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FTInsight April/May 2016

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Tech Talk Utilising and managing digital content for socio-economic growth By Ishmael Bull, Sierra WiFi Sierra Leone, like many developing countries, continues to struggle with its economic development. Underlying problems with education, health and poverty still compound the nation’s growth. Numerous studies have identified inexpensive and fast internet as a factor that can boost economic growth and Sierra Leone’s connection to the African Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine communications cable offers the country the very high bandwidth necessary to catch up with the new global information age, and take advantage of its associated benefits. In his keynote delivered early 2013 on the commissioning of the ACE Fibre Optic, His Excellency the President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma stated: “The essence of this project is to develop applications for the use of this huge bandwidth. Examples of these applications are e-education, e-health, e-tourism, e-commerce, e-banking, and e-government to name but a few.” Still in its early stages, the great socio-economic potential of this information superhighway is not readily accessible to the average Sierra Leonean. And while mobile penetration is on the increase with 70% penetration, expensive costs keep internet penetration in the country below 10%. This limited internet penetration can definitely be problematic. For example, during the recent Ebola crisis, I was part of a team that developed a customised ‘Open Data Kit’ – a mapping tool that could provide timely feedback on district response activities. Using skip logic on android phones, field workers collected and uploaded key data from their districts to an open source platform whenever internet connectivity was available, to be fed into a mapping tool displaying activities by region or district. However, a major constraint to the usefulness of the ‘Open Data Kit’ was the lack of internet connectivity in rural areas and thus heavy funding was critically needed to set up (satellite) systems. FT Insight 21 Improved connectivity therefore, is undoubtedly important. Yet with 60% of the nation under the poverty line and a 41 % adult literacy rate, how do we ensure we make the internet productive and useful in the context of our developing economy, as well as accessible? The answer lies in following His Excellency the President’s advice and focusing on how we can utilise and manage digital content for socio-economic growth by developing applications that will help enhance sectors including health, agriculture and education. As a private sector Internet Service Provider, we at Sierra WiFi see it as a paramount responsibility to help develop sectors within the economy rather than simply providing internet services to end users. Our primary corporate mandate is to provide schools with e-learning facilities. To deliver this, a tripartite partnership was formed between Sierra WiFi, the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Information & Communication to launch the Government Intranet Virtual Education (GiVE) Portal which gives schools free computers and provides students and teachers with access to digitised educational tools and resources. To date we have installed GiVE in 90 schools and aim to do 75 schools yearly. Communities can use the same platform to supply information to farmers thus aiding agricultural development; and health centres can supply health information and education. Subsidising the provision of internet access for its own sake has limited value and is mainly of interest to an educated elite. Similar to how bus companies carry passengers to different locations for reasons of education, employment, research, relationships; the internet’s end use has to be considered up front, otherwise it becomes as meaningless as a fleet of empty buses driving back and forth. www.ftinsight.net

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