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The Daily Star Web Edition Vol. 5 Num 712

Committed to PEOPLE'S RIGHT TO KNOW Vol. 5 Num 712 Tue. May 30, 2006   Point-Counterpoint


e-Bangladesh
Dr. Adnan Morshed

At the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in February 2004, Bill Gates, chairman of the software behemoth Microsoft, acknowledged his company's strategic mistake in not pursuing what is now an integral part of the post-industrial society: Internet search for information. Gates appeared astounded by a then-fledgling company, Google, which questioned the industry's prevailing wisdom that search technology would soon be a marginal product of the digital market. Instead, Google envisioned limitless economic potential in Internet searching.

Today Google has pretty much become the torchbearer of search technology. Its founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, two young Stanford University computer science graduates, understood with clairvoyant magic that the future belonged to the technology of finding the right information quickly and efficiently. The company's user base is now mind-boggling: close to 300 million Google searches on an average day around the world! Not surprisingly, "google" has become a verb, meaning "to perform a Web search." The American Dialect Society identified the verb to google as the "most useful word of 2002."

Information has become the hottest commodity of the electronic market economy or the e-world. The high-tech infrastructure that enables access to information superhighway is, therefore, of utmost importance for any nation.

That infrastructure finally arrived in Bangladesh in May 2006. Making a landfall at Cox's Bazar, a new submarine cable -- a 12,500-mile fiber-optic odyssey from Singapore to France -- allows Bangladesh a data-transfer capacity of 10 gigabytes per second, a massive improvement from the current 150 megabyte per second.

The high-tech link is expected to make telecommunications, Internet connections, and data transfer much faster and cheaper. The possibilities of e-business, call-centre services, data processing, software development and export, outsourcing and distance learning, among other opportunities, clearly brighten up the nation's economic horizon. In short, a fertile ground has been identified for an e-Bangladesh.

But, as history teaches us, technology alone cannot catalyze social change. Is not technology without the right frame of mind to exploit it worth nothing? The procurement of advanced technology must be coupled with a corresponding change in the mindset of the people and, most of all, of government bureaucracy and our political establishments. A new culture of valuing information as a tool of social mobilisation and making information available on the Internet has to be nurtured aggressively, along with a national agenda of uplifting mass computer literacy.

Both public and private sectors, NGO's, institutions of the civil society (such as: schools, colleges, universities and libraries), banks, hospitals, utility companies and transportation facilities need to adopt a streamlined process of information dissemination through effective Websites. By visiting Websites and accessing information, clients and information-seekers could avoid the slow-moving human interface, the long and slippery alleys of bureaucracy and, happily, the corrosive practices of bribery.

Even if it sounds like science fiction, the concept of Website as a gateway to the world of information and all kinds of transaction has become the pillar of an efficient society, at least in the West. Present only on the information superhighway (except their warehouses in the physical world) by means of their Websites, many companies generate revenues in the billions of dollars. Examples abound: Amazon, e-bay, Google, and Dell, among many others.

In the United States, I buy ninety-five percent of my books, cheaply, from the Internet with a credit card after surfing a few competitive Websites. Such transactions will not kill the romance of strolling in a neighbourhood bookstore and meeting a few fellow bibliophiles. Air travel has become an exclusive domain of the Internet. In the last five years I bought all my domestic air tickets from Internet auctions and last two tickets to Bangladesh from airline Websites.

Now, how do we fare in Bangladesh in terms of what I would like to call the "Website efficiency?" Let us surf a few Bangladeshi Websites.

There is no provision in the Bangladesh Biman Website to buy tickets! Imagine a hypothetical situation: a Western national, John, wants to travel to Bangladesh for tourism. He wants the most cost-effective route and, naturally, he would check out the national career Website, from which he cannot glean any sense of the airfare, let alone buy the ticket. He has no clue as to how to score the best and cheapest airplane ticket to Bangladesh. Only the South Asians know where the South Asian travel agents are (mostly in New York or Los Angeles), and they seldom participate in the mainstream travel market. John would eventually abandon his Bangladesh trip in favour of one to Nepal or Thailand. The Biman Website includes a history of the airline's evolution (poorly written, and fraught with grammatical errors!), but how does it help a prospective client?

Come to the Webpage of the Bangladesh Ministry of Cultural Affairs. While it lists the Ministry's cultural initiatives (often in a self-congratulatory mode), the site barely gives any objective glimpse into the cultural heritage of the country. There is very little or no information on the books, paintings, dramas, poetry, films, or architecture that collectively shape the conscience of the nation. The language is shoddy and fails to inspire curiosity. Visually the site is hardly attractive. By employing tested, professional Web designers for its graphic self-representation and soliciting contributions on important aspects of culture from key writers of the country, the Ministry would benefit significantly.

You want to carry out some research at the National Library of Bangladesh. You go to their Website and find out that there is no system of searching for books! In the traditional method, you would take a rickshaw from, say, Dhanmondi to Agargaon, with the name of a rare book in you hand. Upon reaching the library, you would come across a dubiously busy librarian at the front desk. You would check on the availability of your book. It is not available, you are told. Alas, three hours have already been spent! A functioning Website, allowing you to know beforehand whether the book is available or not, would have saved three valuable hours (a 26-mile marathon is run in less than three hours!). For advanced technology to take full effect, a new consciousness of time must also be grafted on the idea of technology.

Fortunately, not all is bleak in the Bangladeshi firmament as the private sector breathes some fresh air. Bangladeshi newspapers lead the way in Website usage and are by far the country's most effective conduits of information dissemination.

People's right to information is fundamental and irrefutable. One could write a history of oppression in terms of the victim's inability to access information. Free exchange of information should be viewed as a democratic tool to empower people, create transparency, enhance productivity and encourage entrepreneurship. The high-capacity submarine cable that now theoretically connects Bangladesh with the rest of the world would remain a fashionable "showcase" unless we ventilate our mind with a fresh awareness of technology's full spectrum of social and market potentials.

Dr. Adnan Morshed is Assistant Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.