Colombo, Sri Lanka has been transformed into a global hub for excellence for e-Content with the World Summit Awards Global Congress 2013 during the early last week, bringing together the world’s best e-Content developers, government representatives and leading ICT experts globally for a three-day congress.
The WSA Global Congress forms the highlight of the World Summit Award, honouring its winners and celebrating the best products in e-Content. To the winners, it offers vast network and business opportunities as well as the unique possibility to present their products to a high-level audience – such as international leaders of politics and business, innovators, creators and designers, entrepreneurs and activists in the e-Content and ICT industries. In 2013, the WSA Global Congress was hosted from 23rd -26th of October in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
With the goal of selecting the world’s most outstanding e-Content, putting the UN-WSIS targets for the information society into action, the World Summit Award (WSA) is the global follow-up initiative of the United Nations World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) organised by the International Center for New Media (ICNM), Salzburg, Austria.
It partners with key UN organisations and agencies in the framework of the UN Geneva Agenda and the Tunis Action Plan and selects and promotes the world’s best e-Content and innovative ICT applications; to date more than 160 countries are actively involved.
Through national pre-selections and contests together with a global jury process, WSA demonstrates the local diversity and rich creativity of ICT use. WSA is a global hub for everyone who values the crucial importance of local content to make today’s information society more inclusive. The World Summit Award promotes smart content for smart people. On a biennial basis, it awards e-Content that contributes to a true knowledge society and promotes it at a global congress.
Hosted by the Information and Communication Technology of Sri Lanka (ICTA), the global event features 40 outstanding application developers, more than 60 high-profile speakers and over 1,000 international delegates, all of whom have converged with the shared objective of presenting the most creative mobile and web applications from all over the world and to discuss the crucial role of e-Content for the global economy, environment, government, healthcare, education and mobility.
The congress this time has also laid special emphasis on social entrepreneurship and the role that internet and mobile phones play in reaching the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight concrete goals to eradicate poverty and inequality worldwide to be achieved by 2015. To showcase the huge potential of ICT, 18 young entrepreneurs will present their award winning projects in categories such as ‘Fight Hunger’, ‘Poverty and Disease’, ‘Power to Women’ and ‘Pursue Truth’.
Following the opening inauguration of the WSA Global Congress 2013 earlier last week, which was graced by the presence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Chief Guest, the official opening of the conference kicked off yesterday at The Kingsbury, Colombo, featuring a number of dynamic panels and speakers, workshops by WSA champions and winners and an exhibition.
‘There is more to be done’
In his opening remarks, ICTA Chairman and Senior Advisor to the President of Sri Lanka Professor P.W. Epasinghe expanded on the various ICT initiatives implemented across the island, dwelling heavily on the Nenasala project, 740 centres spread island-wide, taking the benefits of ICT to the rural populace that had not had access to such services before. He emphasised on the need of creating relevant content for users, noting that the availability of access to ICT devices would have been futile there was no locally applicable, local language content.
The e-society program was launched for specifically this purpose, for the development of innovative, locally relevant content. To facilitate this, the ICTA enabled the use of Sinhala and Tamil on computers by introducing a local language unicode. A local language content portal was then developed as the content range expanded to include education, agriculture, health, commerce etc. and was made available island-wide.
“The issues that ICTA struggled with at the start have now been overcome. There are over 300 trilingual Government websites functioning now, blogs in Sinhala and Tamil are mushrooming and with most Government offices able to use ICT, e-services have sprung up and life has been made easier and one of greater comfort for the citizens,” Epasinghe stated. “ICTA has supported many Government organisations in implementing eGovernment projects – the e-revenue licensing project is one such example. Citizens can now deal with multiple Government organisations without visiting a single one.”
“Our guiding principle, which was followed by the first CEO of ICTA and is followed to this day, is that we do not seek credit for any contribution made by us – it is done in the true spirit of a public servant,” he stressed. Out of the many Government departments ICTA has assisted in the delivering of services, the Department of Immigration stands out as a winner.
“As long as man remains what he is, there will always be room for improvement. With the experience and knowledge of this gathering, I’m sure some very useful deliberations will occur and will go a long way in helping Sri Lanka and the global community in building a better world. There is more to be done but what has already been done augurs well for the future.”
Storm of technology
WSA Chairman Peter Bruck upon commencement lauded President Mahinda Rajapaksa for the views he had expressed on the day before and then delved into the importance of creating innovative e-Content.
“Everyone who works with technology knows that the work you do is not governed by the direction you want to take but also by the storm of development. Technology moves us and challenges us – how are we coping with it and how do we make sense of it? Technology changes not only the tools that we use but also the economic bases that we as producers rely upon,” he pointed out.
People who engage creatively with technology now know that the real challenge is not adding another feature or dimension but instead, generating new business models in the e-Content sphere in order to reach the economic basis of sustenance, success and profitability. The storm of technology that moves us is a fast paced one, he noted, adding that it is driven by millions of people in IT companies.
“We live in an age where the transformation for digital technology is hitting us in our hearts and minds. Sri Lanka depends on 2,500 years of traditional agricultural cultivation. The success of countries in Europe and North America, and the rising tigers in Asia depend on the teamwork in manufacturing, services etc. The success of the Commonwealth, and the British Empire and the independent states today depend on the routine work done in Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Ghana, Canada etc.”
He stressed on the need to work differently and aggregate our collective knowledge differently. “The storm of technology is not just building up new things, it takes away all that is not flexible and stale, and cleans the trees of our normal everyday lives in business and public administration, leaving behind what is vibrant, alive and has actually made a contribution.”
Bruck touched on what is perceived to be a generational issue – that people over 30 and 40 are dead wood, noting that it is true to a certain extent because adapting to IT is more of a challenge to people who are a little older but added that conferences such as these were all about sharing and dealing with such issues. “One change we will see is how technology will affect meeting like this – we won’t have speeches like what I’m giving now, this is old style. We need to engage in conversations and discussions – invest in people, in listening and sharing what we have and invest time and attention in each other.”
The keynote speaker, Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka Lalith Weeratunga, observed how ICT is changing industries and changing the way in which services are being deployed to almost unimaginable heights. “ICT tools are now far more powerful in their impact and are cheaper. In the face of these rapid technological changes, the big issues that we are faced with is that ICT skills and the capacity to use them are still not equally distributed, coupled with the gap of availability of broadband infrastructure between densely populated urban areas and sparsely populated rural areas. The most significant is the lack of meaningful content.”
While the issues of lack of awareness and required skills can be addressed with relative ease through programs, the inadequacy of content is a serious concern that will need a different strategy and will require people to think better and more innovatively. On this note, Weeratunga commended Bruck for the efforts of the WSA.
He observed that since recent years, Sri Lanka, as well as many other countries in the region, have embarked on ambitious programs to improve IT literacy in the country and through them, rural communities have been served and have been empowered. These projects, he added, aim to ensure that all communities have equal access to technology, giving them much-needed medical services, tools to set up micro businesses etc.
He drew upon the example of a local farmer from a remote village in Sri Lanka’s hill country. The man sets out from home to take his produce to sell at the market and he has a dilemma – at which economic centre could he command a higher price? He glances at his phone for a list of wholesale market prices and armed with this knowledge, he is able to make a profitable decision.
“The first step in empowering communities was the setting up of basic infrastructure and the Government of Sri Lanka has made this possible through rural access points across the country. The key factor here was ensuring that all have access to the diverse and unrestricted pools of information,” he said. The first access point, initiated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was opened in 2005 and now, there are over 700 such centres dotted all over the country providing services to people, especially in underserved areas.
“We had realised from the outset that the mere installation of technological infrastructure was a mere quarter of the problem solved – there was more to be done to transform this technology to actual use. First was the awareness campaign so that communities understood what exactly the technology could deliver. Then, they needed the basic skills to access the information. The most important factor what that there needed to be locally relevant and local language content, without which the rest would have been pointless,” Weeratunga explained.
Although Sri Lanka once boasted a high level of fluency in English, thanks to colonial influences, changes to the education system didn’t allow certain communities access to the global language, he noted, and this too was a challenge that the Government faced in the implementation of ICT island-wide and this stimulated the development of locally relevant content. “We had to put more money into the rural communities to forge ahead as a developing economy as that is where 70% of our population is.”
A project with a wider impact is the establishment of a paperless hospital. Weeratunga pointed out that Sri Lanka has one of the best healthcare systems in the region which is free to all citizens. “In fact, Sri Lanka’s experience is one of the most compelling in all of South Asia. However, the system is such that the citizen finds himself spending a lot of time at these healthcare centres, mostly spent standing in queues. We have brought down the average time that a patient has to spend at a hospital to 45 minutes from one hour and 50 minutes. This will be reduced even further. Although the technology used was not unique, the impact it has had on citizens is extremely significant as it has a great impact on their lives.”
He also noted that smartphone usage is growing in countries like Sri Lanka, more so than the use of PCs and other such devices, as smartphones are more likely to be used by low income groups and remote communities and provide content and services required on a daily basis. Therefore, the Government must also focus on delivering services to citizens via mobile and Weeratunga stated that it is well positioned to do so.
“ICTA over the last 10 years has worked on the most crucial and impactful pillars of ICT in Sri Lanka. The question uppermost in their minds is what can be done to make life better for our people, especially those who are disadvantaged in some way – that noble thought will help achieve what seemed impossible previously.”
WSA: Catalyst in developing content
ICTA CEO Reshan Dewapura, while thanking the various partners of the event, pointed out that the World Summit Awards have been a catalyst in developing content for the masses and targeted beneficiaries, especially with the ICT sector growing as quickly as it is throughout the world, and its far reaching benefits have especially been seen in South Asia with countries looking to leapfrog with the adoption of new best practices.
“The ICT policy of the Government of Sri Lanka has been both ambitious and successful. It includes making the dividends of ICT accrue to all the people of Sri Lanka in the best way possible. One of its aims in the in the regional arena is to make Sri Lanka the knowledge hub of the region. The privilege Sri Lanka got to host this WSA 2013 itself is a further eloquent proof that ICTA has faithfully played and continues to play its role as the apex body for implementing the national ICT policy,” he stated.
Further information on the event available at http://www.wsis-award.org/
Article By: Cassandra Mascarenhas
This article is carried in Daily FT of 25th October, 2013.