Information and communication technologies (ICTs) could boost economic and social development, especially in developing countries where there are many challenges, says Raj Reddy, the Moza Bint Nasser University Professor of Computer Science and Robotics at the Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science.
“For this [socio-economic development] to happen", Reddy added, there is a need for universal internet connectivity, access to computing devices, and building of people’s capacity to use them.”
Reddy was speaking at the sidelines of the 4th Heidelberg Laureate Forum held at the German city of Heidelberg. The Forum brings together top mathematics and computer scientists to network and share experiences with future generations.
For economic development, Reddy is of the opinion that ICTs could aid sourcing of markets online, purchases and trade among nations, adding that individuals could use ICTs for entertainment, access to education, banking and health.
He further explains that ICTs could be used for social development through approaches such as digital democracy, transparency in governance, e-voting in developing countries, citing the Arab spring in Egypt as an example of how the technology was used to advance a people-based cause.
For such impacts to be realized in places such as Africa and India, experts who design ICTs should think of those at the bottom of the literacy pyramid who cannot read and write.
One of the ways of doing that is to deal with “specific subtasks” other than the broader picture, according to Reddy. These include building apps that meet needs such as speech-to-speech and text-to-text translations into local languages that may not otherwise feature when it comes to content development.
”Economically less dominant languages tend to feature less when it comes to online content and ICTs. While they are seen as less economically attractive, I think people can do many things using these languages,” adds Reddy, who is also the chairman of India-based International Institute of Information Technology at Hyderabad.
In education, local languages can be used to provide strong academic content, which is currently being done but mostly in English. As a result, poor students in rural villages who do not understand English get cut out in the current information technology scene.
Universal connectivity, access to devices where the big companies can subsidize the cost of phones and are given free to the poor in low resource settings will make economic returns from usage take off in a big way.
“Besides having access to connectivity and devices, people need to learn how to use them,” Reddy explains, adding that enabling poor people to access technology in a form that they can understand and interact with will bring economic benefits all the way up from the consumer to the government and the producers of these technologies.
Haji Ali Haji, a Tanzanian ICT doctoral student at the University of Cape Town, adds that developing countries with limited resources are faced with a lot of problems that ICT can be used to solve.
“We need to develop mobile applications that improve people's livelihoods – education provision, health care services, water, sanitation and environmental management in regions such as Africa,” he says.
Africa has a population of 1.2 billion people, who in turn have 650 million mobile phones. These phones are mostly used for communication, but according to Haji, there are other services like health and education that can be provided using ICT and mobile.
“We need applications that can be used to serve people in their settings as well as taking care of the many [local] languages in addition to English, which only a few people may be conversant with,” he says in conclusion.