President Obama's pledge to mobilize more than $30 billion of investment for Africa reflects the consensus of a continent on the move. Certainly, the rapid spread of mobile technologies has piqued the interest of telecom and internet companies. Nonetheless, many proposals seem to suggest failed models from the past; models which sought to monetize internet access around portals.
Reinventing AOL for Africa would, of course, be contrary to a spirit of open access that would the web a catalyst for broad economic growth. Furthermore, there is a wealth of online learning material which, if freely available, could be used by children and adults to develop skills and acquire knowledge. An open internet represents a simple way that communities can begin to overcome some of the disadvantages of isolation, fragility and limited resources. The benefits are both individual and societal, not only allowing access to information in every sphere of life, but enabling communities to connect with each other and the rest of the world.
Here are a few specific examples of the potential:
Customized Educational Tools
After living in and working with communities in Africa for many years, I heard the same thing again and again. Parents want their children to have access to education and a better future. Meeting this goal requires new and better forms of participation.
Open source information networks offer much promise. They provide access to reservoirs of freely available material which may be customized by teachers and students as needed. By involving communities in the implementation of their own learning systems, new generations of programmers will emerge.
In regions of political turmoil a culture has a better chance of survival if it is documented. Internet access provides the means to do this, and also enables people to speak out and be heard by the rest of the world. This is an invaluable means of giving power to the powerless. Those who have been dispossessed and alienated due to conflict or natural disasters can reconnect with family members, and obtain relief information or alerts.
For the most vulnerable, open access offers the security of documenting and recording a culture, helping to protect it even when physical possessions are destroyed. Such records are also vital in building public pressure for greater accountability, and ensuring that no voice, no matter how marginalized, is forgotten or ignored.
While the technical accomplishment of bringing Internet access to a remote rural community in Africa is significant, it is just the beginning. Open Internet access makes possible radio stations, local journalism, business opportunities and provides reference tools and more. It allows local producers to bypass price fixing at markets, advertise and find new suppliers.
The success of Internet infrastructure in some of the poorest communities on earth is a demonstration of how powerful open models can be. Part of the excitement of expanding access is not just that we're connecting people, but we're developing a new and better way to think about online community.