March 2007

Malaysian experiences

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The Centre for Science, Development and Media Studies (CSDMS) organised egov Asia 2007 from 6-8 February 2007 at Putrajaya in Malaysia. The conference was fourth in the series of e-Government conferences, following those in India in 2005, Thailand in 2006, and again in India in 2006. A part of the 3-day Asian ICT conference and exhibition eASiA 2007, the conference was hosted by the Ministry of Water, Energy and Communications (MEWC) along with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC). The event, which was inaugurated by Dato' Sri Dr. Lim Keng Yaik, Malaysia's Minister of Energy, Water and Communications, comprised of five thematic ICT conferences – egov Asia, Digital Learning Asia, e-Health Asia, mServe Asia, and Asian Telecentre Forum. The e-Government track of the event 'egov Asia 2007' offered a high-level cooperation platform for delegates from various countries to conduct and initiate consultative dialogue, strategic planning, knowledge networking and business partnering, along with seminal discussions on opportunities and challenges in leveraging ICT for improving government services. 

The event received endorsement of several international organisations such as Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Switzerland; Commonwealth Secretariat, UK; Commission on ICT, Philippines; Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP), Malaysia; Telecentre.org (IDRC), Canada; USAID, India; South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisation (SEAMEO), Thailand; The Asia Foundation, USA; Bellanet, Canada; National University of Singapore (NUS); ICT Agency, Sri Lanka; and many other institutions of repute. Microsoft and Nokia participated as premium sponsors.



The conference saw the participation of more than 300 delegates, representing various key policy makers from government departments, multilateral and bilateral agencies, academic institutions, NGOs and the IT industry. The conference brought together different stakeholders on one platform through keynotes, papers, special workshops and exhibition, and provided an opportunity to interface with private sector players, practitioners, government executives, decision makers and experts.

Sessions and Exhibition

The conference was structured into plenary sessions and main sessions. As a part of the overall eAsia themes, the telecentre track took prominence due to the importance of provision of community access to services in an increasingly knowledge driven global economy. In the next two-day of the conference, the participants tried to learn about experiences that have enabled change conducive to the new environment of telecentres as the instruments to bridge the knowledge divide.

The sessions began with a visioning process setting the stage for the participants to learn, share, network and identify collaborators. While infrastructure is critical, going beyond it and looking at content, looking at bottom-up need based services were identified for national programmes, keeping in mind the importance of convergence.

The forum participants learnt about national level ecosystem of telecentres development, movement and plans in eight countries. The objective of these sessions were to explore how countries in South Asia compared to countries in South-East Asia in terms of content focus, collaborations, social inclusion aspects, entrepreneurships etc. The session reflected on the commonalities, challenges and opportunities and the role of multi-stakeholder partnerships, addressing not only economic but also social sustainability issues.

The group then learnt of several grassroot experiences from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hungary and Uganda, ranging from community led, community driven models to entrepreneur driven projects to collective projects all aimed at fulfilling the rural information and knowledge needs of the community.

The participants also pointed out that there was a need to go beyond short-term projects to long-term goals at the national level. Micro finance provides an opportunity to fill the identified needs especially with respect to building and sustaining telecentres as a livelihood for the rural entrepreneur and hence there was a need to build linkages of the telecentre programmes with other national programmes like rural development and microfinance programme.

Several case-study discussions from countries revealed that there was a need to 'expect the unexpected' in outcomes of telecentre initiatives. Initiatives, which may be similar, may pose unique challenges in different local situations and even present different outcomes. What was more interesting, as the discussions revealed, local technology adoptions often induced local technology innovations be it low cost communication facilities or innovative solutions to power supply to run the telecentres. As it also emerged, 'evidently functional technologies' cannot be applied universally as there might constraints of terrain and current connectivity status.

The issue of ownership of telecentres was also discussed. Participants insisted that the ownership issues needs to be clarified and pre-defined as evident from the Indian Community Service Centre (CSC) programme and the Malaysian programme where the government helped to handhold for a defined number of years, either the community or the social entrepreneur, then the community or the entrepreneur takes over. Thus the ownership is fundamentally clear which also works positively toward building sustainability in the telecentres.

Impact assessment tools as a way to measure the real impact of telecentres was also discussed. While different projects had come up with different quantitative and qualitative ways to measure the impacts of telecentres that included indicators like the number of centres, new innovations and network mesh connectivity, additional benefits and impacts like computer training programmes, job placements services etc were in need of more substantial evaluation mechanisms to appraise their real benefit to the community. In addition as the participants indicated there was a need for evaluation capacity building among the practitioners to be able to integrate such mechanisms within the project itself. UNESCO uses action research as an evaluation mechanism in all its major initiatives, this could be a very useful method that can be designed as a part of the project to avoid repetitive research. As it also emerged, pre-project mapping of the community information needs is also a necessary prerequisite for a successful telecentre programme.

The discussions revealed that there was a need for building adequate human resource capital. A new proposal to pool existing knowledge and resources in capacity building through a World Telecentre Academy was discussed and collaborative planning was shared. This session, led by the telecentre.org.

Currently several national programmes are focused at the provision of universal coverage of broadband connectivity. With such access improvement that can lower the cost of operation, smaller project implementers would need to worry less about technology and access issues. Again with the coming on board of mobile technology, information access is also becoming easier and even beyond the physical existence of telecentres. In fact as some of the participants demonstrated in the 'way forward for telecentre' session, that was led by Mark Surman of telecentre.org, telecentre as a physical identify may become redundant as a resultant shift from 'access to information' to 'information at your doorstep'!

'Dynamism and innovation in product and services' was epitomised as the key to the success of telecentres along with adoptability of services to local needs. This reinstated the fact that 'content is' still 'the king'. The emphasis was also on not to 'rediscover solutions' but to invest in building partnerships and network of stakeholders as a means to collaborate and share content and also adopt solutions developed elsewhere to suit local needs.

The participants (and several others who could not participate) continue to dialogue, share and find answers to their challenges and issues in the discussion list set up to provide an ongoing dialogue space www.dgroups.org/groups/ATF2007. Members can write to atf2007@dgroups.org

Recommendations

The Asian Telecentre Forum 2007 was co-organised with telecentre.org, and was planned as a highly interactive, learning and collaborative forum. The practitioners drawn from international spectrum of networks brought together a vision for moving ahead of the pilots and reflecting on national level initiatives primarily drawn by various governments and incorporating an up-scaling vision. This called for a strategic focus on three key aspects: promoting multi-stakeholder partnerships promoting public-private-entrepreneur models, focusing on locally relevant and inter-operable content, and building the community ownership by engaging the youth and existing knowledge base among the civil society organisations. The need to go beyond infrastructure emerged as the key to promoting successful business models.

Several new linkages and collaborations emerged. The participants learnt also from experts on how to collectively address the capacity building needs that was identified as single most challenging task, in view of the huge programmes that various governments were planning in the coming years.

Some of the most exciting and inspiring stories that were shared included, Virtual village in Sri Lanka; Agribazaar programme by Mimos, Malaysia; Telecentre Association and IS Mentor program in Hungary; Building up telecentre training programs; sharing of the eight national telecentre networks activities; and Low Cost Video Conferencing, India.

Several new partnerships and follow ups emerged during the forum: A grassroots telecentre knowledge conference at Bario in East Malaysia was announced. Hungary and Bangladesh telecentre collaboration MoU was crystallised. Malaysia, Egypt, Sri Lanka projects to work together to market SME products via telecentres. Telecentre networking in Indonesia and Philippines were worked out. A committee worked during the conference to conceptualise the World Telecentre Academy to address the capacity building needs. Upcoming activities of telecentre.org around the GKIII were announced.

The participants besides sharing case studies experiences and innovations also spent a session on visualizing what telecentres would look like in 2015. Workshop groups came up with a visual representation of a robust and mature telecentre where services and satisfaction were the key, and these would be locally relevant and community owned. Some felt that there will be mobile services and advanced technologies that will be integrated, and new livelihoods opportunities created. Still others felt that telecentres would become redundant, leading to telepathic centres, where knowledge would flow freely. The participants committed to continue the dialogue to a more mature community of practice in the discussion list after returning. The overall satisfaction level from a feedback survey was 8.5 on a scale of 10.  

mServe Asia 2007
mServe Asia 2007 was a new thematic track being organised in association with Mobile Monday (Malaysian Chapter) as a lead partner. The objective of this conference was to discuss the development perspectives in the context of emerging mobile technologies. Amongst various Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), the mobile sector has shown tremendous growth worldwide in recent time. The mobile sector in developing countries has grown considerably against fixed lines over the last few years, resulting in huge cost reductions. However, the growth has been lopsided and the mobile revolution has been limited to urban areas primarily. The rural areas have remained untouched and in nations plagued by connectivity lapses, mobile technology may well emerge as the key to bridging the digital divide.

The forum recommended that mServe practices involve the operators, the service providers, regulators and the bodies looking into security, legal and ethical issues and representation from all these sectors. The participants lauded the creation of this forum as a community, and recommended that regular consultations should follow. The forum also recommended that the organizers create a platform for extended knowledge sharing, like a magazine/portal/web space. It could help build relationships between the various possible partners/organisations. The forum also requested for more research and case studies from more countries in future consultations. More interactions between developed countries and developing countries could help to leapfrog the learning curve.
                                                                           – Upasna Kakroo

delegates' feedback
It seems many of the audience interested on our private sector  initiative and sustainable model bottom up that was adopted for the  non-profit telecentre environment. It seems that if you give us a chance to speak again in the next Telecentre forum, I would like to address our business model that was  adopted for both profit and nonprofit social entrepreneur. 
                                                                      – Rudi Rusdiah Egypt


Surely, the private sector and civil society should be facilitated to fill the gaps that they can detect where there's sufficient revenue to make it possible for them to do so, but we  shouldn't let this stand in the way of additional models where the need may greater but where the market fails to deliver.
                                                             – Roger Harris Hong Kong

It was a pleasure for myself and the organization I represent (Bellanet and SAP International) to be a part of the telecentre forum. It was indeed an opportunity to learn, share and develop partnership. I thank the the organizers for having accomplished the commendable work of managing such a successful event. 
                                                                   – Bibhusan Bista Nepal

I think what we are talking of here in development parlance is inclusive growth and for that to happen, all forms of marginalised groups must benefit. However when resources are scarce there must be some prioritisation and therefore larger allocation in the rural contexts in most countries.
                                                                    – Bhaskar Mittra India

I enjoyed the conference and my KL tour immensely. Congratulations to the whole team.
                                                  – Maria Teresa Camba Philippines

 

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