May 2003

Bytes for all. Bit by bit

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FrederickNoronha, thecofounder of theinitiative, shareshis experiencesabout the project.

     When we got goingnearly four yearsago, ICT for developmentwasn't sucha fashionable issue;hardly anyoneseemed to be awareof its potential and,fortunately, therewas far far less fundinginvolved. Notthat our own initiative at BytesForAll wasparticularly insightful. To be frank, westumbled onto it largely by accident.

June is the month for the outbreak ofthe monsoons in parts of South Asia. Itwas then, in 1999, that the first seeds ofBytesForAll were planted in one's mind.

The goal at that stage was just a limitedone: could we collate information ofhow ICT is being, and can be, used for'development'? Or, to help meet the needsof the commonman? A small number ofexperiments were already being conductedon the ground. If this information wascirculated widely, couldn't it influence atleast a handful of more techies to look atthis perspective? And, if enough enthusiasmwas built over this, couldn't it becomea kind of self-fulfilling prophecy on whatICT could actually deliver?

After all, South Asia's, and particularlyIndia's, techies have a notorious gap betweenpotential and performance. On theone hand, this is a region with an undeniablehuge amount of software skills. But,at the same time, apart from employingthis to earn the export dollar, we don't evenhave the basic software to meet the needsof our own people.

For instance, our kids can easily learnthe geography of the United States usinga slick jigsaw-puzzle type of game. But onehas yet to see something parallel when itcomes to learning about India. We havemillions of school-children, but very littleeducational content for them. Even today,'educational CDs' often end up being littlemore than text-books-on-CDs. Indiais home to some of the widest spoken languagesin the globe. But our low purchasingpower means that computing is yet tobecome feasible in many of these. Of late,that reality is fast changing, though. Wecan expect breakthroughs in the near future.But it could come faster if issues likethese are persistently put onto the agendaof public priorities.

So, we had to get started somewhere.One needs to keep in mind that costeffectiveemail was publicly accessible forbarely two years to the average citizen bythen. So, in a way, the time was ripe to trythis out, as we later realised.

The way chosen was compiling a simpleezine. Basically, it contained links touseful experiments from scattered regionsof India, if possible with a URL to givelinks to more information. You can go backto www.bytesforall.org where some of thepast issues of the ezine are available fordownload. This ezine still continues,though trying to be regular is always a losingbattle.

That was the start. But life is, as theysay, what happens when you're makingother plans.

In no time, someone called Partha PSarkar contacted me, and we went on tobecome co-founders of the still loosely-knitBytesForAll. Till date, incidentally, wedon't have a physical office, a bank accountor any legal entity, apart from being a looseyet effective (in our view) knowledge-sharingnetwork. In fact, we haven't even metphysically, and surely our mental picturesof each other are not going to match whenwe do.Partha sounded optimistic. Why nottake the idea forward, he suggested. Whatwas meant to be just an occasional

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