Is ICT possible without FOSS? Reflections on the international conference on ICT (1)

For a change, the ICT conference that I’m attending (23-24 April, 2007) is one whose participants are mostly Asian academics and researchers in their respective fields. The thing that threads them is the interest in ICT as a key factor in the context of their fields of analysis.

My interest in coming to the conference (in exchange for the non-NGO friendly fee and my absence from work) was to pick up some insights from the resource persons so that I can use these in my own organization’s plan to beef up its technical and theoretical capacity on ICT for agrarian reform, rural development and democratization.

Let me list down some of my reflections about the conference:

  • In India, women are not given equal opportunities in ICT. They are by and large seen as not fit for the ICT tasks. So this has been struggled out in the country. Women are helped to set up their own ICT enterprises, whether indivually or by collectives. This made me think and ask myself: What is the gender distribution of Filipino programmers? My hypothesis is that male programmers outnumber their female counterparts. In terms of access to the Internet, my educated guess is that both males and females are equal. I also have this sense that Filipinas are more employed in the frontend (marketing, event organizing, etc.) while guys are relegated to the programming rooms.
  • ICT has played a key role in empowering women in Bangladesh. I was struck by the story of “mobile ladies” based on the Help Desk project wherein rural folks are helped by a mobile lady through queries they would like answered through the use of the mobile phone. I would have asked during the open forum why women were chosen for such role, aside from the intention to give them immediate access to employment or income. Cannot men become mobile gentlemen as well? Cannot that be the answer to the problem raised by the presenter that some men village folks are quite hesitant to discuss male-gender-related stuff with the mobile ladies. I know that the project is a positive discrimination or an affirmative action for women, particularly in Bangladesh. But I’m afraid that that project is creating a stereotype: ‘mobile organizing’ is for women only.
  • The Conference is silent on software technology at best and FOSS-averse at worst. Not one topic was given about the power of FOSS particularly in marginalized communities. Most presenters I listened to had a very minimal level of appreciation of the use of FOSS. Which makes me infer that Microsoft technologies have been adopted in their respective projects or fields. In fairness to one presenter, Noy Berja from IPD, he gave a brief case for FOSS as an alternative to proprietary software scheme that has marked government agencies. I only hoped that it stirred interests among the FOSS-naive participants.
  • One presenter from Indonesia was very effective in discussing “Learning 2.0”, which is basically the integration of Web 2.0 principles and platform in the traditional pedagogy. She argued that schools, for example, can integrate online technologies such as wikis and discussion boards. But when I asked her during the open forum about alternative copyright systems, she answered as if she knew nothing about Creative Commons, open content, etc. What she emphasized was the right of the students to their creations. She seemed to be blind to the public value of these innovations. And then, I realized, the presenter must have been an academic that has not yet been aware of the issue of content licensing. The copyright statement in her slides (“Copyright $author. All rights reserved.”) says it all.
  • ICT for senior citizens? Yes, it can help transform the ‘burden population’ into a continuing work force. I was amazed by the fact that one project in India (?) was able to help senior citizens find new jobs that were not similar to their previous ones. However, I have this observation that the project tackled ICT as only one area of intervention as even the presenter claimed that the oldies care less about the use of computers in their lives. They only use the technologies as expedients like sending emails and paying bills online. I also would have asked about the gender distribution of the project’s beneficiaries. Seemingly, there were no gender sensitivity trainings conducted among them. I think that senior citizens are not exempted from this kind of topics. I think that it’s not too late for them to learn from past gender-related mistakes and make up for them.
  • Someone from PhilRice presented his research on the effects of texting among Laguna rice farmers. This must be related to its SMS project that aims to provide rice farmers immediate access to market information. His presentation was great because it gave a voice to the farmers’ constructs about ICT. During the open forum, I raised the point that indeed the research corroborated the fact Filipinos are flexible. (Visually-impaired farmers are able to use mobile phones through the help of their kids.) But the research also says it all: That it’s not enough that people adjust to technologies; it should also be the other way around. I would have posed the challenge to both capitalist firms and the government to develop technologies that are affordable and appropriate to the context of the marginalized communities.
  • There was one presentation about North India, it’s being excluded from the development of the mainstream India. The presenter shared what has been done to bring ICT to the region. Dr. Francis Sarmiento of IOSN asked the level of adoption of FOSS in the area. She replied that there was less. Francis later argued in our conversation that FOSS should be introduced right when an intervention has been done at the outset. I agree with him. Marginalized communities could not afford to redo the negative experiences of other communities about the use of proprietary softwares.
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