Tech Frontliners: Bangladesh's Traveling Infoladies

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 7/08/2014 01:30:00 AM
Screening instructional videos is one of their tasks.
Your feelgood story of the day comes courtesy of Bangladesh's social entrepreneurs known as the "infoladies." Like vast swathes of the developing world, many parts of Bangladesh do not have Internet connections or other things many in the developed world take for granted. However, this does not mean that ICT are not helpful for purposes such as viewing world prices of crops on world markets when deciding what to plant, talking to relatives working abroad as migrant workers, accessing medical information and so forth. What are the needs technologically met by the infoladies? Businessweek has a neat photo essay on this matter:
Only 5 million of Bangladesh’s 152 million citizens have regular Internet access. Three-quarters live in rural villages. The Infoladies, a group of about 50 women in their early 20s, travel through the countryside equipped with a laptop computer, a tablet, a smartphone, a digital camera, and a glucometer ministering to the technologically impoverished.
The traveling infoladies have become more plentiful from their start as participants in a social entrepreneurship program. Nowadays they move around via bicycle in rural Bangladesh after ICT training to help those who do not have regular telecoms access:
They receive specialised training and necessary equipment, and then travel to remote areas by bicycle to personally connect villagers to information and resources the underprivileged need. As many as 24 such info ladies are now working in different villages of Gaibandha, Noakhali and Satkhira districts.

The info lady solution evolved from the original 'Mobile Lady' concept developed by D.Net (Development Research Network) Bangladesh, a non-profit research organisation that champions the use of ICT for the economic development of Bangladesh. Mobile ladies were providing services through cellphones.
The original "mobile lady" concept has since been expanded to a gamut of ICT-related services. The traveling person becomes a "telecenter" in one:
From the key learning from the mobile lady idea, D.Net found some limitations of mobile phone-based services. The technological innovations, like laptop device, helped D.Net find that if a bundle of services are integrated with the mobile lady, she will become a “telecentre” herself. Any one can become an info person, but women are encouraged as they enjoy more privilege than men for entering a house.

Manusher Jonno Foundation, a nongovernmental organisation, has funded the D.Net's Info Lady project. The foundation is an initiative to promote human rights and good governance in Bangladesh. The village information workers, 'mobile ladies', were renamed 'info ladies'. An info lady possesses a laptop or classmate computer, internet modem, headphone, webcam, digital camera, photo printer and a mobile phone for giving the entire livelihood information services at a cheaper rate, and fast.
Help line service, commercial phone service, photography service, livelihood information and knowledge service, international and local voice call service, video and animation service, and internet-based information service are among the services provided by an info lady.
As a practical sort, I wonder why science fiction-inspired schemes by Facebook and Google to use balloons or drones to beam Internet connections gain so much press attention when (a) they do not yet exist and (b) lack realism. Instead of fantasizing about all sorts of gee-whiz ways to connect the world, the traveling infoladies are a much better example to study since (a) they have successfully plied their trade for a number of years now and (b) they would not have been successful if they did not offer services others find useful at a reasonable cost. The transport solution is nothing fancier than a bicycle, but it's proven effective so far.

Attention Facebook and Google: instead of keeping your heads in the cloud (servers?), keep yourselves firmly planted on the ground where the real information dissemination will happen. Bangladesh's infoladies certainly do.