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					APPROPRIATE TECHNOLOGY WEB APPLICATIONS
1Munyaneza     S. R. and 2Pickin S.
28 ICT  Unit, Rwandan National Examinations Council, B.P. 3817, Kigali, Rwanda. E-mail:
simonrm@rnec.ac.rw
2 Dpto. de Ingeniería Telemática, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Av. Universidad 30,
28911 Leganés (Madrid), Spain. E-mail: simon.pickin@uc3m.es
Key words: appropriate technology, ICT for development, Web applications, human
development, sustainable development.
Abstract
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) play an
important part in improving human livelihood and in the last
few years their role in development has been the subject of a
good deal of attention. In this article, we explore the
application of appropriate technology concepts to ICTs, in
general, and to Web-based software, in particular. We then
discuss the implementation of the ideas developed in the
article on a case study: the design and implementation of an
Examinations Coordination and Management Information System
for the Rwandan National Examinations Council.
INTRODUCTION
In this paper we discuss the concept of appropriate technology as applied to Web
applications before presenting a concrete example involving the development of a Web
application for use in the Rwandan education system. In order to do so, we first present very
briefly the conceptual background, discussing the terms appropriate technology, human
development and sustainable development. Next, we discuss the use of ICTs for development
and the more specific use of Web applications for development before going on to present
our example application. On the way, we mention some prominent initiatives in the area of
ICTs for development and Web applications for development.
Appropriate Technology
Appropriate technology is the term given to technology that is well-suited to lowincome,
resource-poor circumstances and to the adaptation of technology to the needs of
developing countries. It refers not only to issues of cost of development, deployment and
maintenance but also to addressing the range of issues needed to obtain the acceptance of the
intended users and to incorporating ideas of environmental and social sustainability and
respect for local techniques and cultures into technological development. Exact definitions
vary due to different authors putting emphasis on different aspects. The term was first used in
the 1960s and was pioneered by Ernst Schumacher [21]. Early work put the emphasis on low
cost and small-scale but appropriate technology is now generally placed in the wider context
of sustainable human development.
*28 Author for correspondence
466
Sustainable human development
The first Human Development Report (HDR) [26] of the United Nations
Development Program (UNDP) defines human development as “a process of enlarging
people‟s choices, the most critical ones are to lead a long and healthy life, to be educated and
to enjoy a decent standard of living”. In this context, income and economic growth are seen
as a means and not an end of development. The origins of the human development ideas lie in
the 1970s, when different socio-economic indicators were proposed to palliate the
deficiencies of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita as a measure of standard of living.
The notion of Basic Needs used in earlier work was later replaced by ideas of entitlements
and capabilities. The first HDR brought together these ideas and defined a Human
Development Index (HDI), consistent with the capabilities notion, in an attempt to quantify
them.
Sustainable development, on the other hand, was defined in the Brundtland Report
[32] in 1987 as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the
ability of future generations to meet their own needs". The United Nations Conference on
Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 gave the first big boost to
sustainable development ideas, leading, among other things, to the very influential
programme of action know as Agenda 21.
Sustainable human development attempts to integrate both approaches and guarantee
a minimum level of quality of life that should not decrease in the long term. Attempts to
quantify this approach via a corresponding Sustainable Human Development Index are still
on-going.
ICTs FOR DEVELOPMENT
The beginning of the 21st century has seen a tremendous growth in interest in the
topic of ICTs for development. In the field of education, of particular interest in this article,
organisations such as the Global e-Schools and Communities Initiative [8], the African
Virtual University (AVU) [2] and the Global Virtual University (GVU) [9] and studies such
as [30], are testimony to the current interest in ICTs for development.
Many documents on this topic contain very upbeat language about how ICTs will
reduce poverty and improve quality of life throughout the world. However, while it is now
well-recognised that ICTs are an essential form of infrastructure for development and there
is evidence that they can help to reduce poverty, e.g. [22], they do not “automagically” lead
to sustainable human development. [13] pours cold water on much of the standard rhetoric,
stating that “realistic thinking about future technological impact will have to accept both
benefits and risks”, pointing out that “the assumption that effects would be equally
distributed betrays a considerable lack of historical insight”, suggesting that use of such
insight would indicate that those on the top of the social hierarchy are likely to see most of
the benefits while those lower down are likely to have to live with most of the risks. An
often-neglected risk concerns security, a crucial aspect of applications such as the mobile
banking or electronic voting applications currently being deployed in many developing
countries, the dangers of the latter having already been amply demonstrated in the U.S. itself
[14]. Other studies such as [15] and [23] also discuss the tendency for the benefits of ICTs to
accrue mainly to elite groups. [13] criticises the WSIS discourse as being overly optimistic
and devoid of context, one striking example of the latter being the “absence of references to
already-existing international agreements in domains that affect information developments”,
notably the World Telecommunications Agreement and the TRIPS agreement. The author
concludes that in the current global context “it is wishful thinking to believe that future
information societies will be inclusive, equitable, transparent and participatory
467
arrangements”. [3] also draw attention to the lack of an adequately critical perspective in the
area of ICT for development, concluding that “benefitting from ICTs requires a prior
accumulation of physical and human capital”.
The above considerations highlight the need to be cautious about the benefits of
ICTs and to tread warily in the design and implementation of ICT projects. Moreover, as
[12] states, opinions can differ as to whether a given project is successful or not, for which
reason, success should be assessed relative to some external criteria such as contribution to
the Millenium Development Goals. Learning lessons from previous experience is also of
crucial importance, for example, by studying reports such [29], [22], [18] and the WSIS
follow-up documents or, in the area of mobile communications, reports such as [31], [1] and
[11].
Another type of criticism sometimes levelled at ICT-for-development projects is that
they “put the cart before the horse”, as [23] puts it. According to this critique, development
must start with nutrition and healthcare, move on to education and literacy and then tackle
infrastructure, and in particular the infrastructure needed by ICT (electricity, telephony,
network connectivity), before ICT projects can make any contribution. However, the
interrelations between these different aspects of development are complex and experience
has shown that ICTs can be used in ways that promote human development by responding to
the needs and aspirations of individuals and institutions without necessarily fitting into this
rigid development trajectory. For example, [23] points out that “perhaps the most important
rationale for using networked technologies in rural and underdeveloped parts of the world is
that new resources can compensate for the absence of other forms of infrastructure”. He
goes on to cite the example of the use of the village information centre in India as “a
community centre, a bank, a medical centre, a public telephone booth, a public library and
educational resource centre – all at a fraction of the cost of the corresponding „real‟
institutions... the development of technological infrastructure can enable the on-going
development of social infrastructure.”
Of course, ICT-for-development projects cannot ignore the difficulties engendered
by poor infrastructure, notably with regard to electricity, telephony and network
connectivity. In another illustration that developing countries cannot wait to arrive at the
appropriate point of some fixed development trajectory, there is a „chicken and egg‟
dilemma here in that, as [23] states, social infrastructure in rural areas is unlikely to improve
until demand for these resources grows (such a dilemma is also part of the explanation for
the relatively slow deployment of fibre in the loop in developed countries). Regarding
electricity, large UPSs, circuit breakers and voltage stabilizers, and even purpose-built
earthing pits, are often needed; diesel generators can be a solution in isolated situations
though they are environmentally questionable; photovoltaic panels are cleaner but
expensive; bicycle electricity generation is clean and cheap but rather impractical.
Regarding telephony, difficulties can be circumvented using, for example, radio or
microwave transmission, direct satellite connections, etc. Regarding connectivity,
technological solutions include Wireless Local Loop, in particular use of IEEE 802.11, and
mesh networks. In this context, we mention also solutions for the distribution of software
and other types of digital content via CDs, in particular the innovative vending-machine
approach of the Freedom Toaster [7].
The current interest in mobile applications is in part a response to connectivity and
telephony issues in developing countries. There has been particular interest in SMS-based
applications, see for example [17], perhaps the most well-known being the Rapid SMS
application developed by UNICEF, see for example [16]. However, the difficulties that arise
in using SMS for emergency alerts have been pointed out in [25]. The role mobiles can play
in disaster relief is explored in detail in [10].
468
The issue of the regulatory environment is also important. [23] cites the case of
exorbitant license fees for VSATs and digital signatures and the Indian governments
obstruction of community radio – currently, only educational institutes are allowed to use it
– on grounds of national security. On this note also, the universal access fund, an important
element of the regulatory environment in many countries, has had mixed success. For
example, [18] cites the rather extreme case of an operator preferring to pay the
corresponding fine rather than fulfill their contractual obligations regarding installing
infrastructure in remote areas.
Most studies of ICT initiatives in developing countries stress an issue that is crucial
to ensuring the appropriateness of technology: the need to involve the intended beneficiaries
in the design, monitoring and evolution. [18] highlights the following: “Information systems
for farming – „e-agriculture‟ – should not be a one-way flow of information. They should be
a place where farmers and fishermen can contribute and share their own knowledge.” In
[29], the first of the lessons learned from the seventeen projects monitored is given as:
“Involve target groups in project design and monitoring”. Among other important
considerations, this section of the report states that “one of the best ways to generate local
content is to have members of local communities create it”, noting also that “if local content
is to be generated, however, ICT projects must incorporate instruction in how to apply
creative skills to content development”. In [1], the first subsection of the “lessons learned”
section is entitled “listen to users early and often”. Finally, the “summary of key findings”
section of [22] begins as follows: “Strong links between social and technical networks
emerge as highly important for the successful development of community-based ICT
initiatives that aim to improve the conditions of the poor and marginalized. These links are
most likely to be established as strong links if grown over time through gradual, localized
and organic developments, and in response to communities of users. In order to achieve this,
initiatives need to be responsive to those they seek to include and reflexive about how well
they are doing, and how they might do better.”
WEB APPLICATIONS FOR DEVELOPMENT
The Web has proved to the “killer app” for the Internet largely due to its simplicity
and its ease-of-use. It is therefore no surprise that a growing number of ICT for development
initiatives involve Web applications. The “Web for Development” (Web4Dev) series of
conferences is testimony to this growing interest [27]. The fact that in 2007, while the
metaphorical paint on the terms "participatory Web" and "Web 2.0" was still wet, the Food
and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) organised a “Participatory Web for Development”
(Web2forDev) conference [28], is further indication of this interest. However, the
presentations at these conferences have so far not contributed much to the field.
On the other hand, interesting examples of the use of the Web for development can
be found in reports from diverse organisations. For example, the Web plays a prominent part
in several B2B projects discussed in [29] notably “PEOPLink” in which groups of artisans
in several different countries were given training to build, maintain and update their own
Web catalogues of craft products, “B2Bpricenow.com”, an e-marketplace in the Philippines
that enable farmers fishermen and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to access market
prices and trade products, and “SibDev”, whose goal is to increase the capability of Siberian
SMEs to attract investments. Of particular interest in this article are educational applications
such as the Tanzania Education and Information Services Trust [24], a Web portal used to
disseminate news in the education sector in Tanzania, or SchoolNet Africa‟s pan-African
education portal the African Education Knowledge Warehouse [20]. We note also that the
Web is the key element of distance learning projects such as that of the GVU and the AVU.
469
Perhaps surprisingly, neither of these uses an open-source learning platform, that of the
former being based on Fronter Open Learning Platform and that of the latter on WebCT.
Web applications for development can take advantage of the fact that Web
technology is one of the areas in which the role of FLOSS is particularly significant. By way
of example, the Apache Web server and the Mozilla Web browser are two of the most
successful of all FLOSS projects, and those using languages popular in Web development,
such as PHP, Python, Ruby and Java, are some of the most active. The fact that the
international standards concerning Web technology published by organisations such as the
W3C and OASIS have achieved a high degree of acceptance is also an advantage for Webbased
development projects, helping to avoid “vendor lock-in” and the costs and inflexibility
associated to this phenomenon. Examples of such standards are HTML and CSS, XML and
the associated family of standards, and Web services standards.
As already mentioned in Section 2, a great deal of current ICT-for-development
efforts concern mobile technology so, naturally, there is also growing interest in the use of
Web applications on mobiles in developing countries. There is currently much optimism
about the spread of the mobile Web in developing countries, as witnessed by articles such as
[5] and by the recent creation of the W3C working group “Mobile Web for Social
Development”. Again, the role of FLOSS, e.g. Linux-based phones, and international
standards, e.g. XHTML Basic, is of some importance. However, many researchers see this
optimism as premature, at least outside of countries such as South Africa or the so-called
BRIC countries, and have strong reservations about the potential of the Mobile Web, these
reservations being related to affordability, the need for high-end phones, the high cost of
data access via cellphone networks, and ongoing problems with connectivity [4].
AN APPROPRIATE TECHNOLOGY WEB APPLICATION FOR THE RNEC
The Rwanda National Examinations Council (RNEC) needs to reach all stakeholders
who are scattered around the country taking into account the poor connectivity in terms of
telephone, Internet and communications systems. The use of an appropriate technology may
palliate some of the problems of low bandwidth, maintenance costs and ease of use.
The Rwandan National Examinations Council
The Rwanda National Examinations Council is a public institution charged with
educational assessment including preparation and conducting of examinations at primary,
ordinary and advanced levels of education.
In the assessment process, the RNEC undertakes various massive tasks of
registration of students, preparation of examinations, conducting of examinations, marks
processing and publication of results, and then orientation of successful students to the next
level of education. These tasks involve processing of large databases and message
exchanges through internal and external communications; and interaction with students,
parents or guardians, teachers, heads of institutions and district education officers through
announcements, rules and regulations governing the conduct of examinations.
The RNEC has plans to develop its ICT capability in order to deliver its services
much more efficiently and effectively. This also is necessitated by the fact that the number
of candidates increases every year, hence ICT capability to deliver and meet the long term
needs and expectations of Rwandan primary and secondary schools is essential.
The RNEC intends to develop a web based tool to enable it improve the coordination
and managements of the high-stakes public examinations processes.
470
Initial Prototype
The first version of the application was developed in the context of a dissertation
project for the Erasmus Mundus “M.Sc. in Network and e-Business Centred Computing”
offered jointly by the University of Reading, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and
the Carlos III University of Madrid [6].
Having realized the important role that free and open-source software (FOSS) can
play in sustainable development, see for example [19], it was decided that using FOSS tools
would be most suitable for developing this application. A number of options were
considered:
1. Developing a Web application from scratch, e.g. using the combination of technologies
known as LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP).
2. Developing a Web application in an open-source framework such as Ruby on Rails.
3. Developing modules for an open-source CMS such as Joomla!.
4. Developing modules for an open-source LCMS such as Moodle.
Looking at the purpose of this project and the concept of appropriate technology that
urges consideration of the local communities as the centre of the sustainable development, it
was decided that option 4 would be the best. This is because the examinations centres which
form the largest part of the examinations coordination are learning centres, so the learning
orientation of a tool such as Moodle should facilitate its deployment in these centres.
Moreover, it was felt that the use of this tool in the learning administration context may
encourage its adoption in the learning context itself.
The scope of this initial project was to design and implement part of this exam
coordination system. The modules chosen were: user authentication, posting
announcements, viewing announcements, uploading rules and regulations, downloading
rules and regulations, uploading student lists, and downloading student lists
Since this is a database driven web application, a database known as Exam_Process
has been created in the MySQL DBMS with the following tables: Centres, Documents,
Departments, Districts, Users, Exam_announcements, Reports and Studentlists.
The application must handle content that changes in the course of the examination
period. For ease of use, content is submitted to the database via HTML forms. Though the
coding style follows Moodle guidelines, the code is completely different to that of existing
Moodle module. The Moodle system does have a user authentication module but it was not
suitable for this exams coordination system in which different user profiles are needed.
So designing this application as a database-driven Web-based CMS-style application
is suitable for the appropriate technology context, since users can submit their documents
and participate in the whole process of exam coordination without any specialised
knowledge.
Extended application
An application including the following modules will be developed by a private
company.
Registration of candidates, publication of results and SMS communication system. The
objective of this module is to build a highly-secure online Results Information System (RIS)
that will be used to provide primary and secondary school leaving candidates with online
access to their exam results in the RNEC databases, either on their cell phones via SMS or
via the Web, using specific student codes such as registration numbers or other pin numbers.
The RIS will also provide other services such as on-line registration and registration
verification via SMS. Queries should be made directly to the database through a web
interface. Information retrieved from the website should also be available for downloading.
471
There is also a need to implement a database within RNEC that will enable the
collection of statistics on the traffic and usage of the SMS and Internet system. This is also
important for SMS service provider monitoring. The RIS should have the ability to create
historical trend reports (annual reports on primary and secondary schools examination
results) using the electronically stored data, for use in planning and reporting on the
activities of the sector.
The successful firm will conduct system requirements analysis, design, development,
deployment, testing and also provide a clear maintenance plan of the system, comprising
both client and server system components, as well as train the RNEC staff in its use. The
firm will implement a central database and server software for storage and retrieval of
examination results information. This information would be correlated and aggregated in the
manner required by RNEC. The firm will build the website that will be used to publish
examination results and student registration details and additional promotional information
about the System including basic information about RNEC. The firm will provide built-in
reporting mechanisms to support statistical analysis of examination results data. Data
collected should be summarized and made available through the website and other media
formats (Tables, Graphic Charts, PDF, Spread sheets, GIS Maps, etc).
Selection process. This module would enable the RNEC to gather important statistics as
indicated below; schools or institutions are expected to submit these vacancies online into
the RNEC server: number of places available at Ordinary and Advanced secondary school
levels and at the University level; number of places available at A level by option for
candidates completing O level. A very high degree of security and privacy is required
Examiners tracking system. This module would cover the following items using online
interfaces that are well designed making use of appropriate technology concepts: registration
of examiners, giving their personal details; the exams an examiner sets and the exams he/she
marks; the examiner/teacher‟s qualifications; the class a teacher teaches:- A-level, O-level
or primary level and the subject that he/she teaches; team leader‟s comments A very high
degree of security and privacy is required.
School performance. The RNEC would like to track the results and examine the
performance of schools. This system should be able to generate statistical data on
performance of each school.
CONCLUSION
In the last few years, ICTs for development has been the subject of a great deal of
attention and evidence is accumulating that ICTs can contribute to development and
poverty-reduction in developing countries. However, ICT for development projects need to
be wary of a generalised tendency towards excessive optimism in this regard, particularly
since such optimism is often stoked by organisations for whom the objective of sustainable
human development is peripheral at best. Attempting to ensure that the technology to be
used is appropriate is an often neglected question, it being recognised that the involvement
of the intended beneficiaries in all stages of the project is important to achieving this.
Web applications have an important place in ICTs for development, though there are
a range of factors that should be taken into account when designing such applications for
resource-poor environments, such as low Internet connectivity rates, low processing power,
lack of technical skills of the user communities and aspects related to local cultures. During
design and implementation, it must always be borne in mind that keeping the costs of
acquisition, installation/configuration, maintenance and operation very low is of paramount
472
importance, and that simplicity accelerates development and eases maintenance.
Encouraging community acceptance and adoption of Web applications calls for initiatives to
make such applications more broadly useful to users in their daily activities. To this end, we
claim that a path-based incremental development approach, in which users are involved in
evaluating each increment, is a good approach for appropriate technology Web applications.
Acknowledgments
The authors would like to thank the RNEC for their cooperation and the EU
“Erasmus Mundus” programme for financing the collaboration reported on here in the
context of the “M.Sc. in Network and e-Business Centred Computing” [6].
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