nettime's_dusty_librarian on Thu, 29 Jan 2015 03:50:39 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Steve Cisler: A short movie about ICT

A short movie about ICT

Steve Cisler < >

     The Journal of Community Informatics, (2005) Vol. 2, Issue 1, pp. 4-5
     < >

The current Harper's magazine has an article called "Valkyries over
Iraq: the trouble with war movies." It discusses the making of Jarhead
(a movie about Gulf War I, opening Friday in the U.S.) and how soldiers
form their view of war from their memories of war movies, including
anti-war films like Apocalypse Now and Deer Hunter.

I began thinking about a documentary that would never be made: the life
of an ICT project.  It is of little interest to most people, any more
than a movie about plumbing would capture a large audience. But we are a
small, specialized audience so come into the viewing room.  This is a
rough cut...

The movie begins with an office scene: a few program officers sitting in
a meeting room in Ottawa or Washington or London or The Hague or Geneva.
It's getting near the end of the fiscal year, and there is some money
left in their budget for another pilot project. They know that if it is
not spent, it will be hard to justify an increase for their agency in
the next budget cycle.

One officer who has attended many conferences on poverty and knowledge
management and ICT says he'll make some calls to people who might have
some good ideas. Another officer has spent time in short visits to poor
countries, including the handful blessed with substantial existing
project funds from her agency. The country she has in mind is of
strategic importance to her government either because the president has
changed his ways and has renounced corruption, is on a path to
democratic elections, has opened its markets to firms from abroad, or
has agreed to joint military exercises in the north of his land.

What follows are short scenes of non-profits and contractors pitching
ideas to the program officer: a wireless network for indigenous groups,
a mobile computer lab, barefoot doctors with PDAs in favelas, a literacy
program using a new cheap computer with a no-cost operating system. The
most appealing ideas happen to be for places in Asia and Latin America,
but the agency is focused on Africa. The chosen NGOs oblige and submit
two-page proposals for pilots in Africa. After a quick turnaround and a
nod of tentative approval from the program officer, the NGO contacts a
local "champion" or consultant in-country. Everyone is enthusiastic
about the idea of a new ICT pilot project. New technology, more money to

The local contact meets with an underling from the Minister's office.
This person is neutral about ICT and is more focused on surviving within
his government bureaucracy, but he assures the champion that the
ministry will offer staff and in-kind support. A final proposal is

The NGO and the government work out a budget to use up available funds.
Computers, Internet connection fees, a new Land Rover, travel expenses
(in-country and for a few international conferences), training for the
people involved, and an evaluation by a consultant from the donor's
country. The software will be open source or pirated.

Scenes of the Land Rover loaded with new gear (customs had to be given
something extra to clear the shipments) headed into a rural village or
urban slum. Young people carrying the gear to the school, community
center, health clinic. Celebrations: dances, speeches by the donor, the
mayor, the minister, a ribbon cut. Then training classes. Intense focus
on the instructor. Excited faces gathered around the computer screens. A
good start.

The project has lift off. High demand, not enough places for everyone.
Yet there are problems. The town/barrio leader puts one of the computers
in his house "to prevent theft." Electricity is a problem. The computers
sometimes sit idle until the NGO provides a backup generator using
expensive fuel. Still, the project is making an impact. Theft is not a
problem. The locals have "taken ownership." Young people testify to the
changes it is making in their lives. A professional demonstrates how he
is less isolated now that he can communicate with colleagues. A farmer
shows what he has learned about a crop, a sick animal, an insect
infestation. The project hums along...

The NGO representative begins to worry about where money will come from
to keep the project going. In spite of the perceived benefits, the
ministry is not interested in budgeting to support the project. There
are arguments among the parties: the donor country, the NGO, and the
ministry. The ministry wants the donor to extend the funding. The donor
says no. The locals are encouraged to come up with a plan to raise some
money. There is talk of matching funds, but locals have a lot of energy
and little extra money and what they raise is not sufficient.

They enter ICT contests in distant lands, hoping for recognition. They
hear of other grants but don't have the resources to apply. The pilot
project is winding down. Priorities have changed and the funding agency
is now concentrating on some new aspect of ICT. The NGO follows the
money and prepares the transition from the current project. The locals
find money to pay a former student to take over the project. He dreams
of working in the capital but will take this position for a while.

The computers are showing their age. The dust and heat are taking a
toll. Most are still working at the end of the project. Others sit in a
back room. There is no money for repairs or for the Internet connection
any more. The Land Rover is now an addition to the ministry's motor
pool. The evaluator has come and gone. Her report sits in the inboxes of
the program officer, the NGO, and the minister's liaison. New pilot
projects are being hatched.

Back in the village or barrio the project building is dark. The doors
are locked most of the time. A girl is sitting at a table in her
kitchen. In her school copybook she is writing her email address over
and over, just so she won't forget. Maybe she will go online again some
day and see if her new friends in the capital and in Canada have written
her. It might happen, but the fiscal year is coming to an end. New
projects are coming.

Steve Cisler is a librarian who lives in Silicon Valley. He ran a grant
program at Apple Computer and has worked on projects in the rural U.S.,
Latin America, Uganda, Jordan, and Thailand.

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