A new world for the taking

Published March 1, 2014
File photo
File photo

ACCORDING to Pakistan Digital Consumer Survey for 2013, conducted on behalf of Google, internet usage from mobile telephones would surpass that of desktop computer during the current year.

The conspicuous and pervasive presence of the mobile is quite evident. With a continual decline in prices, availability of greater features in individual sets and new low-cost entrants; a person without a mobile, or access to the internet, would be an oddity.

This trend intrinsically is a healthy one; providing access to a vast majority both nationally and globally. Yet, there remains a significant gap in terms of its application. Currently, by far the leading categories consist of the social media, entertainment and information – approximately constituting 75 per cent of the usage.

In a country where there is a huge gap in public provision of basic services including education and health, in addition to a dire need for incentivising the economy, the availability of this reach needs to be leveraged through innovative solutions.

Let’s briefly discuss the example of health. Apart from the provision of primary healthcare in rural areas could the delivery of more sophisticated services be provided through virtual health units? Through creating linkages to key urban healthcare providers, a lot of diagnostic and referral needs could be addressed. Similar services, in an urban setting, could be developed focused towards homecare.

This would allow additional capacity for the limited number of healthcare providers who are under immense pressure.

Similarly, there are numerous applications for the agriculture sector. Weather updates, specific crop information, planting and related advisory services through creation of requisite linkages with experts can be provided to individual farmers.

Access to prevailing market prices to the farmer would eliminate the role of the middleman and reduce arbitrage costs for the farmers.

Education, a key determinant of any country’s developmental format, could truly be revolutionised. In a country with a population of approximately 200 million, half of the population falls in the below-20 years of age category. This creates a huge challenge in an educational context.

Catering to influx conventionally would need: one million trained instructors based on student ratio of one to ten; one school building for every thousand students; petrol spent on transportation for which we do not have the resources; paper for each child’s textbooks and note books; printing costs of these books for each individual student – a rather improbable task based on cost and resource constraints.

Conversely, if we were to address this challenge through innovative e-learning, we could not only successfully deal with it but also visibly provide impetus to the economy.

For instance, if we were to adopt and digitalise books, it would allow for them to be interactive and created locally.

A significant majority of teachers do not have the capabilities; retraining is a challenge, instead we could augment their skills through technology.

This e-learning model has been successfully implemented in countries around the world, both for primary and higher education.

Leading universities including Harvard, Columbia and Stanford have successfully rolled out these, technology-driven models. In Pakistan things are at a nascent stage, with the exception of a few thoughtful initiatives. Some teacher training modules have been developed by a leading mobile communication firm.

The Harvard model has been replicated by NUST (National University of Science and Technology) for higher learning.

Despite these laudable initiatives much needs to be done. It is the job of the government to identify, target and create appropriate opportunities, apart from providing a regulatory framework.

Interestingly, if the government is unwilling to take on this role there are commercial prospects for private entrepreneurial programmes. The delivery of these services, connectivity and applications (software) areas offer significant scope for commercial and social enterprises.

We possess the technology, access and reach; it is for us now to decide how we leverage this into tangible efforts to address our social and economic gaps.

The role of the public sector is critical. If ‘remotely’ the same amount of effort, entailed in regulating and blocking internet access, was applied towards harnessing its potential we would be far ahead of the game.

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