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Bangla Pi: Is Affordable Computing the Silver Bullet to Development?

 (A version of this article was published at the Conference for Asian Countries on Digital Government)

“Look, this cat is moving!”, Duti, a 12 years old girl from Hajipur girls’ school exclaimed. Her eyes fixated on the 10 inch LCD screen of a bizarre device with wooden frame labeled “Bangla Pi” that clearly was concealing a prototype. And standing five feet away from her, the incredible feat to enable a girl from the one of the most remote villages of Bangladesh to program a computer struck me.  This village girl just animated a cat with the programming language scratch, developed in the MIT Media Lab.

bangla_pi_kanihati

To understand the story behind this rather extraordinary scene, we have to jump back six months in time to my dorm room at Harvard. One day, while working with raspberry pi, a credit card sized computer that is sold for 35 USD, the idea of using a similar hardware architecture as a medium to affordable computing and access to information crossed my mind. As I dug deeper, I realized how far the semiconductor industry has come. By Moore’s law, we have already seen how computing power has doubled every 18 months over the past few decades. As a result, the cellphone in my pocket has a processor with more computing power than the computers that launched Apollo mission to the Moon!

The basic idea behind this affordable computing tool was to use the smart-phone processors (which can be bought for as little as 3 USD in the chinese market). Using this processors along with open source operating systems such as Debian or Ubuntu, we can simulate a desktop computer like experience. I used the cheapest processors and put it together with LCD panels to make a device that can do everything a typical computer can do, but for a much lower price. I named this device Bangla Pi.

I went back to Bangladesh during my winter break of senior year (2015) on a fellowship from Harvard South Asia Institute and made 20 of these prototypes. I bought electronics parts from China and spent a long week making those devices. Because I did not not have access to a 3D printer (would not be cost effective anyways), I just went to local photo frame makers to custom build wooden casing for them. These bizarre devices could function exactly the same way as typical desktop/laptop computers and had USB ports for a mouse and a keyboard. It was also possible (after a lot of hacking) to connect wifi modules to the devices to support connectivity. It cost me ~65USD to make each of these devices and the LCD panels were the most expensive parts (~40 USD each). However, talking to some of the chinese manufacturers I found that at scale these price can be much lower.

 bangla_pi

With these devices, I ran a few pilot project in Dhaka and a few very remote villages in Bangladesh. The results I found were amazing–the students (who were between 12-18 years old high school students) seemed to pick up these skills very, very quickly. I was amazed how some of them, without having used computer before, made computer games with the programming language Scratch, an interactive, easy to use, graphical programming language that enables young students to program by moving small code blocks. The most important lesson that I learned from this experience was that we can enable natural learning with similar devices and with connectivity we can empower students learn anything they wanted to learn about.

Now that we have a very affordable computing platform that promises to deliver connectivity and computing power, should we just distribute these devices en-masse? While I truly believe in the potential of Bangla Pi and similar affordable computing platforms, I think answer is more complex than a simple yes or no. Although it takes a bit of naiveté and a leap of faith to do something as crazy as connecting the world where many other challenges are presumably of higher importance today, I would argue that this naiveté even part of highly acclaimed and widely distributed devices such as one laptop per child (OLPC) by MIT Media Lab founder Professor Nicholas Negroponte. While his idea of sub 100 dollar computer was bold, the most important thing OLPC missed missed were the right context and the ability to emulate an operating system similar to a standard desktop PC. First of all, OLPC lacked a clear goal as an use case, whereas for Bangla the goal was clear–enable learning how to operate computers and incorporate it to a standard curricula.

Another important aspect that many of the technopreneurs forget is the importance of training and customer service. We might deliver computers to every school (with enough funding) but if we do not train the teachers and cannot make sure that the devices will be functional after a few months, then we are probably introducing an overhead instead of helping the educators. For this very reason, we designed Bangla Pi as modular units. There are five different units in Bangla Pi–processing unit, power unit, display units, input unit (mouse/keyboard) and each of these individual units (except the display, which is fairly durable) costs under 10 USD and is very easy to replace in a plug and play fashion. So we can create a 10% redundancy with spare parts (example–in a school with hundred computers) and easily make sure that all of the units are working fully.

I have studied many literatures and books on the topic of computing in developing countries. One that truly grabbed my attention was The Geek Heresy by Kentaro Toyama, a fellow Harvard alum and a former Microsoft Research fellow in India (and current professor at the University of  Michigan). In his book, he brought up many important points regarding how many of these silver bullet solutions for development with technology have failed. And from his experience through working in India at Microsoft research, he also explains the nature of some of the projects that truly succeeded. While it is beyond the scope of this article, I would like to talk about the main point of the book which is that technology primarily amplifies human forces, but if there is no force existent today no amount of technology will help. The same philosophy was apparent in Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates’ book The Road Ahead, in which he said “The first rule of any technology used in business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. [...] Automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency”. Therefore, the primary point that we need to address before we just go ahead a make all the schools digital is that we need to make sure our human force (i.e. the teachers) are at a state where they can take part in this amplification process.

Now the question stands—in the context of Bangladesh and similar developing countries, how can we leverage the technologies such as Bangla Pi to amplify the human capabilities? At the risk of sounding cliché, we need to ask how we can empower the people with these technologies and make sure they have access to the information and services that they need to improve their quality of life. I personally believe that the possibilities are endless. Let me start with a few possible key game changers:

1.     Improving education with human augmented technology: We could develop a centralized digital pedagogical system where typical hour long teaching method would be augmented by a 15 minutes of visual contents. This could both take a bit of teaching burden off of the teachers’ shoulders and make learning much more interesting for the students.

2.     Access to better health information and services: We could empower the current network of health workers to be able to connect with the people in the villages better via technology products such as Bangla Pi. Moreover, they would be able to direct the people on where to find the best healthcare by providing information via these devices.

3.     Marketplace for the farmers: Without getting into details, a major shift in the current marketplace could be achieved if we could eliminate the information asymmetry that exists in the agri-marketplace. This information asymmetry only helps the middlemen and harms the farmers and end consumers.

For all these problems to be solved, we need to acknowledge the existing solutions and see how technology based solutions using connected devices such as Bangla Pi could help us solve these problems by amplifying the existing human efforts. While a very strong supporter and believer of technology, I do not think that technology alone can solve all our problems (maybe in 20 years we will have strong AI (artificial intelligence) in place and it will be a different story, but not today). However, technology augmented with human power can amplify the efficiency of the human force by manifold and as a result can fundamentally change the way billions of poor people live. Just imagine a village in Bangladesh, where the farmers can get information from the agriculture within a few seconds and can get health information when his wife is pregnant. Imagine a world where his kids go to school and get education augmented by thought provoking visuals and proven pedagogical guidelines. Imagine a world where that very farmer can auction his crops at the best price in a marketplace where information asymmetry does not exist. Imagine a world where the power of the government is distributed to the masses because everyone is well informed. That future, enabled with technology and connectivity to vastly amplify and truly empower the human efforts is the future I dream of everyday.

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