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Reuters Fellows bring the digital revolution to the favela

Getting laptops loaded with the latest public health and agricultural information into remote Indian villages. Delivering relevant breaking news, supplier reports and job information to the international disaster relief community with the click of a mouse. Reusing technological equipment brought in for emergencies to rebuild the infrastructure of war-torn communities after the emergency is over.

Not pipe dreams, these are projects that recently were presented by the inaugural class of Reuters Digital Fellows at the Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI). The program, funded by Reuters and other independent sponsors and hosted at CSLI, brings technology experts to Stanford to work on projects that use information and communication technologies to tackle humanitarian issues.

The presentation at CSLI capped a year of collaboration among Stanford professors and students and businesses in Silicon Valley. Director Stuart Gannes praised the six fellows -- Atanu Dey, Melanie Edwards, Ken Novak, Enrica Porcari, Rajeswari Pingali and Mark Stevenson -- for being "groundbreakers and pathfinders" in helping the program define its vision.

"Each of them made a great contribution in defining what the fellows do. If you look at the individuals, you'll see what kind of varied things they're doing. Some of them were building software prototypes that are not available in commercial applications," Gannes said. He pointed to Novak's and Stevenson's projects, which used standard tools but customized them for the disaster relief community. Novak created a program that fetches energy and environmental information related to global warming in developing countries from a variety of digital sources and gives funders, agencies and teams on the ground easy access to this information. Stevenson, who works for AlertNet, a Reuters service for the global disaster relief community, built a platform to carry out searches, define "disaster relief" and limit the quantity of hits to a useful number.

Only through the program would the fellows have the time and resources to develop such projects, Gannes said. "There's not a lot of money in that."

Because the fellows have strong ties to businesses and nongovernmental organizations, the projects are likely to get off the drawing boards and become reality. Most fellows are funded by the organizations that employ them and work on projects that can be implemented by their organizations.

Companies that have invested so far seem likely to keep investing in these projects, Gannes said. The projects by Stevenson, Novak, Porcari and Pingali, he pointed out, will be put in line when they return to work.

Making contacts, making testable prototypes

Gannes had particular praise for the thorough research and advanced development of Pingali's "Computers on Wheels for People-Centered Development." This program uses motorcycles to drive laptops into rural villages in India and powers the computers by solar energy.

"If you want to talk proof-of-concept, Raj Pingali really explored the implementation issues that involved the whole Stanford community. She had to design content for villages, resolve basic language issues for non-English-speaking and non-literate people with cultural sensitivity and create delivery mechanisms," Gannes said.

Pingali worked closely and quickly with computer science students at Stanford to tailor the commerce, agricultural and health information, and with industrial designers in Silicon Valley to build the motorcycle and solar cells. The need for projects like hers is pressing, she said.

"If you look at India, in a 25-kilometer radius, you have 227 villages. In the era of globalization, it is all integrating very fast. If we don't equip the villagers, they will be left behind. And we had to create a model that could be scaled up very fast," she said.

Dey's project was more theoretical, though he also hoped to help bring information to rural India. An economic analyst by training, Dey presented a model for economic growth that would use strategically placed Rural Information Service Centers (RISC) to catalyze development.

Though urban centers usually drive development, Dey said he did not want to urbanize all of India -- but rather provide the benefits of urbanization to remote areas. Each RISC would serve as a nerve center for about 100 villages and serve as a global information access point for the local population so that the local economy can meet the global economy.

"We need to bring urbanization to the people rather than people to urban centers. This will create a sustainable economic growth model," Dey said.

Edwards' fellowship year also was spent looking for ways to bring technology to communities that haven't yet experienced the Digital Revolution. She designed a program to connect people in Brazilian favelas (shantytowns) with job and credit information, up-to-date pricing on products such as coffee, government communications and photographic records by way of local young entrepreneurs equipped with wireless personal digital assistants. By employing these "mobile agents," the program will create jobs while serving the communities.

"This service is about empowering underserved communities in developing nations," Edwards said. "I want them to link the power of technology to their daily lives."

Porcari, unlike the other fellows, was not looking at ways to deliver relevant information to different communities. She wanted to develop a framework for reusing technological equipment brought into local communities during emergencies. Her organization, the World Food Program, regularly ships computers and network hardware in order to distribute food and ensure the security of the food and staff during an emergency. But at the end of a mission, it all goes back to sit in a logistics base and often is not used again.

"I thought, there must be a better way. There must be a framework so that this equipment can benefit the local population -- either in schools or entrepreneurial opportunities," she said.

Porcari's plan is being tested in Kabul, where the World Food Program is trying to work with a local partner that could take over the program's mobile phone network. She arrived at Stanford with the idea, but her time on campus allowed her to find partners to make it happen.

"I made so many contacts here that I wouldn't have established back in Rome," Porcari said. She had tried to contact Cisco Systems many times while she was in Italy, but the company only responded when she drove to their San Jose home office. "This is the heart of Silicon Valley. I've had more brown bag lunch meetings here than I would have had in a lifetime in Rome."

Stevenson said that his fellowship year taught him a lot about how to implement projects. "People in academia and NGOs and business had different expectations. It's a real melting pot. I learned about trading off and balancing."

Gannes was pleased that the fellows drew from the area's rich resources. Stanford has been a wonderful host to the program, bringing the fellows into a close-knit and collaborative community, he said. "It was gratifying to see the Stanford community embrace social responsibility as applied to technology to address humanitarian issues."

Because of the success of this year's program, next year's will be even more ambitious. The May deadline for the second class of fellows brought in so many more applications that Gannes said the number of fellows will be increased next year, possibly to 11.


By Jia-Rui Chong

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