A tragic and demanding world
18 January 2010
Technology is certainly proving its worth in the most underdeveloped regions of the world.
First and foremost is in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Haiti. The first thing that struck me about the pictures that came back when it first happened was that the injured were lying in the streets, surrounded only by rubble and their fellow injured rather than by the emergency services rushing around helping, organising and saving. There really was a feeling that these people were on their own and it became clear why this country is regarded as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
Yet this also became an example of how technology has become part of the way of life even in the poorest countries. Apparently the first reports, given the immediate collapse of the cabled phone networks, came via a VOIP service from a local DJ, but more significantly the use of mobile phones and social networking have helped to provide the guidance and information to the rescue effort that has been lacking by more conventional means. In particular Facebook and Twitter, I believe, have played a magnificent role in helping people track down missing friends and family. I have commented on my dislike of social networking before in this column, but even a miserable old cynic like me has got to rejoice when such technology is used with such spontaneity and purpose, filling a void that would have otherwise existed.
A similar story is emerging in Africa, although in this case not sparked by a crisis point like Haiti’s earthquake. Here the provision of mobile phones, the availability of phone charging devices (without, one assumes, access to mains electricity!) and phone sharing schemes means that a surprising number of people have phones and many more have access to one – up to one in three in even the poorest countries. What is more is that a system has been developed for automating money transfers, thereby facilitating the development of small traders and businesses. It can also save long unnecessary journeys by simply phoning in advance.
My thoughts on these two quite separate indications of real progress were that for all that many of us have become complacent about the advance of technology, even to the point where some think that we are surrounded by too much of it, there are still huge markets that are waiting to be satisfied. These markets may bring environmental and economic challenges, and there may be a lack of what is perceived as the required infrastructure, but we will have to continue to develop our technology so that the needs of the developing world can be met.
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