When United Villages took the web to rural India, its vision was to liberate the poor by giving them tools from the digital age.
Almost three years later, technology is indeed enriching rural lives — but not quite how they expected. Rather than paying to send emails and surf the web villagers prefer to email their questions to someone who will do the surfing for them and return the answers in a pdf (portable document format) file.United Villages is just one of a growing number of groups rolling out ‘asynchronous’ Internet access across the developing world. It’s an approach that doesn’t need miles of cables or a constant connection — and so is much cheaper.His organisation uses a system called DakNet — dak means ‘post’ in Hindi — that mixes wireless technology with whatever transport is already available to connect around 400 remote Indian villages.
When the daily bus pulls into one of these villages, data as well as passengers can embark. The bus is fitted with a storage device that lets data, uploaded from the village computer kiosk, hitch a ride. It’s much cheaper and less power-hungry to transmit data over such short distances — from village kiosk to the bus — than over the long distances from village to town.But little of what United Villages now does is about the Internet, and none of it is about the web, says Hasson. It’s more about creating a useful local digital network.
“We’re building a digital channel to a very difficult to reach population,” he says, adding his organisation has changed tack from an “Oh we came up with this cool technology, now let’s get people to use it” approach to “What is it that people actually want and need that this technology can address?”