by mobile phone

There's this news story on the BBC about a service in Kenya which allows subscribers to transfer money by mobile phone. The company running the service, Safaricom, is based in Kenya and they say that their service (M-Pesa) allows you to send money to someone else, even if they aren't a subscriber to the service. They say that it also functions as a kind of bank - at least, that's what I assume, since it allows you to deposit and withdraw sums. The service relies on agents who subscribers deposit and withdraw money from.

Apparently, the service only started a month ago, but I can imagine how dramatic a change in people's lives it must be making. It means that e-commerce (at least on a small scale) becomes a more viable option - set up your website and list your phone number for people to transfer money to. It also means that you don't have to risk life and limb carrying sums of money around when you can simply transfer it to your recipient. And since (according to the company) you need a PIN to send/receive cash, it means that there's no point in stealing someone's phone in order to steal their cash too. (There's the slight worry that would-be muggers will now turn their attentions to the agents, but hey - one problem at a time. :) )

I'm pretty sure that the technology is sound enough for the purpose it's being used for. The idea of mobile phones for money transfer isn't exactly new - they've been used in Japan as far back as 2004. However, I think the impact of mobile phones as a means of payment will be bigger in Africa because unlike in Japan, in most countries there aren't the same means of reliably and easily transferring sums of money electronically. So I hope that the success of M-Pesa gives other mobile service providers the confidence to move into this potentially lucrative market!