FIRST AFRICAN TRIAL OF VILLAGEPDA - FISHING FOR CHEAP RURAL CONNECTIVITY

16 August 2002

Top Story

The first sub-$25 PDA is about to be "road-tested" by the fishing community of Kenya’s Lake Victoria. A partnership between Environmental Liaison Centre International (ELCI) and the PDA’s creators, MediaSolv, the trial is seeking to address issues such as over-fishing in the lake. Vasee Nesiah of MediaSolv describes what they are setting out to achieve.

 

The vast majority of livelihoods in rural Kenya rely directly on natural resources and most involved engagein unsustainable practices, with potentially dire consequences. The natural resource base is constantly under siege, an issue that must be addressed in the interest of sustainability.

 

This trial addresses the issue of unsustainable methods employed by the Luo community in the region of Lake Victoria, the second largest fresh water body in the world. The Luo’s traditional occupation is fishery. Unsustainable fishing methods together with changing demographic, economic and social trends have resulted in a myriad of environmental hazards to the lake and its inhabitants. Depletion of fish in the lake threatens the Luo community’s livelihood, placing them in danger of immenent poverty.

 

The current situation can be directly attributed to ignorance that results from the lack of opportunity to learn better practices in natural resource management. Access to information is an effective means to empower the affected community and overcome these challenges; whether it is to enlighten the community on safeguards or to gather and record vital data. An affordable and sustainable communication means that can readily disseminate information where required, is clearly essential.

 

The advent of telecommunications, information services and information technology has been slow in Kenya due to a variety of reasons. Most significant of which are high cost of communications devices and shortcomings in technology infrastructure.

 

A primary setback at the onset of projects of this nature is the overbearing expense attached to "conventional" solutions. Up until now, developed world solution developers have been obsessed with feature advancement at correspondingly steep costs. Sadly the need for cost sensitive solutions in the developing world context that address core functionality has not figured in the equation.

 

Furthermore the trend is to develop solutions that thrive on the very latest complimentary or supporting technologies such as broadband, DSL etc. In this case the solution has to be versatile enough to operate under less than "average" conditions; those encountered in rural Kenya. It has to circumvent the obvious infrastructure lapses, which are major obstacles to using "conventional" methods.

 

This project seeks to combine low cost technology with connectivity that does not rely on existing telecom infrastructure. ELCI and MediaSolv intend to overcome these shortcomings by combining MediaSolv’s VillagePDA solution with packet switched satellite connectivity where costs are directly tied to the volume of traffic in an always connected environment.

 

The VillagePDA is an "end-to-end" solution that is designed to help bridge the digital divide. This solution addresses the core communication needs of rural communities. The Internet-based VillagePDA solution is durable, easy to adopt and replicate. It is a comprehensive solution consisting of both hardware and software that can be applied modularly to suit each implementation. VillagePDA difference is in the use of low cost, purpose built devices as opposed to other high priced handheld devices or PCs. The VillagePDA solution is relatively easy to use; even by those uninitiated in current information technology.

 

The VillagePDA operates in a wireless Personal Area Network (PAN) that uses the Bluetooth standard. A single Internet connection linked to the PAN can be used by several concurrent users, thereby maximizing the utility of a single connection. The limitations posed by a handheld wireless device dictate restrictions on content that are well suited for efficient use of bandwidth.

 

In this scenario, the required Information will be repackaged to suit the VillagePDA environment and stored at remotely located central server(s) for access through the Internet. The Luo community, and the social workers of the area, will use the VillagePDA devices to wirelessly connect to the Luo database and the Internet.

 

The VillagePDA will play an important role in gathering vital information; for instance a fisherman can use the device to record their observations with regards to the environment they work in and their livelihoods. This information will be made available to researchers who can then communicate with the fisherman for further investigation and follow up. In addition to information gathering and sharing, the devices will also be used as simple messaging devices to communicate within the community as well as with the outside world.

 

The VillagePDA solution is also expected to directly contribute to the economic well being of fishermen and the community at large by helping them obtain the best possible price for their catch. The solution envisages the setting up of a simple web based auction for their catch to reduce dependence on middlemen.

 

Besides the high cost of PCs and other traditional devices, the other mitigating factor is the absence of readily available communication media. Lack of land based telephone infrastructure in this region dictates the reliance on satellite technology for connection to the Internet. Satellite connectivity know-how and equipment will be provided by INMARSAT, a global satellite operator and by XANTIC, an INMARSAT service provider. INMARSAT has offered to sponsor the satellite based Internet connectivity for this project. INMARSAT’s new packet switched services will ensure that once the pilot program is over, users will only get billed for the volume of data consumed and not on time spent online.

 

About ELCI (www.elci.org)

 

The Environment Liaison Centre International (ELCI) is located in Nairobi, Kenya. It was established in 1974 with the aim of strengthening communication and cooperation between NGOs and local communities, providing liaison between NGOs and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), helping to strengthen NGO and local community capacities in developing countries and encouraging the advisory role of NGOs through the organs of the United Nations. ELCI is an international non-governmental organization.

 

About MediaSolv (www.MediaSolv.com)

 

San Jose-based MediaSolv is a privately held corporation dedicated to pioneering the development of Web, WAP and Bluetooth applications for the Windows and UNIX environments. MediaSolv’s Internet Everywhere product line includes Messaging, Groupware, Project Management and Collaboration server suites, and a Bluetooth enabled sub-$50 PDA platform for deployment of embedded thin client applications. MediaSolv’s IP rich portfolio is complimented by a seasoned professional services team that consults designs and deploys IP based solutions. The company employs over 108 staff with offices in San Jose and Colombo.

 

*The VillagePDA (www.VillagePDA.com)

 

The VillagePDA is a derivative of MediaSolv’s commercially distributed ETHERchip & ePDA technology. The ePDA is a hand held device based on the ETHERchip platform, MediaSolv’s Bluetooth enabled, ARM7 powered, embedded LINUX based Internet application environment.