The Case for Openness

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

I’ve been an interested observer and sometime participant in the development of communications in Vanuatu for coming on five years now. In all that time, probably the most interesting phenomenon that I’ve witnessed has been the effect of openness, both within the IT community and among users of this new technology.

I’ve written about this before, of course. Here is a brief excerpt:

“Those in business and government who have traditionally worn the office of custodian of the public good will find that, while the[ir] role is not diminished, it will be shared among a great many others. To coin a tortured phrase, improved communications means that we’ll have to learn to communicate better.

“Barriers between institutions will need to come down as well. Some of them, such as interconnectivity between competing mobile phone systems, will be legislated away, but others will only fall through our collective willingness to accommodate others, to show some flexibility in the face of change, and most of all from our collective willingness to allow these new channels of communication to flow productively in both directions.”

The last 12 months of rapid change have been accompanied by mixed results in this regard. I was originally tempted to report on progress in the form of a report card, but this is neither the time nor the place for naming and shaming. The purpose here is not to embarrass. On the contrary, it’s to demonstrate how taking advantage of Vanuatu’s status as a small community is more rewarding than conventional wisdom might lead us to believe.

The concept of six degrees of separation posits that information is transmitted between individuals and groups much more quickly and efficiently than might be apparent at first glance. The theory states that, even in a population of billions, on average any individual is only six degrees of association away from anyone else.

It bears noting that Guglielmo Marconi, a pioneer of radio, first put this hypothesis forward. It was precisely because of his knowledge of communications technology that he was among the first to notice that the world would effectively become smaller.

Scientists and researchers are wont to bicker about the details, such as the actual average number of intermediate steps between one person and another. The size of the community and the means of communication affect this outcome. But nobody disputes that, given the chance, information disseminates far more efficiently than we might think.

Another interesting finding to come out of research into ‘small world’ theory is that not all people are created equal where communications are concerned. Most people tend to limit their communications to a small, unchanging group of people. These groups are largely static, not interacting greatly with others. (Island-ism, anyone?)

But a relatively small number of people tend to move fluidly between different groups, and in doing so, they play the role of messenger, carrying the most interesting bits of information between the groups.

This phenomenon is directly observable here in Vanuatu. News often travels like wildfire through the population, but the story itself is told differently, depending on which group is doing the telling. I’ve written before about Vanuatu’s ‘Coconut Wireless’: “In small doses, it’s generally unreliable, but when information is amalgamated from numerous sources, an assiduous listener can gather a good deal of interesting (sometimes deliciously scurrilous) and surprisingly accurate information.”

Vanuatu’s familiarity with small worlds – no world is smaller than the village – has unfortunately resulted in social adjustments that obscure its efficiency:

“Sometimes, it’s convenient to spread information widely; sometimes it’s more politic to keep our own counsel and to repeat nothing at all. The system is therefore incomplete, erratic and occasionally wildly off-base.”

Compound this with how unfamiliar life in a small world is for some newcomers to Vanuatu, and we find ourselves in a situation where engagement, communication and especially cooperation are inconsistent, awkward and occasionally downright counterproductive.

An example: When the government was negotiating with TVL to end the telecommunications monopoly, the people involved did a remarkably good job of ensuring that the transition to competition would leave no room for disputation and foot-dragging. The legal and marketing aspects of the agreement are a shining example of how things should be done.

But significant aspects of modern telecommunications were, deliberately or not, simply left off the table. Radio frequency management, Internet services and management of the .vu domain space are all notably absent from the agreement. Happily, the interim telecoms regulator is busily putting together a plan that encompasses these and other important details.

Digicel and TVL are both committed to their staff. They understand the importance of trusting those who know the turf, so to speak. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Digicel’s operations elsewhere in the world is the amount of autonomy they give to their various national operations.

And yet, to date they’ve limited themselves to circulating only among select groups. Certainly, much of this is due to the fact that they’re more than a little busy with the logistical aspects of building a national operation from scratch. It should be noted as well the contacts that they do have are well chosen and used effectively.

TVL, alas, has done little to date to leverage their substantial investment in local talent. They’ve passed on a number of opportunities to engage effectively with the community as a whole, relying mostly on improving their traditional marketing and sales efforts, while at the same time trying to make their infrastructure more competitive.

But our telecommunications companies are angels compared to the government itself. While I’m happy to sing the praises of Minister Natapei’s truly historic endeavours in improving the telecoms market as a whole, vast improvements are still possible.

The inter-departmental ICT committee hasn’t yet been given a proper mandate to consolidate government information services and to prepare a national communications strategy. The Ministry of Public Infrastructure and Public Utilities has at least promulgated a simple and sensible telecommunications policy, but there is much more to be done.

The result is that the true innovators, the young turks with big ideas, are left playing a game of wait and see. This slows development, and limits their participation in critical planning stages, the very time when their voices most need to be heard.

The simple truth is that information always finds its way onto the Coconut Wireless, so it’s in everybody’s interest to ensure that this information is valid, complete and most of all, that it flows in all directions.

I’m not suggesting that everyone bare their soul and expose every detail of their plans and intentions to public scrutiny. There are perfectly valid reasons to keep certain cards close to one’s chest. But a process of constant and attentive communication serves everyone’s purposes.

If, for example, the government were to engage more comprehensively with stakeholders as they prepare to roll out a national communications network through their e-government intiative, they would not only benefit from significant technical insight, they’d also give private industry the opportunity to prepare for the opportunities represented by this valuable resource. This would inevitably reduce the burden of maintaining and sustaining services and overheads on the network itself.

Modern communications has shrunk the world immeasurably in the last 50 years. And Vanuatu was a small place to begin with. Let’s quit treating that as a liability and open up a little. Many hands make light work.

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