Following its predecessors, the Telecentre Forum 2009 held on 26-27 August 2009 at the Hyderabad International Convention Centre, Hyderabad during the eIndia 2009 conference, provided a knowledge sharing platform to telecentre stakeholders from around the world. The participants represented countries like Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and Sweden in addition to India. The forum was divided into five sessions with three overriding themes. These were: Common Service Centres (CSCs), digital inclusion through telecentres, and knowledge sharing among telecentre stakeholders. Apart from the distinguished chairs and panelists who graced the sessions.
Sessions: Common Service Centres (CSCs): Opportunities and Challenges
The CSC sessions occupied a central place in the Telecentre Forum. CSCs, under NeGP, are the delivery points for a number of G2C and B2C at the village level. Deviating from the usual practice of sharing only updates on the CSC programme, the sessions focused more on the Service Centre Agencies (SCAs) and their implementation based insights and experience. The sessions were chaired by Shankar Aggarwal, Joint Secretary and Ashis Sanyal, Senior Director, Department of Information Technology (DIT), Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT), Government of India (GoI), respectively. Representatives from several SCAs like D Sattaiah from BASIX India Ltd., Ranabir Das from Srei Sahaj e-Village Ltd, Mukesh Hajela from Network for Information and Computer Technology (NICT), Shilpi Varshney from All India Society for Electronics and Computer Technology (AISECT), and Sunanda from Alternatives for India’s Development (AID) participated as panelists in these sessions. During Session III, they were also joined by some ICT4D and telecentre leaders, like Rajen Varada, Resource Person, Solution Exchange ICTD Community; Naimur Rahman, Director, OneWorld South Asia and Kamolrat Intaratat, Director, CCDKM. They enriched the session by providing a global perspective to the discussions.
The sessions began with a brief overview of the CSC programme by Ashis Sanyal. He described it as the world’s largest telecentre programme conceived so far, both in terms of its nature and scope. Shankar Aggarwal elaborated that the CSC programme has reinforced that technology is essential for reaching out to the remotest areas and to the most marginalised sections of the society. The presentations shared by the panelists focused on the main objectives of the sessions. Most of the SCAs are already using ICTs for community development in one way or the other. The CSC programme has provided them with an opportunity to integrate their ongoing work within this framework. In addition, they have to understand the local needs and demands and then partner accordingly with other public and private sector organisations to deliver services.
The challenges faced by the SCAs are related largely to their area of operation, services that they offer and CSC sustainability. The panel discussions revealed that some of the SCAs are working in remote and difficult terrains, which are dacoit, drought, migration and naxalite prone.
Open Floor Discussions & Outcomes: The session generated a lot of discussions around the CSCs services and sustainability. The SCAs argued that they have to be innovative in deciding the services to be delivered through the CSCs. There was a heated debate on the G2C services, as several participants from the audience pointed out that initially such services were supposed to be the mainstay of the CSC programme. Moreover, G2C services enhance the credibility of the CSCs and increase the footfalls. Mukesh Hajela (NICT), on the other hand, argued that once they have shouldered the responsibility of setting up the CSCs, they have to be innovative in providing need and demand based services, irrespective of whether G2C services are available or not.
In the context of innovations and best practices introduced by the SCAs, they also touched upon the issue of their replicability.
Session: Digital Inclusion through Telecentres: Converging Old and New
Session II aimed at taking up the issue of digital inclusion through telecentres through convergence of modern and emerging technologies, such as the computers and the Internet and the traditional ones, such as telephone, mobile phone, radio and the television.
The session was chaired by S N Goswami, Managing Director and CEO of Media Lab Asia. The panelists included G K Simli, Principal Consultant, Ministry of External Affairs; Sultanur Reza, Head, Community Information Centre, Grameen Phone; and Ashis Sanyal (DIT)
S N Goswami began the session with an overview of Media Lab Asia which has developed some ingenious applications for connectivity, agriculture, health and other related areas. Sultanur Reza talked about his Grameen Phone experience. Since Grameen Phone is essentially a mobile phone company and connectivity provider, their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities are centred around providing shared voice and internet access to the rural poor.
He informed about the Community Information Centres Initiative (CIC) which is supported through Multi Stakeholder Partnership with organisations like Catalyst, which is creating agriculture related content in Bangla language. This project is known as eKrishak and has received good response from the users. They have also introduced a health helpline advisory service for Grameen Phone subscribers. As far as challenges are concerned, the biggest of them all is encouraging the villagers to visit the CICs. Others include the alarming illiteracy rate, connectivity problems, state of the economy and polity and infrastructure development.
Reza’s interesting talk on digital inclusion in Bangladesh was followed by G K Simli’s presentation on telecentres, facilitating digital inclusion in India. He discussed it against the historical backdrop with special emphasis on the genesis and growth of the telecentre movement in India. According to him, telecentres act as catalysts in bridging the digital and other divides, such as economic, social and gender.
He also brought forth the uniqueness of the Indian telecentre movement, i.e., creating synergy between various government mission mode programmes and public and private sector initiatives. He pointed out that affordability, replicability and being citizen centric is critical for addressing telecentre challenges.
Open Floor Discussions and Outcomes: Interestingly, the open floor discussions brought out the social business or social entrepreneurship aspect of the telecentres and how the CSR activities of profit making companies like Grameen Phone contribute to it. The participants were also curious to know the Grameen Phone telecentres’ revenue sharing model.
Session: Knowledge Sharing among Telecentre Stakeholders
As discussed, telecentres are multi-stakeholder programmes. They cannot be set up in isolation; they require a conducive ecosystem to survive. These include innovative technologies, knowledge resources and content, strong networks that contribute to their sustainability and above all, research to guide them towards achieving sustainability as well as making them relevant to the community needs.
The session was chaired by Naimur Rahman, Director, OneWorld South Asia. The panelists included Deepa Anandakrishnan, CEO, OneRoof, Inc. India; Niranjan Meegammana, Project Director, Shilpa Sayura Foundation, Kandy, Sri Lanka; Kamolrat Intaratat, Director, The Research Center of Communication and Development Knowledge Management (CCDKM), Thailand; Maud Chatelet, Executive Director, howtopedia.org, Switzerland; Peter Mozelius, Lecturer at the Department of Computer and Systems Sciences, Stockholm University, Sweden; and Maithree Malwattegoda, Business Development Executive, Sarvodaya-Fusion, Sri Lanka.
Deepa Anandakrishnan’s presentation highlighted the OneRoof product- ‘Management Information and Reporting Software as a Service: The ‘OneRoof Reports’, which can be used by all kinds of public access computing centres. Their new product assures maximising sustainability and profits; better management of employees; strengthening community security; measurement of social impacts; and above all, it provides full ITA2008 compliance. It is available in different languages.
Peter Mozelius shared his team’s research findings on telecentre models in India and Sri Lanka. The research is still under progress. He opined that in addition to the digital divide, the developing countries also have to tackle the rural and urban divide. Taking into consideration, the vast resources offered by the government, he favoured a combination of bottom up and top down approaches to make the telecentres economically and socially viable.
Niranjan Meegammana took the telecentre sustainability issue to another level, that of the telecentre networks, through his presentation on the e3 framework. He has identified the areas eLearning, eBusiness and eLeadership, where networks needed support. It is essentially a bottom up approach that also requires top down linkages (for example, support from government) for sustainability. For him, telecentres have vast potentials to bring about social changes.
Maithree Malwatteguda presented on her organisation, Sarvodaya Fusion and its capacity building programmemes. Their regional coordinators, chosen from among their telecentre operators and trained under the ‘train the trainers’ programmemes, conduct capacity building programmes for their peers. They also have proper accreditation and certification processes in place.
Following the Sri Lankan telecentre experience, Dr. Kamolrat Intaratat talked about the Thai telecentre network. It combines various telecentre models and receives proactive support from academic institutions. According to the infrastructure available at the telecentres, they are categorised very innovatively into XL, L, M and S sizes. The Thai telecentre network functions more like a family and operates both in urban and rural areas. All the telecentre operators have the membership of an online community.
Maud Chatelet talked about the howtopedia project through which she has tried to enable information access in a very practical way. howtopedia is a kind of wikipedia of information. The main focus is on the diffusion of simple technology and practical knowledge/information to help sustainable development. The howtopedia, serves as a one stop multi-lingual place for information empowerment.
Session: Telecentres: innovations and opportunities
The last session was chaired and moderated by Ananya Guha, Officer on Special Duty, IGNOU and the key speakers were Chetan Sharma, Founder, Datamation Foundation; M S Kiran, Researcher, Queensland University; Ajay Kapur, Senior Director, Oracle Education Foundation; Senthil Kumaran, Director, IEC, Jamshetji Tata National Virtual Academy and Training School, MSSRF; and Wilfred Varghese, IT Manager, SIFFS.
The session started with Chetan Sharma sharing his experience on how civil society organisations can bring about socio-economic transformations because of their linkages with poor households on the one hand and the public and private sector organisations on the other. By strengthening these links, they help the poor households in like areas of health, education and livelihoods. Datamation Foundation has taken the lead in addressing gender issues through their telecentres and Gender Resource Centres.
The next speaker was Ananya Guha, who presented on the Community Information Centres of Meghalaya. These have transformed into community enabling centres through the intervention of IGNOU. According to Guha telecentres have the potential to play the role of technology-enbled learning centres as well as vocational training centres. The combination of the three will increase the utility of the telecentres manifold.
Next, Wilfred Varghese talked about SIFFS Village Information Centres (VICs), engaged in improving the lives and livelihoods of the fishing community through information. The VICs were set up after the Tsunami disaster of 2004 with support from NASSCOM Foundation and other organisations. They have discovered a participatory approach along with need based services and the support of traditional institutions like the Village Panchayat and Church are crucial for VIC sustainability.
The concepts of community ownership and participatory approach was further elaborated by Senthil Kumaran. His vast ‘on-the-ground’ experience in implementing the first Indian community informatics and telecentre project, the IDRC and MSSRF supported Village Knowledge Centres, was evident in his presentation. From the beginning, they stressed on location specific, demand driven content and community ownership.
Ajay Kapur spoke about think.com (now known as thinkquest) and its impact on enhancing the knowledge and skills of the poor and deprived children. His talk was interspersed with a short video on a 17 years old girl Radha, a first generation learner in her family, who shared her experience with think.com.
M S Kiran informed about the role of the mobile infomediaries in disseminating information in the rural areas. He has applied the bottom of the pyramid approach to elaborate this concept. Explaining it in a historical perspective, he cited the traditional postman, the sales representatives and Bangladesh’s Mobile Ladies as some of the infomediaries, trusted by the village communities.
Open Floor Discussions and Outcomes: The presentations were followed by open floor discussions where matters pertaining to capacity building in new and emerging skill areas, telecentre sustainability and understanding local issues from community perspective held the attention of the participants and speakers.
Participants also debated the issue of information dissemination through mobile phones, as the rate of data transfer is quite expensive in comparison to the Internet. The mobile is used more as a means of communication rather than information access and dissemination tool.