CTED Conference: Education and Accessibility

On February 12 and 13, the Second Annual CTED Conference took place in Abu Dhabi, titled: “Enhancing Economic Development through Technology: Focus on Africa and other Developing Countries”. Read below CTED PhD student Sunandan Chakraborty’s post on the Education and Accessibility Panel.

The panel opened with a talk by Indrani Medhi of Microsoft Research Lab India, titled Characterization of Accessibility focusing on methods of increasing access to ICTs for low-literate population.  She explained that a large share of mobile users in developing regions use their mobile phones just for voice calls. Other services offered by the mobile phones, like SMS, are left unused. In her talk, Medhi spoke about designing User Interfaces (UI) with which even low literate users can access different services with minimum assistance. Based on studies performed in India, Kenya, South Africa and Philippines, some usage patterns were observed. The users were unable to read text messages and texts in other phone applications; navigation, particularly through a hierarchical structure, was difficult and some application terms did not translate well into the local languages, making the terms difficult to understand. Based on these observations, Medhi presented some design recommendations. They include adding graphical cues; increasing the use of the local language, particularly through audio and minimizing the use of scroll bars and text inputs. Experiments were performed exploring the different options of input methods: text, audio and graphics. Based on the results of these experiments, Medhi concluded with the following design options for better performance:  i) Live operators (if possible), ii) Spoken dialogue supported by live operator for troubleshooting, or iii) Graphics augmented Interactive Voice Response System.

Joyojeet Pal (University of Michigan) gave a talk on Assistive Technologies, which started with an overview of different technologies available for different kind of disabilities, such as mobility aids, solutions for communication and assistive technologies for vision and hearing impairment. Pal, whose work is mostly centered on vision impairment and the use and effects of screen readers, raised various issues with assistive technologies. For one, the high cost of such systems lead to the use of pirated versions for home usage and introduces reluctance in purchasing assistive softwares in workplaces, making visually challenged people unemployable for those places. Furthermore, all the existing solutions are designed mostly for English speakers. Having no support for other languages make them almost unusable in non-English speaking developing countries. He also showed that the (audio) quality of the screen readers is inversely proportional to the application support. Asked about the difference between developed and developing countries when it comes to assistive technologies, Pal pointed out that in the industrialized regions, people learn to use such technologies at an early age, whereas in developing regions they only start learning as adults. This makes the technologies hard to grasp and prevent being used to their full potential in developing regions.

The final talk in the session was given by Rakesh Agrawal of Microsoft Research, titled “Enhancing Quality and Accessibility of Education through Technology”. Agrawal began by stating the importance of education in improving economic well-being of people. He emphasized the role of textbooks being the most widely used and cost effective means of education. However textbooks, particularly in developing countries, often lack clarity and completeness of information. As a solution, Agrawal suggested improving the quality of textbooks by augmenting the textbooks with materials from the Web. This approach deals with two problems. What to augment? And, where to augment? Not all sections in a textbook are poorly written. Hence, it becomes important to find the sections which need augmentation. The solution involved finding the key terms explained in the section and their inter-relationship. If in a section the key terms are sparsely related, it makes it difficult for a reader to grasp the section’s content. Actual augmentation from the Web is also based on these key terms, where the Web is searched for materials emphasizing such key terms. So, the challenge is to mine textbooks to find the key terms in each section and their interrelationship. Agrawal further discussed the future of education and gave insights on how future classrooms might look like, giving examples such as the Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare and Shankar Academy. Agrawal concluded by suggesting a way of funding education in the future, citing an ancient practice in India. There, students offered gurudakshna or a gift to their masters to show their gratitude, much later when they are better established.


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CTED Conference: Technology for Health Care

On February 12 and 13, the Second Annual CTED Conference took place in Abu Dhabi, titled: “Enhancing Economic Development through Technology: Focus on Africa and other Developing Countries”. Read below CTED PhD student Alex Coutts’ post on the Technology for Healthcare Panel.

The technologies for healthcare panel presented some exciting new work in developing technology in new ways to address problems unique to the developing world:
Dr. Michael Perrott of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology presented research on utilizing economies of scale in healthcare technology in order to reach the world’s poor in an affordable, sustainable manner.  It’s unrealistic to simply transfer sensitive, power-intensive, and expensive healthcare devices to the developing world. Instead his research focuses on developing ultra low power and low cost devices suitable for less developing country contexts.
Dr. Umar Saif at MIT believes that we can save lives through early warning systems made possible by the use of technology. The 2011 dengue fever outbreak in Punjab affected 300,000 individuals, and killed thousands. Using Dr. Saif’s early warning system, it is possible to take advantage of advanced geographic and spatial models of disease outbreak to get help to those most in need. Advanced tracking of calls placed to the help line can give disease experts and healthcare professionals a better picture of how an epidemic is spread, and allow them to better mobilize their resources to save lives.
Dr. Bill Thies of Microsoft Research is conducting groundbreaking research to address the gap between drug availability and proper adherence to dosage. Tuberculosis kills two million people a year, and while in India antibiotics are free, deaths from TB are still common. Using fingerprinting technology on both doctors and patients it is possible to ensure that doctors are providing the proper dosages, and patients are taking them. By holding both accountable, it is possible to avoid these preventable deaths from TB.
Santanu Biswas is the director of e-health services at du, a telecommunications company based in the UAE. His aim is to create an m-health product that is accountable to the patient, by providing up to date information catered to that individual. Chronic illness information combined with bio-medical monitoring technology will allow individuals to live the healthiest, most comfortable lives possible given the current state of health technology.

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Renewable Energy: A Stimulus for Development

On February 12 and 13, the Second Annual CTED Conference took place in Abu Dhabi, titled: “Enhancing Economic Development through Technology: Focus on Africa and other Developing Countries”. Read below CTED PhD student Emilia Soldani’s post on the Energy Panel.

“Representatives from the Volta River Authority – the main generator and supplier of energy in Ghana, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology discussed the current state of renewable energy and how technology can bring about scientific advancement in the lives of the poor. Among the examples cited were solar-powered or handle-rechargeable cell phones or high efficiency, low risk stoves.

The panel’s main message was that renewable energy, besides being clean, is sustainable and safe and can also be a powerful stimulus for development, by ensuring employment and energy autonomy. This is especially true if it comes as the result of an endogenous market-led process, rather than from aid-sustained projects. In developed countries high switching costs are still used as an excuse to delay conversions. Underdeveloped countries, however, do not have secure access to carbon fossil energy and that represents an additional incentive for them to invest in solar, wind, geothermal and hydro power.

In the past decade, world energy consumption has increased sharply and is likely to keep growing. One-fifth of the world’s population currently has no access to electricity and, accounting for primary and secondary consumption, the largest consumers use up to 138 times more energy than the smallest. More than 80% of global energy supply is produced from fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) and the intense use of coal for heating and cooking in Sub-Saharan Africa creates a serious hazard in terms of domestic accidents and poisoning.

North Africa and the Middle East share the highest solar resources. However, hydro power constitutes 16% of the world’s electricity supply, including large projects underway in China and Ghana, and geothermal energy, with large scale projects like the Takoradi plant in Ghana, have shown rapid growth.  In addition, wind power, is very location-specific, with South Africa being the country with the greatest generation volumes in Africa.”




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CTED Conference: How safe is mobile money?

On February 12 and 13, the Second Annual CTED Conference took place in Abu Dhabi, titled: “Enhancing Economic Development through Technology: Focus on Africa and other Developing Countries”. Read below guest blogger Elizabeth Dickinson‘s post on the second Mobile Money Panel, with panelists from academia. Click here for an article on the first Mobile Money Panel.

“As techies across emerging markets are looking for new ways to build mobile banking, Michael Paik, a researcher at CTED, is trying to do something else: Break it. “The good news,” he told a panel at the annual Abu Dhabi conference on Sunday, is that “M-Pesa, [the popular Kenyan platform for mobile
money,] is secure–for the time being.”

The bad news, however, is that not every telecom system’s mobile banking system lives up to that high standard. And even more alarming, mobile banking could be one of the hottest targets in coming years for online theft. “What we celebrate [about mobile banking] is volume and access,” Paik continued. “But
this is exactly what makes it attractive to target.”

Paik is one of a handful of researchers trying to uncover the system’s weaknesses and encourage the industry to pre-empt attacks. What’s at stake if hackers did break into the system, he argues, is not just the individual acts of theft. It’s the image of mobile banking—as a secure and reliable platform—that
is at risk. “It’s the weakest player in the market that causes market panic,” he points out. If even one mobile banking platform failed, consumer trust could be shattered worldwide.

Lakshmi Subramanian, Co-Principal Investigator of CTED, has been working on one answer: an encryption technology called PaperSpeckle. The unique imprint of any sheet of paper (or a substance like fabric or metal) is transferred into a small dot—and is virtually impossible to counterfeit. “This can easily be
integrated with mobile money” to improve security, he explained at the conference. Printable receipts of account balances are one example; or a sim card could itself have a speckle to insure it can’t be copied.

Another option, suggests Paik, is simply for tech developers to jointly collaborate on a platform that is equally secure across countries and service providers. Similar open-source projects have been successful in limiting other online tools’ vulnerabilities to attack—Mozilla’s Firefox browser, for example, is much
more secure than Internet Explorer.

“What we need to do is turn [this security] crisis into own opportunity,” says Paik. “M-Pesa has best practice, but that won’t always be the case. All the players in the market need to collaborate on the platform.”

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CTED Conference: Mobile Banking Revolutionizes Financial Inclusion

On February 12 and 13, the Second Annual CTED Conference took place in Abu Dhabi, titled: “Enhancing Economic Development through Technology: Focus on Africa and other Developing Countries”. Read below guest blogger Elizabeth Dickinson‘s post on the Mobile Money Panel:

“When Njuguna Ndung’u was named Kenya’s Central Bank Governor in 2007, just over 11 million of his fellow Kenyans—or about three out of every ten—had cell phones. Even fewer Kenyans had bank accounts; Ndung’u estimates the number was well below 30 percent.

Fast forward just five years, and Kenya has seen a revolution in both—telecoms and financial inclusion. As home to one of the first and most successful mobile banking systems in the world, Ndung’u told the CTED conference in Abu Dhabi on February 12 that a new 19.2 million customers now had access to mobile banking. “This was a market that nobody knew existed,” he said.

Mobile banking, called M-Pesa in Kenya, offers users something that many of them lacked access to before: a way to store, transfer, and even save their money. Many, though far from all, users are dealing with transactions too small in value to open traditional bank accounts. But the average deposit in an M-Pesa account is just $12.70. In total, Ndung’u explained, M-Pesa now holds the equivalent of $10 million in deposits.

“In revolutionary way, we expanded financial inclusion within a few years,” added Benno Ndulu, governor of the Central Bank of Tanzania, which has seen a similar mobile banking explosion in recent years.

The system works precisely because of its simplicity and convenience—a way to leapfrog over some of the traditional difficulties in financial inclusion. There is no better example than physical infrastructure; where it wouldn’t be profitable to build a bank branch in every village, mobile phone agents can easily set-up shop. “Banks [in Tanzania] have 320 branches around country. This system has as many as 84,000 agents around the country.”

“We have seen as policymakers that the market works,” said Ndung’u. “We come from a region where there are missing institutions. But now we can create platforms that are credible and adaptable to the conditions that we have.” Perhaps the greatest testament to how transformative mobile banking can be is just how widely it has now spread throughout the continent. A report by Juniper Research suggests that 200 million users could be taking advantage of mobile money by 2013, with 40 percent in Africa and the Middle East.

As mobile banking sprints across the globe, the central bank governors warned that regulations had not—at times—kept pace. “If there was an outage for 30 min, who is responsible and what happens?” asked Louis Kasekende, deputy Central Bank governor in Uganda. He cautioned that any loss in confidence in the system—such as an outage or bank run—could jeopardize user confidence, and even set back expansion. Equally important, they noted, would be trying to understand the impact of having more and more financial transactions on the grid, rather than in the informal sector.

These questions could hardly be more urgent—and that might be a good thing. Because getting to real financial inclusion may now be only a matter of years away.”

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CTED Conference: Keynote Address by UAE Minister of Foreign Trade

On February 12 and 13, the Second Annual CTED Conference took place in Abu Dhabi, titled: “Enhancing Economic Development through Technology: Focus on Africa and other Developing Countries”.

The conference was opened with a keynote address delivered by Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the UAE Minister of Foreign Trade. The Minister, nominated the most powerful Arab woman by the Forbes magazine, received her B.A. in Computer Science at California State University, Chico, and an Executive MBA at the American University in Sharjah. In her address, Sheikha Lubna pointed out how technology had influenced the rapid growth of the UAE economy and urged that technology will be an important engine of growth for African countries as well. The Sheikha commented on the rising importance of trade relations between the UAE and countries on the African continent, some of them the fastest growing economies in the world.  Non-oil trade between the Emirates and African countries increased more than eightfold in the last decade, from $1.7 billion in 2001 to $14.5 billion in 2010.The Sheikha raised the hope that technologies that are being incubated in the UAE could be exported and implemented in Africa. She said that it was important to fully understand the processes of African industries and governments to be able to properly adapt technology to the continent.

The Sheikha congratulated CTED on its conference and stressed the importance of the event “to share our experiences as nations, governments and industry leaders in technology-enabled growth.”

Other members of the opening panel were Jerry Rawlings, Former President of the Republic of Ghana and the African Union High Representative for Somalia, Dr. B.R. Shetty, CEO and Managing Director of the New Medical Centre Group and Dr. Al Bloom, Vice Chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi. Yaw Nyarko, Director of CTED.

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CTED Conference: Food Security

CTED Conference: Food Security

On February 12 and 13, the Second Annual CTED Conference took place in Abu Dhabi, titled: “Enhancing Economic Development through Technology: Focus on Africa and Other Developing Countries.” Food Security is one of CTED’s main research areas and was therefore also the subject of one of the panels at the 2012 CTED Annual Conference in Abu Dhabi. Read below CTED PhD student Giorgia Romagnoli’s post on the Food Security Panel.

For too long the global debate on food in developing regions has focused uniquely on food security as an emergency. Indeed the collective image associated with food security is that of big food containers, moving slowly on bad roads, protected by soldiers and often unable to arrive on time to the designated destination. We know today that, while important, emergency aid is not enough. Long-term solutions have to be found from within the affected regions. The panelists presented a rich series of great innovations that have the potential to ensure food security in a sustainable way.

Jenny Aker spoke about the incredible diffusion of mobile phones in the developing world (80% of African families have access to a phone) and of the great potential that this small tool can have (mobile banking, access to information, communication about climate emergencies and health monitoring just to name a few). Isaac Boateng from Esoko, explained the benefits of diffusing price information to help farmers decide what, when and where to sell. The idea is that more information about crop prices can empower farmers in the bargaining process. More so, knowing prices in different locations and periods enables farmers to cope with the extreme volatility of food prices. To give this idea scientific foundation and boost our understanding of how more information leads to better marketing, Nicole Hildebrandt presented results from a randomized control trial that CTED is conducting in the Volta region of Ghana. At the conference Nicole talked about the results of the baseline survey which shows that many farmers consider information as a valuable and often too scarce resource. She also spoke about the importance of running a correct randomization and controlling for spillovers, showing how economic research and RCTs can provide rigorous and grounded evidence and lead policy makers to solutions that really work. Eleni Gabre-Madhin, the founder of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, talked  about the importance of assuring that markets are able to connect buyers and sellers  scattered all over the country in a reliable and cost-effective way. If there is a food shortage in some area of the country, prices will go up in that area. If farmers from other parts of the country are informed, and effective national markets exist, their own produce will flow into the emergency regions, and this will prove much faster and effective than international food containers. Finally, Doug Gollin talked about important innovations in biology and biogenetics that can make certain crops suitable to areas where they could not grow before.

There is nothing less appropriate than the image of an endless line of international food containers for the future of Africa. Technological and institutional innovations are helping reach the ultimate goal of ending famine in Africa from within and for good.

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