Technology can ease poverty, but tech companies need to get on board

Today is Blog Action Day, an annual nonprofit event that “aims to unite the world’s bloggers, podcasters and videocasters, to post about the same issue on the same day.” Last year the theme was the environment. This year the theme is world poverty (something I could use as a snarky lift-off comment on the coming recession, but I’ll resist that this point).

The real point is that, even in a bad recession in the Western World, we will rarely really understand true poverty. Such as what it is like to have to walk 5 miles to a well to fetch water every day. Or to see most of your children die young through malnutrition. My father, now retired, was a research scientist (actually he still goes into his London university lab to say hi – he just can’t keep away from the work). All his life he has been researching a vaccine for Malaria, a disease which kills between one and three million people, the majority of whom are young children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The causes of Malaria are complex, everything from the standing water mosquitos breed in, to the mosquito carrier itself, to the massive complexity of the disease, which seems to morph at every stage of its life-cycle, making a vaccine near impossible to develop.

But it’s clear that one of the greatest weapons we have against poverty is education. If you can educate someone to use a mosquito net, you will have already improved the chances of their family surviving, thus broken the cycle of poverty which keeps every new generation from developing. And that’s where the technology industry can help. Already, the mobile phone has proved its worth in creating a sort of trading platform for African farmers and Indian fisherman to check prices at the local village markets for their produce. Mere SMS is a powerful thing. But that’s not enough. You can’t really read articles and browser the Web on a mobile, or educate children. So the efforts of Nicholas Negroponte to create a cheap laptop (under $100) for children in developing countries has been one of the great projects of our time. It’s such a pity that some people inside Microsoft and Intel appeared, according to some, to have done their best to stop it ever happening. Thankfully, that is not the official line of those organisations, and I hope they remedy their well-intentioned words with ever more action.

At TechCrunch, we generally think information is most powerful when it lives in the “Cloud”, hence the project to create a cheap cloud computer tablet for under $200. That’s not a project for children in poverty specifically, but since the whole idea is open source, the ideas could be applied anywhere.

Personally I was heartened by the Simputer project in India a few years ago. A handheld device like a mobile on an open platform. It may well be the case that Google’s Android ends up being the cheap, open operating system which could drive simple web tablets for developing countries as well as mobiles.

But for now it looks like the mobile phone is very much going to be the single most important piece of tech in developing countries going forward. You can use it to message and talk and it can be charged from a car battery. WiFi is no real use across the vast distances in Africa, and WiMax is still a pipe-dream. A few years ago the StarSight project looked like it was poised to WiFi-up Africa, though it seems not to have made much dent as yet.

Anyway, if you want to blog about poverty today, then why not register your blog and do something.


Blog Action Day 2008 Poverty from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.

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