One For All, or Free For All?

[Originally published in the Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]

One for all and all for one? Policy-making processes aspire to this, but where IT is concerned, it’s as often a free-for-all as one-for-all.

One of the biggest problems we face when we try to establish standards and policies around technology is that it extends into all sectors of society and the economy. This often results in very different views about – well, about pretty much everything.

Some people see ICT policy-making as a chance to pave the way for new business opportunities. Some see it as a chance to enhance the same moral, ethical and legal framework that currently defines their society; others see it as an opportunity for social transformation. Still others see it as merely a vehicle to define technical standards and protocols. Yet others see ICT as only one little egg in a much larger policy basket.

Getting everyone to agree on the process of establishing a national ICT policy, therefore, can be an exercise akin to herding cats and chickens all at once. Priorities are like noses: everyone’s got one, and every one of them is different.

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Principles of Policy Making

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Over the last couple of weeks, there’s been an increasing amount of discussion amongst the IT community over the need for a national ICT policy. We were all encouraged when someone from the Prime Minister’s Office spontaneously responded, suggesting that the best way to get things moving was to start moving ourselves.

One of the key points that came out of the discussion so far is that ni-Vanuatu feel that it’s time start taking issues of national policy in their own hands. That’s really heartening news. It’s always good to see a healthy amount of impatience when it comes to technical issues. Unless and until people are willing to invest something of themselves in the process, there’s little chance that the policy will take a meaningful or useful form.

In the interests of helping move the process along, I’m going to repeat a few lessons I’ve learned myself over the years….

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Planners and Searchers

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Fifty years ago, Charles E. Lindblom, a professor at Yale University published an essay entitled ‘The Science of “Muddling Through”.’ The paper’s main point was stated briefly and simply: We can’t know everything about anything. So, as long as we’re just muddling through an imperfect world with only imperfect knowledge, we’d just as soon admit it.

At the heart of Lindblom’s rationale is the contention that even if we could know everything, we’d never be able to adequately express the value of competing development priorities. Therefore, we should work within our limitations, reduce the scope of our planning activities and allow competing interests to adjust to each other over time.

In a column marking the 50th anniversary of this seminal essay, Financial Times columnist John Kay remarks that, while contemporary economists may have scoffed at what they considered to be an unscientific and benighted approach to policy and planning, Lindblom’s gradualist approach has largely been vindicated.

Kay’s take on gradualism is filtered through the eyes of a businessman. Noted development economist William Easterly, however, celebrates Lindblom’s work as the only really workable model for developing countries.

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Appropriate Technology – Take Two

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

I got some really good feedback from last week’s proposal to create incentives for those kinds of computer equipment that are most suited to creating opportunity and improving access to information for ni-Vanuatu.

Not all of the news was necessarily good, but all of it was useful. Daryl Moon, who runs the local Datec store, responded that he’d done a little math on the issue, and he found that computer vendors would certainly be able to sell computers for less if they were constructed locally from tariff-exempt components.

But he went on to explain that in order to justify hiring extra staff for that purpose, he would have to sell 20 computers per week – a number which, he suspected, exceeds the weekly sales of all local computer retailers combined.

I also had discussion with a few local economists and trade experts. One of the issues raised was the difficulty of actually measuring the outcome of such tariff exemptions. Generally speaking, government is willing to accept a drop in revenues in one area provided that it sees an increase elsewhere (VAT income from increased sales, for example) or that the social benefit is sufficient to merit the cost.

As I reflect on these conversations, I’m beginning to realise that, ultimately, the most compelling argument for Appropriate Technology incentives is not economic in nature. The capstone on this discussion is a moral one.

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Appropriate Technology

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

One of the joys of working in IT is the endless tide of change that seems to run through it. The stereotypical geek – and I confess I bear a strong resemblance to him – is constantly, almost pathologically curious. Like mynah birds we flit from one shiny piece of technology to the next, changing our song moment by moment.

Some may find it dizzying. Just as they get used to one set of jargon terms, the lexicon changes and their stuttering education in techno-Babel starts anew.

IT professionals typically work with about a six month window before the bleeding-edge products they’re using slip down the next rung of the ladder of obsolescence. After about two years, they’ve dropped away completely.

Governments and other institutions often find this a constant source of aggravation. It takes so long to develop standards that they’re often outdated even before the testing, analysis and verification is complete.

But their mistake is one of emphasis….

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Don't Plan On It

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Recently, I’ve come across references to a phenomenon some expats have wryly termed the ‘V’ factor. Apparently there is some magic variable Vanuatu inserts into every equation that reduces our ability to calculate a sensible output to zero.

As emblematic phrases go, the ‘V’ factor ranks somewhere between Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and those inane office posters warning you that ‘you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.

Joseph Heller penned his famous novel in an attempt to characterise the crushing, often deadly banality of bureaucratic systems. His initially humourous tone peels away layer by layer until death, disappearance and the destruction of innocence leave the surviving characters with few illusions about humanity’s true nature.

Compared to this tour de force of gallows humour, a silly-looking poster tacked onto a corkboard seems innocuous, to say the least, little more than an ineffectual, protesting squeak from a mouse in a maze.

The ‘V’ factor isn’t so harmless. Rather than explain (Catch 22-style) Vanuatu’s unique environment, it substitutes dismissive hand-waving (often accompanied by another beer) for any serious desire to adapt to the reality of the situation. In essence, it’s a quick and easy way of exculpating oneself, of refusing to be implicated in the petty, small-world inefficiencies that define Vanuatu.

The ‘V’ factor is the final excuse of someone who wants into the show, but doesn’t want to pay for the ticket.

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The Numbers Game

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

At a public meeting recently held in Port Vila, Digicel Pacific General Counsel David Dillon estimated that Digicel and TVL combined have about 100,000 active mobile subscriptions in Vanuatu. If that number is correct – and I believe it is – it means that the number of subscriptions has increased by a stunning 400% in less than a year.

100,000. Let’s think about that for a second.

In the big cities of the world, selling 80,000 new subscriptions is a modest achievement. But here in Vanuatu, simply finding that many is a herculean feat. Extrapolating from the 2001 census numbers, we can estimate that there are roughly 55,000 people living in Port Vila and Santo today. Pick any reasonable percentage of people actually using mobile phone services, and it quickly becomes evident that reaching the reported subscription level requires pretty significant penetration into places that had never had mobile services before.

Digicel, TVL and the government of Vanuatu have achieved a truly remarkable thing. This is nothing short of a communications revolution.

Nobody doubts that the effect of opening the telecoms market is a fundamental transformation in the way Vanuatu society interacts. But it’s difficult to characterise the exact nature and scope of the impact.

It would be nice to quote statistical chapter and verse, but we don’t have enough publicly available information to do so.

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Masters in our own House?

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Economic hardship is expressed in the simplest terms in Vanuatu. The price of rice, of diesel and cooking gas, the selling price of copra and kava – all of these hit closest to home. The most pressing question facing our new government is how best to insulate Vanuatu from the worst of the economic turmoil affecting the world’s economies.

The question for all ni-Vanuatu is how to hold the new government to account.

Economists describe Vanuatu’s position as that of a ‘price taker’. In layman’s terms that means we don’t get much of a say in how prices are set. OPEC members have never heard of us, and are content to keep it that way. Commodity exchanges deal in volumes that give Vanuatu no more say over prices than a corner shopkeeper.

Nonetheless, government decisions echo throughout the local economy. It’s limited in what it can do, but what it does affects us directly.

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One of the items in yesterday’s brain dump was a talk I presented to the Pacific Network Operators Group (PACNOG) at the Sebel Hotel. It’s titled ‘Network Effects: Social Significance of Mobile Communications in Vanuatu‘. It explains Network Effects and how they manifest themselves in village life, then looks at some obvious and not-so-obvious implications for network providers in the Pacific. Briefly, my point is that village life features very tight communication loops from which no one is exempt. The one-to-one (but not the one-to-many and many-to-one!) aspects of village communications will be enhanced by mobile comms, and smart network operators should do what they can to enhance this effect. The result will be that our island geography (and gestalt) creates more value per user than traditional business analysis might lead us to believe.

One of the questions that came up regularly when I asked for feedback on my talk was how people would be able to afford mobile services. Given that 5000 vatu (about USD 50) per month is not an unusual family income in the village, even topping up with 200 vatu credit (currently the smallest increment available) would be a burden, would it not? The answer is yes and no.

There’s an interesting relationship between commodity prices and agricultural production here in Vanuatu. When the price of commodities like coffee, copra and cacao rises, production actually decreases rather than increasing. The reason for this is that the need for cash in rural areas is quite limited. Once a villager earns enough to pay school fees, clothing and a few staples, there’s no more need to sell their crop. So when they can earn the same amount of money for less effort, they do so.

This is one of the factors leading to a kind of economic insulation for the average ni-Vanuatu. I wrote a bit more about other aspects of this phenomenon in this article for the Daily Post.The bottom line is that the cash economy remains small in rural Vanuatu because the cash economy is only a small part of the whole picture.

When mobile communications are introduced, the perceived need for cash increases. In the short term, this puts stress on the pocket book, but things can probably work themselves out through a nominal increase in the amount of cash being generated (e.g. through cash crops). Add to this the increased efficiencies that come hand in hand with better communications, and we’ll likely see more prosperity and economic activity – in cash terms – than less.

In other words, this is not a zero sum game.

That detail is still lost in many traditional planning processes. In fact, ignorance of this dynamic is a bigger inhibitor to growth than many other external factors. If people can’t forecast capacity properly, their estimates come out consistently low, and because products and services don’t meet the need, they don’t have the effect they’re intended to, so people don’t invest in them.

Very often, taking the last few years’ numbers and extrapolating linear growth creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which growth remains linear only because that’s as much as it can grow. Unfortunately, it allows analysts to sit back and say, ‘See? I told you so.’

Update: Looking a little further down this continuum: Once the inherent economic elasticity in this system is used up, however, poverty sets in. An example would be people planting cash crops in places once reserved for food crops. It’s a fine line between building the cash economy and building dependence on the cash economy in such as way that a person’s outputs can’t meet their costs.

Painting the Country Red

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Digicel launched their mobile phone service in Vanuatu this week with a splash the likes of which have not been seen since Independence. Outside observers will find it hard to believe just how much excitement the arrival of a new phone company has engendered in Vanuatu. This column needs to be read in the context of a nation that, in terms of communications, has been utterly impoverished, but whose poverty seemed to vanish in a single day. In this light, the prospect of nearly ubiquitous mobile coverage at affordable rates is takes on historical proportions.

This week’s column isn’t so much a commentary as a sketch of first impressions about Digicel, its services and people’s reactions to both.

Digicel’s launch was a coordinated campaign designed to make it look to most people as if it sprang fully formed from the ground on the morning of the 25th. Billboards went up overnight, the flagship store was unveiled, the largest bandstand in Vanuatu history was constructed in the aptly-chosen Independence Park. Top-up signs appeared on store fronts everywhere, sometimes four to a block. Even newspaper sellers were transformed into Digicel vendors. One of the biggest concerts in Vanuatu history went off on-time and without a hitch. Hundreds of people – athletes, the disabled, the wealthy and the powerful – were entertained with food and drink that flowed smoothly and in apparently limitless quantities. It culminated with the biggest fireworks display in living memory.

Digicel wasn’t just showing off. There was a deliberate point to be made, and they made it emphatically: Digicel delivers.

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