Low-tech data access is still needed

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Copyright: Paul Griggs, Wellcome Images

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[MONTREAL] Here at the World Social Science Forum 2013 in Montreal, Canada, scientists are still calling for innovative, low-tech methods that will enable people in developing nations to capitalise on data.

In recent years there has been a surge in the amount of linked data: networks of connected data sets that can be combined to create powerful repositories of knowledge. All this data could be a boon for people in the developing world — as long as they can access it.

"The digital divide is a problem for the use of linked data in the developing world," Victor de Boer, a computer scientist from VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands, told an audience at the forum, which ran this week (13-15 October). There are several barriers to the Internet in rural parts of developing countries, he said, including a lack of computers, connections and electricity, low literacy, and a lack of information of relevance or use to residents.

But there are other ways to connect people to the data they need. Boer and his colleagues have developed a series of voiced-based, web-access systems that allow people to upload and access relevant local data using mobile phones, and hear it broadcast on the radio.

SciDev.Net has already covered one such system. It's called Radio Marché and it allows farmers in Mali to share their market prices and advertise on local community radio stations. The farmers call in and leave a message stating what produce they have available, and their prices. That data is entered into an eBay-like website, where it is available for those with Internet access. Those who are not online can call a local number and hear the same data, which is read out in their local language by a text-to-speech system. The local radio stations can also call the number and broadcast the information to local consumers.

But we learned of new low-tech, data-access projects at the conference too. Martin Murillo, from professional association the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, described a project that connects local health clinics in remote villages in the Peruvian Amazon using a wireless intranet, allowing the clinics to share patient records and doctors to give virtual consultations. Because Internet connections are unreliable, they concentrated on linking up their most important data locally.

Murillo said that access to information was vital to international development. "We can't talk about eradicating poverty without talking about information," he said.