“The World is Flat”

You all know that the world is flat. If you don’t, you need to read Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World Is Flat.” Basically he says that cheap communication (i.e. the Internet) has “flattened” the world; barriers of space, geography and culture are becoming irrelevant because of the ease of communication.

So the world is flat. But what does that matter to a Kenyan farmer? To someone making $1 a day, even a $400 computer is far beyond feasibility. And that’s not even considering the lack of electricity and computer knowledge which seem as endemic as malaria.

If you’re a computer nerd (or you know any), you will know they’ve been talking about ‘thin clients’ for about forever. We nerds have long dreamed of getting access to computer horsepower far beyond what we could afford using a “thin,” cheap computer whose only purpose was connecting to a big, powerful one, one where all the real work was done and big data was stored. But computers got so cheap so fast that this never really worked out. Cheap, at least, for the developed world.

However, there are billions for which a computer is completely inaccessible. Even the $1 per hour for computer use is unreasonable. Enter: cell phone. It’s the thin-client that we nerds have been yearning for. And the internet is just now getting mature enough to simultaneously handle the big tasks and to present it to the kinds of processors found on cell phones. So what do we have? We’ll have, within a decade, poor people across the world accessing the fullness of the internet.

Who should care? Everybody. Do you have something to sell? You’ll have a billion customers within a decade who have phones, internet access, and the ability to send money over phone networks (in Kenya, it’s called M-PESA and you use local businesses as ATMs; you can deposit and withdraw money from your phone at almost any shop or stand). Do you want to distribute Bibles? For the cost of a few Bibles, you could give a person access to the Bible in every language and every piece of Christian scholarship ever written. Do you want to communicate your message? There is an entire generation of the poor that will soon discover it can read whatever ideas that interest them, be they democratic, communistic, consumerist, atheistic, Christian, Muslim, patriotic, or racist. A billion potential readers. A billion sets of eyeballs. A billion wallets. A billion hearts. Gutenberg’s printing press gave millions access to the printed word within a century of its invention. The cell phone will reach exceedingly more people in its second decade than the printing press did in a century.

So where does Nuru fit in? How are we positioning ourselves in this revolution? We are planning to accelerate it. We want our people to be on this cutting edge. We have purchased and will soon be issuing internet-enabled cell phones to all our staff within a few weeks. We’ll teach them the basics of how to use the phones to communicate, how to use email, and how to use the internet. And then, we’ll use some of the newly matured internet tools to do Nuru stuff better.

Google Forms provides an incredible platform for collecting data. We can design forms, send out the relevant URL, and then get people to submit data by phone and have it compiled onto a safe, secure, shared server in San Jose . That means that all of our operation can, with a few thousand dollars of phones, become completely digital. No more paper attendance forms. No more written ledgers recording contributions to savings accounts. No more survey sheets. No more lost home visit forms. No more paper. All digital.

But this won’t just let us do what we used to do better. It will let us do what’s never been done before. Do we need to make an announcement to all 60 Nuru staff members? Now we just need to send out an email. What about taking a staff-wide vote on a course of action? It’s as simple as emailing out a Google Form.

I talked before about the Disease Intelligence Network, a system for monitoring and rapidly responding to outbreaks. But now it’s actually possible. We can do continuous surveillance (i.e. taking temperatures), uploading this data to a server as it is collected. The instant certain conditions are met (e.g. fever prevalence >10%), we can have the computer alert the healthcare team of an outbreak of disease.

There is a multitude of other things that we can do but don’t realize we can do. An entire universe of possibilities will open up in three weeks. I just need to keep my head on straight and make sure we master the basics first.

About David Carreon

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