Agencies examine ICT role in economic development

A low-cost, mass-produced device that melds computer and communications capabilities is just one idea that came out of a meeting, ending last Friday, of international agencies that examined the role of information and communications technologies (ICT) in global economic development.

Representatives from the World Bank, the Division for Sustainable Development of the United Nations (U.N.) and academic and research institutions from various countries, including the U.S. National Science Foundation, held a three-day workshop in Bangalore, India, to develop an agenda for ICT research and development that would help sustain global economic and social development.

Participants at the workshop, organized by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, proposed technology, regulatory and policy requirements for ICT to help achieve the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals, according to Vallampadugai Arunachalam, a Carnegie Mellon professor and coordinator of the workshop.

The Millennium Development Goals include eradicating poverty and hunger, universal primary education, promoting gender equality, empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating disease, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development.

"We are raising the awareness about ICT and establishing a link between ICT and sustainable development," said JoAnne DiSano, director of the U.N.'s Division for Sustainable Development in New York. "Our main focus this year is on water, sanitation and human settlements, and ICT plays an immensely important role in all of that."

Among the issues addressed by the workshop is the development of technology that is affordable to people in developing economies.

The workshop also addressed creating affordable technology for people in developing economies.

The final agenda that emerged from workshop has not yet been disclosed. However, participants did explore the possibility of replacing a traditional computer for ICT applications by a standardized and mass-produced device that can serve as a combination of computer, TV, telephone and digital VCR. Carnegie Mellon has taken the initiative to develop a device of this kind, and is currently working with an undisclosed Korean company on a prototype, according to Arunachalam, who did not disclose device specifics or commercialization.

Workshop attendees discussed using open source software and hardware development to lower user costs.

"There is a need to create a global research community devoted to research and experimentation on digital divide and development issues, leading to plausible solutions to each of the problems, and making such tools and solutions readily available to the whole world through open source and other low-cost mechanisms," Arunachalam said.

"What separates developing countries from developed countries is not only a gap in resources, but a gap in technology and knowledge," said Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate and professor of economics and finance at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York.

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