Leveraging the Web to Overcome Challenges in the Developing World

Jul 05, 2012

Despite the ubiquity of technology and the widespread availability of the mobile web, there are many places in the world where information critical to survival isn't available in a way that's relevant to those who need it. But it doesn't have to be that way. All that's needed is an understanding of the actual problems in need of solving.

Many of the world's more pressing problems (violence, crime, war, hunger, disease) are intrinsically related to the availability of two things: clean drinking water and information. The web can -- and should -- play a role in helping provide both of these things.

According to the World Health Organization, almost a billion people live without access to clean drinking water. The crisis is most noticeable in nations in sub-Saharan Africa, where women spend more time collecting water than any other daily activity. The water they collect isn't clean. It's contaminated with germs that cause diarrheal diseases. When left untreated these diseases cause severe dehydration and lead to the death of 2,000 children per day in Africa, 6,000 worldwide. Over 1.5 million people every year worldwide).

Non-profit organizations like WaterAid America collect funds to provide safe water and effective sanitation and hygiene education to people who need it in Africa, Central America and Asia. Each new well drilled as a result of these efforts provides potable water to hundreds of villagers, drastically improving the health and well-being of the citizens. These solutions bring clean water much closer to the people who need it, providing them with more time each day to perform other tasks, like starting a business or developing other ways to improve their welfare.

The folks at non-profit charity:water say that safe water projects could save Africa alone a whopping 40 billion hours of productivity annually (that's the total amount of hours worked by all the people in France each year). If a water project is built near a school, they say, it can increase attendance, especially among young girls.

The benefits of clean water are many, and while great strides are being made by non-governmental agencies (NGOs) to get wells drilled in communities that need them, water wells also need to be maintained and repaired. After several years, it's not unusual for wells deep inside places like Uganda to experience mechanical problems. Unfortunately, once a well breaks, there might not be anyone in -- or near -- the village who knows how to fix it.

"Decades of ineffectual aid projects have proven that installing infrastructure without providing the tools, training, and documentation for long term maintenance is futile," says Kyle Wiens, co-founder of software maker Dozuki and creator of iFixit.com, the largest free repair manual on the web.

Wiens is working to figure out how to best deliver information locals need to repair broken water pumps. He and his crew at iFixit have worked up a proof-of-concept of a visually-rich, simple-to-understand set of repair manuals that could be accessed by NGOs on the ground in affected areas. Because individual citizens likely don't have access to a smartphone or tablet device, the NGOs could access the content on the web and make it available to locals in print.

All of that work could be for naught, says Val Swisher, CEO of Content Rules, a Silicon Valley content strategy firm that is currently working on a project with Wikipedia WikiProject Medicine, Translators without Borders, and mobile carrier, Orange to translate and localize healthcare articles into native African languages.

"Here's what we know. You can't just publish information in English and expect people around the world to understand it," Swisher says. "The mistaken belief that everyone on the continent of Africa speaks either French of English or Portuguese is incorrect and has significantly damaged the effectiveness of education, disaster relief, and other non-profit programs. It's not just an inconvenience, it's often a matter of life and death."

"Unfortunately, NGOs in Africa are not as good at providing localized content as we wish they were," Swisher says. "That's why they need our help."

It's clear that sustained access to clean drinking water provides myriad benefits to those in regions where water is available, but the management of its treatment and delivery is challenging. The web has a critical role to play in getting the right information to the right people at the right time in the right format and language. In the case of providing life-saving information to those who need it, the web has no equal.

However, the web isn't always enough. To leverage the immense power of the connections it makes possible, we need to work together to find solutions that work for everyone, wherever they may be, whatever language they may speak. This will mean admitting that solutions that work well in the developed world won't be a good fit in less developed nations. Sometimes, it may be necessary to resort to old school methods of content delivery, assisted by computer technology.

Finally, it means that we must realize that some of our assumptions about the dominance of our culture and our language is incorrect. Not everyone speaks, reads, and comprehends English well enough for us to ignore the importance of localization and translation of content -- especially when we are using donated money to fund emergency relief or education efforts.

It's time we took a step back from the drawing board and saw the web for what it truly is -- one tool in a tool chest, not a magic wand.