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 It takes so long to develop standards that they’re often outdated even before the testing, analysis and verification is complete.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….

Focusing on specific technologies and products is a mug’s game that forces planners to make predictions about the unforeseeable. If, however, planners focus on underlying principles, standards and processes that are common to all technological progress, they can achieve great things.

Learning to properly understand the nature of technological progress is a simple task, but not an easy one. The difficulty lies in the fact that, while the principles are simple, their application is very complex. The secret to IT policy making, then, is knowing how far you can safely generalise and what you can reasonably expect to achieve.

Vanuatu’s government operates within fairly tight constraints. While it is the single largest employer in the country, it has relatively little reach in terms of enforcing public standards or creating incentives to drive private sector innovation.

That said, it can and should be doing more. Ignoring the lack of a national IT strategy for the moment, let’s take a look at a number of small, low-cost steps that the Government of Vanuatu could take to improve people’s lives through technology.

While mobile communications have swept over nearly all the populated islands, uptake of Internet services has been much slower, mostly due to the cost of entry. Standard desktop computers cost the equivalent of several months’ salary for most ni-Vanuatu, and laptops even more.

The Government could address this in two simple steps:

First, implement a salary deduction scheme that allows public servants to purchase used government computers for reasonable prices, with payment installments spaced over a 12 month period. Not only does this ensure that computers are accessible in the home, it also enables rapid turn-over of computing equipment in Government itself, lowering maintenance costs and helping the civil service stay efficient.

Second, incentivise local businesses to offer lower-cost computer systems by creating a tariff category for Appropriate Technology. Right now, computers are listed as luxury items, and are subject to a total markup of about 40% of the original price once VAT and import duties are added.

This has a stultifying effect on local suppliers. In some cases, it makes more sense for an expat to fly to Suva or Sydney, purchase a top of the line laptop there and fly all the way back than it does to purchase one in Port Vila.

While a lot of high-tech gear merits its luxury status (a 100,000 vatu iPhone, for example), a great deal of it does not. If the government were to drop tariffs on computer parts, for example, they’d create strong incentives for local businesses to import all the components and construct PCs locally.

Not only would this reduce the cost of finished systems for local consumers, it would also help to create a cottage industry, with additional local staff laid on to build the machines. These staff would also be exposed in much more detail to the inner workings of the machines they support. This can only lead to improved levels of service, maintenance and support.

What’s more, opportunities would be created for small-time, one-person businesses to flourish. Buying full-blown systems is beyond the means of the average would-be entrepreneur in Vanuatu, but purchasing a few hard drives, memory chips and the like is not. This means that an aspiring independent technician could set up shop for next to nothing, and offer repairs and upgrades for far less than their brick and mortar competitors in town.

Let’s go one step further with this. If we were to exempt the emerging family of so-called ‘Netbooks’ – low-power, solid state laptops with tiny screens and even tinier power requirements – we could make it possible for people with limited access to power and technical service to productively use the Internet.

Simple consumer demand could make these devices the new standard in Vanuatu, with the effect that someone could arrive from the islands with a fistful of cash and return to his village with a new information device that will make life at home much better. His children will have a crucial key to better opportunity, and he will have an important business tool. More importantly, the computer itself requires lower levels of service (no moving parts means it will stand up better to wear and tear) and if it does need to be serviced or replaced, it can be done in town without huge expense or wasted time.

Any loss of revenue related to such tariff reductions would be more than made up for by increased VAT revenues and higher employment levels in the local market.

An ‘Appropriate Technology’ class of items. Two simple criteria. And nothing required of government but to quit making it harder for local business. It’s hard to see how a step like this couldn’t help.

Technology is complicated, and in relation to other aspects of daily life in Vanuatu, it’s expensive. But its value to society is indisputable.

Without a doubt, the Government needs to develop a clear, comprehensive policy concerning use of technology within its own sphere of operation, and on the national level as well. But that will take time, and there’s much that can be done in the mean time.

The benefits of telecoms market liberalisation are undeniable, but as the Pacific Institute of Public Policy rightly pointed out in its baseline study of social effects of the opening of the mobile market, more needs to be done. Uptake for business purposes is still low. Secondary infrastructure needs work as well, and if we want to see the same growth in Internet as we’ve seen in mobile use, we’re going to have to take steps to make it possible.

Programmatic support of technology that’s proven appropriate for ni-Vanuatu is a goal that’s simple to achieve. All we have to do is put the right tools into reach, then get out of the way.

Update: Speaking about this with an economist over the weekend, we agreed that any quantitative analysis of the effects of measures like these would be near to impossible. Basically, if it works, we won’t necessarily know it. But if it doesn’t, the cost won’t be so great that we can’t feel good about having tried.

I think there’s another aspect to this too, one that shouldn’t be undersold: There’s a moral argument to be made that access to the Internet is a disruptive but ultimately necessary and positive thing. Therefore, any reasonable proposal that takes us in that direction should be tried. Ultimately, this is the most compelling reason of all for me.

More on this in my second take on the issue.