Tech That Helps the World

Lee Felsenstein‘s session on what he terms fair trade technology and technology that helps the world had shamefully low attendance given the subject matter. Indeed this was unusual given the ordinarily optimistic and near-utopian vibe of ETech, however the poor attendance may be due in part to poor schduling at the close of the conference when many delegates are leaving the venue.

Nevertheless, Felsenstein’s session was a great introduction to the altruistic work of the Fonly Institute and their work in the Third World. Felsenstein opened by profiling Phon Kom, a community in Laos that is unable to feed itself reliably, yet high social cohesion has enabled themselves to raise taxes, improve schooling, relocate from the Plain of Jars and improve employment prospects. However, Phon Kom’s rural economy s struggling against the forces of globalisation as free-trade agreements and markups by middlemen and retailers in the developed world are not passed to the villagers, who are becoming increasingly disconnected from their traditional culture, buffeted by crime and political instability.

Phon Kom expatriates led a former US serviceman and the Jhai Foundation to understand what could help the villagers compete in a global market place.

Felsenstein draws an interesting parallel between Free Trade and Fair Trade; where the former applys the rule of the strongest with no regard to non-economic consequences, agricultural issues, the latter takes human interactions into account, promoting a sustainable agricultural market where the farmer is a participant in the market economy, not simply accepting of given prices. This requires that farmers have access to market information.

Felsenstein went on to articulate some principles for Fair Trade Technologies:

  • Migration by neccessity rather than opportunity is destabilising to society
  • Neccessary changes include:
    • Improvement of rural ncomes
    • Reduction of cultural isolation
    • Improvement of opportunities for the young
  • Telecoms are essential factor
  • Enabling technologies include embedded processors, open source software, VoIP and WiFi

Felsenstein describes the increasing marginalisation of rural communities across the globe as an gradually destabilising factor for modern society. Historically, as human agriculture created food surplusses, cities became possible and indeed became cultural commons as rural communities become increasingly culturally marginalised despite feeding urban centres. As culture begins migrating to electronic media, rural people can potentially find some equity.

In the village of El Limon, within the Dominican Republic, there are 20-100 homes suffering endemic poverty, with no telecommunications and very limited electricity and road networks. However, the village has line-of-sight to a small town with a population of 100’000 equipped with DSL access. In 1998, Fonly constructed a wireless link between the town and El Limon.

Like Phon Kom, the residents of El Limon have high social cohesion and taking responsibility for their own future, are collaborating to effect social change, notably by articulating their requirements for telecommunication:

  • Education
  • Friends – all over the spanish speaking world! give them equal foorting and language skills acquired through chat
  • Family
  • Healthcare
  • Economic development

Felsenstein described this cohesion and the fulfillment of these needs as cultural justice and also that the most important lessons learned in equipping rural communities are to build on existing technologies and social structures and listening to the needs of the community.

In the region around El Limon, Fonly has helped build out an infrastructure using lower power PCs, generic wifi and inter-village VoIP and PSTN services for El Limon, Los Martinez, Los Ranchos and Las Caobas – serving a population of around 1000 rural residents.

Though successful, the infrastructure does require a technical and financial support base, self-configuring networks, a prepay phone system (perhaps based on Asterisk) and of course more computers. More generally, Felsenstein’s loose system requirements for rural services to date are:

  • Village-based systems, capable of operation & maintenance by children (they are usually the only ones with time)
  • Telcos – local & internet-capable
  • 10 year longevity
  • Localised software
  • Web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets & printing

The Jhai Foundation’s reference plaform, as used in Phon Kom, consists of 802.11b networks that link villages, data and VoIP services to the internet and links to the PSTN with OpenH323, POTS calls and PABX functionality.

Felsenstein sees expatatriate disporas as crucial to distribution as they can aggregate the cost of the village system, they know the culture, the village and the players, they are willing to maintain contact and can provide commercial opportunities.

The prospects for Fonly and Felsenstein’s work are promising, with a potential market of 100s of millions, if not billions, of customers – if costs can be kept low. There is an industry in formation around rural telecommunication, based on open source software and commodity hardware that could provide many global benefits, including direct economic benefits to participants on all sides.

For Wanadoo’s TR team, it may represent an opportunity to apply the research from Project Mosaic, a low cost domestic computing+communication appliance, to a economically and socially just cause.

You can download the full text of Felsenstein’s speech here…

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  1. I must point out that Fonly Institute was not in existence at the time Jon Katz created the El Limon system in 1998. I heard aboout Jon’s system in 2001 and it helped inspire me to conceptualize the Jhai system in Phon Kham, Laos.
    I invited Jon Katz to be part of my presentation at Emerging Tech, and he gave a great 10-minute presentation which signifiacnly helped mine. I want to make it clear that Fonly and I deserve no credit for his work.
    At the moment I am working to create a portal for “Fair Trade Technologies” which can serve as an information commons for everyone interested in participating in this new industry. Watch for it coming soon.


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