G@ID conference: "UN Meets Silicon Valley"
Mountain View, California. Febrary 28, 2007
The core group of G@ID had met the day before I walked in late to the Silicon Valley meeting of the UN's Global Alliance for ICT and Development at the Computer History Museum. There were over 300 people in the audience, a couple of dozen using laptops and a decent wireless network (unlike the overloaded one at the emerging telephony conference the day before). Several tables were laden with hefty publications, CD's, and brochures for a myriad of upcoming ICT fests in Asia and Italy. G@ID seemed to have most of the large paperback titles, but IDRC/Microsoft had the most lavish: a specially boxed book and optical disc on their telecenter projects. On first glance I thought it might contain some wonderful Belgian chocolate, a Hermes scarf, or a new low cost computer for the masses. That was to come later.
There were giveaways other than material to read on the plane ride home. The Malaysians had a big supply of attractive leather card holders, cloissonee pins, and a brochure on the 16th World Congress on Information Technology May 2008, not to be confused with the December 2007, meeting of the Global Knowledge Partnership, also in Kuala Lumpur. The May meeting includes a golf tournament, a motor sports event, a program for spouses, a Batik fashion show, and something to do with IT. Because it's an industry show most of the brochure was about sponsorship. The "Pinnacle" package offers a 30 minute dinner address or prime time keynote for $1 M U.S. Down the chain are the other sponsor packages: diamond, global impact, platinum, gold, silver, bronze...lead, deplete uranium... Well, let's stop at bronze "one 60 sec.lunch commercial" for $50 K.
The events of our day were devoid of outright such commercial infomercials. It consisted of panels, short talks, plugs for different ICT projects and inspiring anecdotes. I find it hard to sit and listen to panels, but each speaker aside from his or her promotion of ta project or point of view did allude to barriers and problems that needed to be addressed. Jim Fruchterman of the Benetech Initiative spoke about some of the intellectual property constraints, a whole session on the lack of local content, Lynn St. Amour of the Internet Society on serious Internet plumbing challenges, and ex-Intel CEO Craig Barrett (who heads G@ID) on how to put all the discussions of the day into action. He had a pretty good wrap-up session and had quickly digested some of the main issues of the day.
The program is here, and the organizers have indicated that the presentations will be online later.
The real value was the space between the panels: a couple of 20 minute breaks, 90 minutes for lunch and then a wine/cheese event in the museum afterwards. Everyone wanted to continue talking even as the ushers lowered the voltage on the cattle prods to get us back into the auditorium. For me it was a mix of seeing people from the years before I went offline in 2004 to chance meetings with people I knew little about: a Haitian setting up phone service for Haitian ex-pats, the publisher of a rather nice print magazine ICT4D (India), the head of Boliviamall.com, the fellow who runs Commonwealth of Learning out of Vancouver, several Digital Vision scholars from Stanford from Brazil and South Africa, and the head of Geekcorps which is doing some cool projects in Africa with USAID money. Si vous lisez le Français, Moulin est très intéressant.
Intel had a table set up to show the Classmate PC. It is already in production, and is (carefully) being marketed through certain channels to avoid cannibalizing other Intel products in developing countries. It's aimed at grades 5-10 (and for kids with rather good eyesight). Built-in wireless and a digital pen to use with a little sketch/writing program. I found the keypad small for QWERTY typists, but it's probably okay for fifth graders. It runs either Microsoft or Linux and can last 4 hours without external power. As the brochure says, "full compatability with standard PC ecosystem." Price is in the$300 range (depending on the country).
I said that in poor countries or any place with security problems for goods worth stealing it might be a challenge for a student or her family to adequately protect the device. The Intel representative said that the school (or ministry of education) can set an electronic certificate for time to expire if the computer is not connected to the school internal network. That means that if the Internet is down or service has been cut for financial reasons, the school can still allow the PC to function. It could be set to run a day or a month before shutting down. While I did not have time to play with it more than a few minutes the publicity indicates the designers have scenarios for teacher-student collaboration as well as teacher-parent communications tools. On the back are contact addresses in Brazil, India, and Mexico. I now understand by Nicholas Negroponte and his XO computer project will not be part of G@ID efforts in the education market.
I am convinced that using Open Space to plan a good part of any future conference would please the participants more than the standard panel with moderator, but might not meet the goals of the sponsors and conveners (Intel/UN). Perhaps having an anchor speech and one workshop pre-arranged before the event and then letting the attendees plan the rest would be a good compromise. People want to talk to each other and not just sit and listen. In most cases the audience has more combined ideas and experience than those selected to be on stage. It certainly has been the case when I have given talks in the past.