• Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Digital villages for digital Bangladesh

Dr. M. Lutfar Rahman
Source: stock
Source: stock

Present age is often referred to as information age and the society is called information society. The key to information age and information society is the use of digital technology, that is, information and communication technology (ICT), to the needs of the society. ICT plays the most significant role in changing, updating and advancing the present society. The effect of ICT is so significant that the world is now considered as a global village.
In Bangladesh, we put special emphasis on the use of digital technologies for improvement of our activities with a goal to realize Vision 2021, which we dearly call Digital Bangladesh. By 2021, after 50 years of independence, we are determined to be a middle-income country with peace, prosperity and dignity. Government of Bangladesh implemented a large number of applications based on digital technologies and a great number of projects are under realization. The vast majority of population of the country lives in thousands of villages. Our picturesque villages are green with tranquility and scenic beauty. But they are mostly out of proper coverage of modern digital technology. In the circumstances, how can we realize Digital Bangladesh that is a middle-income country, without digital villages? This article presents the dream of digital villages for realization of Digital Bangladesh.
Digital Lifestyle
In recent time, we use numerous devices and have become dependent on countless digital devices for administration, education, industries, communication, transport, business, medicine, agriculture etc. Such devices are the results of tremendous advances of digital technology in the recent past. Society is greatly influenced by ICT and the Internet, which are the results of digital technology. Web, Facebook, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Smart phone, mobile apps etc have become common words even for general people. Internet and smart phones have such overwhelming influence that modern life can not be imagined without them. Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, YouTube, etc are very common. People of the world are connected by smart devices, technology and networking to such an extent that a nation can not function without acquiring and using such devices, ideas, and applications.
We may just consider the great influence of two technologies and their impact on the society. They are the Internet and mobile phones, especially smart phones. Government, administration, business, education, industry can not work properly without such technologies. Almost all the people of the world, developed and under-developed, are committed to the Internet, which is the most effective means of communication for our activities. About 30% of Bangladeshis are now users of the Internet mostly through mobile phones. This has been possible with the phenomenal expansion of mobile phones in Bangladesh. This has become even more import with introduction of 3G mobile technology and ongoing rapid expansion of smart phones in the country. However, access to the Internet for information for the vast majority of the villagers of Bangladesh is yet to be achieved.  
With about 700 crore users of mobile SIMs, mobile phones have become the most popular and most essential medium of communication in the world. The corresponding figure in Bangladesh now is over 11 crore covering nearly all the people, and the figures are growing at the rate of about 10% per year. Mobile applications, popularly known as mobile apps or simply apps, have become very popular all over the world. According to statistics, 120 crore people of the world used mobile applications in 2012 and this figure is increasing at the rate of nearly 30% per year. With the increasing use of smart phones, importance and use of mobile apps are increasing fast. This is because of rapid expansion of the use of the Internet through the mobile phones. Development of mobile apps could be an important source of foreign currency for Bangladesh and this has opened the door of enormous opportunity for Bangladesh with a big percentage of young population.
Digital Technology in Use
Digital Bangladesh with Vision 2021 is a big impetus for the use of digital technology in Bangladesh. In spite of several bottlenecks and limitations, works are in progress for the realization of Digital Bangladesh. Several projects have been completed and a big number of projects are under progress. Already people have started to enjoy the fruits of digitization. The ultimate objective is to make all possible services available to the doorsteps of the people.   
Few examples of such services are: registration for admission to academic institutions, collecting results of examinations, registration for jobs abroad, collection of different forms, online submission of tax returns, online tendering etc to mention a few. Radical applications of online banking systems have speeded up the financial activities of the country. SMS services for lodging complaints to police stations, online bill payments for utility services, instant communication to workers abroad are more examples.  
Telemedicine services at upozillas, and videoconferencing for treatment of diseases, videoconferencing for administrative activities from centre to districts are examples of e-services available up to rural Bangladesh. Nearly five thousand Union Information Service Canters is a great boost for Digital Bangladesh, especially for rural areas. Turning eight thousand village post offices, about five hundred upozilla post offices to e-centers and introduction of mobile money order services and postal cash cards are significant achievements in the recent past. Union Information Centers, District Information Cells, National Information Cell are revolutionary additions to the lifestyle in the country. Such services eliminate the middle-man and save time and money. There are many more developments in this line. Without such digital technologies, our cities and towns would have been turned to ghost places by now. In the districts, Deputy Commissioner Offices provide a large number of e-services to the rural clients.   
Global Ranking and Status
In spite of mentionable achievements, our position as users of digital applications and services, compared to many other countries, is far behind. This can be explained by benchmarking indices of responsible international organizations like United Nations, World Economic Forum, International Telecommunication Union etc.
The Networked Readiness Index (NRI) of World Economic Forum assesses the impact of ICT on the competitiveness of the nations of the world. The three components for NRI are: environment for ICT (market, political and regulatory, infrastructural environment etc), the stake holders (individuals, businesses and government) to use ICT, and finally the usage of ICT. Bangladesh's global position is 113 (out of 142 countries) in 2012 which was two steps up from position 115 in 2011. This was due to improvement in the usage sub-index from 122 to 108. NRI rankings of India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are 69, 128, 102 and 71 respectively. Sweden (1), Singapore (2) and Finland (3) are the top three countries in 2012 NRI rankings. Chad (138), Mauritania (139), Angola (140), Yemen (141) and Haiti (142) are at the bottom of the list according to 2012 ranking.
According to 2013 NRI ranking, India moved one position up to 68, Sri Lanka moved two positions up to 69, and Nepal moved two positions up to 126. On the other hand, Bangladesh moved down by one position to 114 from 113. This indicates our current status of digital lifestyle in global perspective. Pakistan also moved down by three positions to 105. Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives are not ranked. Bangladesh needs to concentrate to improve the environment sub-index and readiness sub-index. The public sector of Bangladesh scores higher in the usage sub-index than private sector. In fact we need to increase usage of ICT in both public and private sectors.  
The ICT Development Index (IDI) of International Telecommunication Union is a valuable tool for benchmarking the most important indicators for measuring the Information Society. This index, depending on eleven indicators, is grouped into three categories: access, use and skills. It is unfortunate that owing to paucity of data Bangladesh was not ranked by ITU for 2010 and 2011. In 2012 IDI ranking, Bangladesh having the rank 135 is at the lowest position among our South Asian neighbors. In 2012 ODI ranking, the positions of Maldives (73), Sri Lanka (107), Bhutan (118), India (121) and Pakistan (129) are much ahead of Bangladesh. According to 2012 rankings, South Korea, Sweden and Iceland are the top three countries with positions of 1, 2 and 3 respectively. However the good news is that Bangladesh offers mobile cellular services at a cost lower than that for many countries of the world.  
United Nation's e-Government Development Index (EGDI) evaluates the impact of ICT on the political economy of a country. This index focuses on how the governments use ICT to deliver services to the people and opportunities for citizens to participate in decision making process.
The EGDI consists of three components; they are online service, technological infrastructure and human capital. In 2012, Bangladesh moved down to 150th position in the EGDI, which was 134 in 2010. This downward ranking is due to backwardness in online services, technological infrastructure and human capital.  However between 2005 to 2010 Bangladesh witnessed an overall positive change in its EGDI ranking from 162 to 134. This was due to improvements in all its sub-indices, except the human capital sub-index. Bangladesh witnessed a big decline in its overall ranking from 134 to 150 with deterioration in sub-indices, in particular online services sub-index. The EGDI indicators that Bangladesh must pay special attention are: development of human capital, online services and technological infrastructure. According to 2012 rankings the top performers of EGDI are South Korea, Netherlands and United Kingdom. Among the neighboring South Asian countries Maldives (95), Sri Lanka (115) and India (125) are ahead of Bangladesh and Bhutan (152), Pakistan (156) and Nepal (164) are behind to Bangladesh.  
Digital Villages for Bridging the Gap:
There exists huge digital gap, popularly known as digital divide, between Bangladesh, and other middle-income and high-income countries of the world. Also there exists a huge digital divide between the rural Bangladesh and its cities and towns. Reduction or elimination of the divide will accelerate the process of Vision 2021, that is, to achieve middle-income status of Bangladesh. The target should be per capita income/GNP of 2000 US Dollar in 2021 from little over1000 US Dollar in 2013. We hope that the socio-economic status of the country will improve further soon and Bangladesh will come out of  the category of LDC (least developed country) into the level of developing countries like India, Pakistan and India. How can this be achieved?
Bangladesh is mostly a rural country with about 80% of its people living in villages. Although there has been significant development in rural economy in the past few years, it is the irony of the fate that we could not develop the villages inline with the development of the digital technology. Global indices to ICT and ICT services indicate poor performance of Bangladesh in comparison to other nations of the world. Digitization of lifestyle in villages can accelerate our national development pushing up our global ranking and achieving Vision 2021.
A digital village is a village with adequate developments of technological infrastructure, online services, and development of human capital. Each of our dream villages must have an ICT information and service centre, with up-to-date facilities for access to information through the Internet. This centre will be responsible for providing all possible facilities for online services and training for village human capital. All villages, bazaars and academic institutions, and rural centers must be hotspots of ICT activities for the villagers. Vis-à-vis the union information centers and similar rural centers should be equipped and upgraded as hotspots of ICT activities with high speed Internet access.
Only mobile Internet services are not sufficient. The ongoing process of connecting all upozilla centers through fiber optic cable is a positive step towards delivery of digital services to the rural population. With this, all the union headquarters need robust ICT information service centers. In the next step, all the union information service centers should be wired with fiber optic cables.
The question is who is going to provide the fund for realization of thousands of ICT hotspots for the villages and fiber-optic connections to unions? The fund should come from Government, District Administration, Upozilla Parisad, Union Parisad and other sources. International investments should be encouraged and public-private partnership should be increased. The ICT policy 2009, ICT Act 2009 and Right to Information Act 2009 must be respected and the government will play the role of accelerator for realization of the digital villages for the sake of Digital Bangladesh. When Mr. Nazrul Islam Khan, Secretary to the Ministry of ICT, expresses his desire for such developments and setting up countless ICT hotspots in the country, we really feel assured.
The rapid development of human capital is not easy by conventional ways and it will take long time, especially for the rural population. However, spread of digital services can be quickly expanded in the villages by increasing use of audio interfaces, which have not been exploited much for rural population. This facility, and communication using still pictures and video clips, readily available in mobile phones, can really revolutionaries our lifestyle in the villages accelerating realization of Digital Bangladesh.

The writer is the Vice Chancellor of Daffodil International University, Dhaka.

Published: 12:00 am Monday, March 17, 2014

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