Computing for Global Development

Oct 2009 issue of the SIGCOMM CCR has an editorial by Kentaro Toyama and me where we ask the question if technologies for developing regions be considered a core area of computer science research? It is relatively easy to argue that technology can help improve the lives of the poorest billion people on the planet. But, is it research? More specifically, is it computer science research? This editorial stems out of our discussions at the CCC Workshop on Global Development. Keshav asked us to merge our, somewhat opposing, views into an editorial. You can read it here. In this post, I will give a summary of the Workshop on Global Development:

CCC Workshop on Global Development:

IMG_0147 The Workshop on Global Development was held at the Claremont, Berkeley. Thanks to the CCC funding, we were able to fly 40+ participants and cover all their expenses. Although I was one of the organizers, the views presented here are mine and not of the participants or sponsors.

Digital technologies have done wonders for mankind. However, benefits of digital technologies (e.g., the Internet) are often limited to the “first world”, leading to the so-called “digital divide”. People in developing regions get access to a decreasing share of digital resources, which are critical for socio-economic development in the 21st century.

The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in the application of digital technologies to address problems in global development. Eric Brewer’s TIER group at Berkeley is one example. However, this area has not (yet) gained acceptance as core computer science research. There are many reasons for this and the CCR editorial talks about them in detail.

The purpose of the CCC workshop was to bring together lead researchers in the area, along with experts in more established areas, and have a frank discussion about the future of developing regions research. This was a true workshop in the sense that unlike a “mini-conference” there were no PowerPoint presentations. The participants came with a vague idea of what their thoughts were and, after some intense discussion, left with a deeper understanding of the problem and possible solutions. We had to feel the pulse of the audience and adapt the workshop agenda on-the-fly. This was truly exciting.

Highlights of Day 1:
Panel on Technical vs. Non-Technical: Eric Brewer (Berkeley), Kentaro Toyama (Microsoft Research), Tapan Parikh (Berkeley), Bhaskar Raman (ITT-Bombay) went over the “Is ICTD a technical or a non-technical field”. There is a combination of some hard technical problems and some application of existing technologies in new ways. Computer scientists won’t get interested unless the problems are technically hard. The challenge is to either find problems that are both technically hard and can have a real impact or find innovative use of existing technologies that solves problems at large scale i.e., for millions of poor people.

Panel on Starting New Research Areas:
Before more researchers get interested in the area and a plethora of research material is published, we need to step back and learn from history. Deborah Estrin (UCLA), Randy Katz (Berkeley), Gaetano Borriello (Univ. of Washington), and Rakesh Agrawal (Microsoft Research) gave their insights on starting a new field. Deborah talked about her early experiences with sensor networks, Gaetano’s commented on the early days of pervasive computing, Rakesh on data mining and Randy talked about the opportunities and problems facing new fields in general. Food for thought: what is the use of X amount of papers published that all solve a problem Y, which will never actually occur in real life? Ever. I have purposely left out specific views of the panelists from this post. Some information is available from the workshop summary and proceedings, but we decided not to make the workshop minutes public. Feel free to contact me in private, if you want more information.

Keynote – Anil Gupta (Honey Bee Network):
Most of the afternoon was spent on discussing issues like branding, publication venues, funding, and education. And then Anil Gupta gave a very interesting keynote. He showed specific examples of innovation in developing regions, where poor people have engineered technology in various ways to solve their everyday problems. This shows that a) technology, specifically designed for their needs, can help their daily lives and b) people in the developing regions should not only be consumers of such research/products, but can actively participate as innovators themselves. Watch this Discovery Channel video about Honey Bee Network to get an idea of what Anil was talking about:

I must admit that at the end of the first day, everything was unclear. We raised more questions than answers and it was not clear what direction this research community will take. Or if this research community even exists in the first place.

Highlights of Day 2:
We started the day with presenting specific problems in networks/systems, HCI, AI, applications, and software engineering that the participants thought were important problems in the area. This helped to set some “grand challenges” for each sub-area. Frankly, I think most of them were examples of good individual projects instead of “grand challenges”. Nevertheless it helped the participants to get a feel of what research direction each sub-area may take.


Panel on Technology Transfer:
We had a panel on technology transfer with Nathan Eagle (MIT), Umar Saif (LUMS), Jonathan Jackson (Dimagi), and Vijay Chandru (Strandls). Vijay was behind the famous Indian Simputer project and talked about how they went about commercializing the Simputer and what lessons they learned (the image of the left is Vijay holding a Simputer). Umar talked about a startup that provides citizen journalism and another one that is like a SMS-Twitter for Pakistan. He described how these services have helped in disaster situations or how they are providing means for disseminating information in a place where there are often restrictions on the freedom of media. Jonathan talked about the ups and downs of providing healthcare technology solutions in Africa.

New SIG/Conference:
A turning point in the workshop was when Bill Thies presented a proposal for a new ACM SIG. There was unanimous support for forming such a SIG and everyone agreed with the goals and purpose of the SIG. Suddenly, there was a sense of community building. The area now had a name (sort-of) and a SIG to associate with. If developing regions research becomes part of main stream computer science in the coming decades, this exact moment was it’s birth in a way. We went on to discuss the specifics of publication venues (conferences and journals). I don’t want to disclose information about what exactly is happening, but it will be public soon.

Closing & Acknowledgments:
In the closing comments someone emphasized that “let’s not forget that we are all here because we want to touch human lives in someway. What we are doing in the end boils down to the direct impact on the underprivileged. This is the single most important and unique aspect of this area of research.” This thought stuck with me after the event.

I’d like to thank Tapan Parikh (Berkeley), Lakshmi Subramanian (NYU), and Bill Thies (Microsoft Research) for doing all the work. I merely helped in a few tasks here and there.