According to an estimate, 32 out of 50 Asian countries are below the poverty line having a per capita income less than $500. A similar trend is observed in Pakistan where 32 per cent of the total population is below poverty line.
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), specifically the Internet has proved to be a diverse technological tool used to communicate, create, store, disseminate and manage information. In the developing countries, ICTs can transform old challenges and create unprecedented possibilities for sustainable economic development, just as it has done for business in the industrial world. Realising the beneficial returns from deploying ICTs, public sector is investing heavily to strengthen the telecommunication infrastructure. Government is taking measures to connect the remote areas with Internet facility as an attempt to provide them access to the information world. A study of economic indicators of Pakistan’s infrastructure reveals that about 1350 cities/towns/villages have been provided with Internet connectivity up to March 2003. Total telephone lines installed by March 2003 were 4.6 million and the mobile phone connectivity reached approximately 2 million by the end of the same month.
Unfortunately, even with ICT infrastructure in place, the number of total Internet users is merely 5 million, which comes around to 3.4 per cent of the Pakistani population. It suggests that only a small fraction of the total population is benefiting from the information available on the Internet. The statistical debate presented above therefore rejects the stance that low rate of Internet usage within the country is due to the unavailability of infrastructure.
Majority of the local population cannot access the ICT devices, since English and Spanish are the lingua franca for ICTs. Language barrier hampers this access, as local population is barely literate in their mother tongue. Twenty per cent of the total literates in Pakistan can read and write in English. This 20 per cent comprises entirely of urban population who form only 31 per cent of the population. The dominance of English content on the Internet therefore leaves the remaining 69 per cent rural population ‘digitally divided’ from the rest of the world. Researchers are now well aware of the need to enable ICTs in the local languages of the consumers. Movement for developing local language solution for legacy software systems is now underway. However, even with present availability of localised tools like Urdu fonts, proprietary software for Urdu on Windows XP, commercially developed Urdu word processors etc., only 3.4 per cent of 149 million population in Pakistan is using ICTs.
However, investing into developing localised ICTs alone would not bridge this gap. Hence, the urgency is to uncover and effectively address those issues that are the major causes of depleted ICT usage within the country. Issues pertaining to low Internet usage are induced due to multiple socio-economic reasons. One obvious reason is the very low literacy level in ICT languages (English and Spanish specifially) due to which majority of the population remains aloof from the usage of computer. At present only 20 per cent of the total literate population of Pakistan understands English, the language of the Internet. This language barrier could potentially be estranged through provision of localised solutions to the masses.
Even if localised solutions were built, the appallingly low computer literacy of the Pakistani population would pose another hindrance to access the information on the web. A very small fraction of the total population is literate enough to perform the basic computer operations.
Even if the preliminary hurdle to enable ICTs in local language is overcome, the next obstacle to access information is the unavailability of “relevant” local language content. This issue brings to the forefront the utmost need to produce local language content of direct relevance to the common man.
The exercise of the creation of content in local language would demand certain technological formalities to be fulfilled. Among the inevitable is the standardisation of local language character sets and keyboard layouts both on linguistic and technological levels for developing localised applications. Software produced following these standards would ensure consistency across applications.
Still if we try to overcome the issues stated above, the high cost of localised applications would keep these solutions out of the reach of the common man. A few of the contemporary Urdu language packages, for example, Inpage, Liwal and Urdu98 applications costing US$ 350, US$ 725, US$ 99 respectively are evidently out of reach of the majority of the local populations. Even on the commercial level, these solutions are not popular due to their steep prices. The CEO of Systems Pvt. Ltd, (the developers of Raakim software, www.raakim.com) acknowledges during his meeting with the author that lack of commercial incentives and declining market for local language solutions has retarded their efforts enormously. This is because the clients would not acquire the expensive localised software when pirated copies of the same solutions would be readily available at a much cheaper rate. The clients would not mind to compromise the output quality of the software due to their financial constraints.
Apart from the stated economic and technological constraints there are certain social problems that inhibitor ICT utilisation. As an example, women visiting Internet cafes is a taboo in Pakistan. Thus, such social restrictions would apply to the entire women population, which forms about 48 per cent of the total population. Similar gender biases thus decrease the ratio of women using the Internet.
All localisation initiatives should be guarded by a backbone of strong localisation policy. Unless the public agencies do not create a demand for local language applications, no sound initiative for ICT development would come up.
The problems quoted above, need to be addressed rigorously in order to ensure smooth inclusion of the digitally divided population into the informed society. Various steps have to be implemented in the area of standardisation for technology, human as well as technical resource development and certain level of change in the over all thinking pattern of the society regarding the uses and abuses of the ICTs.
Foremost for the social, economic and technological uplift of a region is increase in its literacy rate. Increasing literacy rate to initiate ICT utilisation is not a practical solution, however, it is realistic to build speech technologies like text-to-speech systems for the illiterate and physically impaired populations. In order to address these issues one such initiative has been taken in Pakistan by the Electronic Government Directorate through collaboration with National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences. The project is known as the Urdu Localisation Project. One part of this project is to develop a plug-in into the user browser, which will translate the information from English to Urdu in real time.
In order to develop the sophisticated natural language processing technologies, a dire need of trained human resource would therefore be felt. Universities across the country should offer under graduate and graduate level degree programmes in various disciplines of natural language processing and local language technologies to catalyse the development of localised solutions, which counts to be none at present. These universities should also establish research and development centres dedicated to research in localisation. This research however has to be institutionalised within the universities in order to ensure sustainability in efforts. Pakistan at present has only one local language computing research centre, Center for Research in Urdu Language Processing (CRULP), (www.crulp.org ), which is involved in research in linguistics and computational aspects of the regional languages of Pakistan.
Human resource development programmes through localisation training can also catalyse the production of these localised solutions. One such training initiative was taken by the PAN (Pan Asia Networking) localisation project. This training was conducted on the ‘Fundamentals of local language computing.’ The training aimed to equip the participants with education on the basic tools and technologies required to build intermediate to advanced local language applications. It was a five day long workshop that included presentations, hands on training sessions, font development exercises and lecture presentations by localisation experts.
CRULP through the grant funds of the Ministry of IT conducted a one-day long free seminar on ‘Font development’ in Arid Agriculture University, Pakistan. Therefore, similar initiatives need to be taken up in order to stimulate the production of localised solutions.
End-user training is essential to ensure the success of the developed product. Such training would further reduce the computer literacy ratio within a country. To this affect, presently the Pakistan Computer Bureau (PCB), successfully conducted the end-user training for 6000 federal and 6800 provincial government employees and the respective headquarters. PCB has also plans to dispense advisory services to various other public and private sector organisations as a first step to commence the end user training practice in the country. For the Urdu Localisation Project, the Electronic Government Directorate (EGD) of Pakistan also aims to conduct the end-user training of the product after its commercial release. In a recent meeting with the Director Projects, EGD, Ministry of IT, Pakistan, with the author, the director explicitly specified that the organisation visions to provide end-user training facilities for all applications that are being developed through the initiatives of the EGD. e-Government Directorate of Pakistan recently performed an end- of the senators after deploying local language enabled software in the user training senate of Pakistan.
Every possible effort to access information would be ineffective, unless the user gets the information what he wants. Localised application would not prove successful unless users have access to content that is relevant to their purpose of study. For effective execution of a similar ideal content creation cells should be developed. The government to facilitate the relevant content creation, in the country can fund these cells. These bodies should comprise of a mix of linguists, typists, social scientist, web developers and programmers to work in collaboration to produce the relevant content. Private sector organisations can be instrumental in developing such bodies.
Apart from manual translation of content into local language, sophisticated localisation tools like machine translators, OCRs (Optical Character Recognitions) etc. could be built to expedite the local content creation process. OCR applications can be very beneficial in converting dictionaries, newspaper content, and other heavy printed material of local language into the computer formats. In addition, speech recognition tools can also be useful for local content creation, which can facilitate local content creation by reading out local language content.
Once the local content creation movement is in place next would be the urgency to develop technology standards for the local language. Government through the Language AuthorityMinistry of Culture should ensure that the technological and linguistic pre-requisites for enabling regional language into the ICT are provided to the technology developers.
Extremely steep costs of the proprietary local language solution would bring the entire movement of localisation to an instant halt. Government through its Information Technology division should invest in the organisations doing R&D in localisation, facilitating them to develop local language software to be disseminated for free.
Software piracy should be eradicated, but at the same time options for availability of cheaper software should be introduced as explained in the preceding section. The government should ensure the development and practice of strict security of intellectual property rights and copyrights of a vendor that has invested in the development of software. Due to the negative implication of the open availability of pirated software, the trend of development of Urdu software came to a drastic end during the middle of 90’s.
As a result of the copyrights violation, vendors ceased to develop localised software.
Even if all of the above-mentioned techno-economic issues are effectively met, one cannot adequately predict the maximal usage of the content available on the ICTs. This is because if the society itself condemns access through the ICTs, no effort for installing localisation would be successful. A lady visiting an Internet cafe alone is an undesirable practice. To counter for such a situation, separate time slots should be reserved for women and men in the net cafes. In more conservative environments, separate Internet cafes especially for women may be formed. However, only reserving time slots for women in the villages would not help, because women depend on their spouses in making. Once if a negative content over the Internet is observed, Internet usage would be stigmatised. For this purpose, intense awareness programmes must be conducted throughout the rural area explicitly highlighting the potential of ICTs as a tool for information exchange and its utilisation in solving problems. These awareness campaigns may for example be like the lady health worker initiative in the rural areas of Pakistan. Similar exercise could be duplicated to impart knowledge about ICT usage on door-to-door basis. Distributing free demo CDs or information storage gadgets that present demonstrations on how the ICT usage can benefit even a common man can compliment this exercise. There can also be target-training programmes especially for women, as although they constitute the 48 per cent of the total population but are far more illiterate than the men in the rural areas. Women literacy in rural areas is only 6.4 per cent in rural areas of Baluchistan, the largest province of Pakistan, according to an estimate.
The backbone for promoting localisation initiatives should be available through strong public policy for endorsement of localised solution. The public policy should explicitly address issues pertaining to securing Intellectual Property Rights. Copyright laws should be enforced but as said previously, it should also be assured that local language software remains within the purchase power of its end-user. To implement this, it should be policy driven that the government invests in its own IT sector and provides free to very cheap software applications. The government should also follow a focused approach towards proprietary software usage or open source applications for implementing local language solutions. Computer education must be initiated at the very initial levels of study so that students at the primary schooling receive education to use localised ICT. Pakistan presently has an Urdu and regional language software development clause in its information technology policy. Owing to this policy, the government has recently started investing in the development of local language solutions.
In spite of the availability of the necessary infrastructure for localisation, present ratio of ICT usage in the country in not encouraging. This would remain at lower levels unless the end users are provided an environment where ICT usage is encouraged from within the societal set-up. Such a situation would thus adequately attend the call of the vast digitally divided Asian population, to diminish as much as possible their segregation from the information world.