Scitech  Widening the web

The global impact of technology

Many 21st century North American students take their technological resources for granted. When living in a modernized environment, putting access to technology into perspective is no easy task. Ingrid Biwole and Franck Nlemba, co-founders of Africa Link Technology, aim precisely at debunking this mentality. The tandem initiated the Kongossa Web Series (KWS), a series of live seminars that hopes to explore the avenues offered by technological progress. Biwole and Nlemba recently fulfilled their goal of expanding the project beyond the borders of their home country, Cameroon, by bringing the conference to Montreal.

The bilingual conference opened on September 20 at Montreal’s Centre for Sustainable Development with a press conference in which the leaders elaborated on KWS’ extensive background and its genesis in Cameroon. Biwole – who left her home country during her college years to study numerical communications in France – used her foreign experiences to convey the importance of seizing technological opportunities. “It was only when I left Cameroon that I realized how few opportunities our youth had back there,” she explained.

This led her to the creation of KWS, a project that held conferences across three universities in Central Africa in 2010, reaching approximately 1,000 students eager to learn about how the technological projects they knew nothing about could change their lives. A second edition in early 2013 invited local African entrepreneurs to attend. Biwole repeatedly emphasized her goal to inspire people, and this passion was echoed by Nlemba, who stated that misinformation can inspire fear of technological advancements. “Many people in African communities are afraid of technology, as they don’t know what to make of it,” he added. “We need to change this mentality.”

Alain Douyon, a Senior Director from Conseillers en Gestion et Informatique (CGI), was in charge of giving the introductory talk, and made his message very clear: leaps into the future are not optional, they’re compulsory. He specifically mentioned Smart Grid projects, electrical grids that aim to optimize information about the distribution and use of electricity by leveraging information technology. With these ideas in mind, the conference was off to a start.

On Saturday, talks were given by entrepreneurs, technologists, and researchers working in various sectors but with a common goal – to create positive impact. From advice on creating your own brand to discussion on the importance of access to technology in the developing world, the day was filled with thought-provoking ideas.

Laurent Elder, program leader in information and networks at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), spoke about the positive impact of technology on international science cooperation, describing the importance of tech in bringing people out of poverty. According to Elder, in the lowest socioeconomic status countries, over 90 per cent of its citizens own mobile phones. The popularity of these devices can be attributed to their role in improving the efficiencies of daily activities, maintaining social relations, and providing the ability to earn, save, and act in an emergency.

Though mobile phones are widespread, the internet is largely unaffordable for many. The importance of increasing access to technology in developing countries is multifold – technology impacts everything from agriculture to healthcare. Digitizing the process of updating patient information makes it possible to save lives while saving money for governments. Easy access to pricing information for crops can help local farmers increase profit. In Elder’s words, “The interesting thing to think about is whether it’s because countries are poor that they don’t have access, or they don’t have access because they are poor.”

It is not only in the developing world that technology can improve the lives of individuals. Shivani Goyal, a researcher at the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation in Toronto, highlighted the importance of developing mobile applications (apps) to help increase the quality of health care. “We’ve found that we can use smartphones to get individuals to better manage their own health,” stated Goyal.

Goyal and colleagues are developing activity monitors on mobile phones to help individuals understand their behaviours and be motivated to change them. For example, breathe is a mobile app developed to help individuals self-manage their asthma by providing easy access to personal health information. The usage of these applications is not limited to those with medical conditions – they can also act as preventative measures by allowing all individuals to keep track of and manage their own health.

Technology can also benefit all nations by increasing communication and exchange of ideas. Jonathan Gosier – a tech entrepreneur, developer, and activist – is one of the players working to connect rural African villages to the internet and make the connections between technology and media in Africa and the rest of the world. In this talk, Gosier introduced the idea of the African diaspora holding much potential for helping the continent in the coming years. According to Gosier, the diaspora consists of the people who are either from Africa, or are connected to Africa in some way. “It’s the people who are connected to the continent both in mind and possibly by body […] it’s the people who are aware and are leveraging their power for the greater good and ultimately the prosperity of the continent,” he expressed.

Through the creation of global initiatives such as Apps 4 Africa (funding projects for Africa, from Africa) and Question Box (a platform designed to provide easy access to areas with literary and technical barriers), Gosier hopes to help build resources between the two worlds. “For me, I think what I’m most optimistic about isn’t necessarily the technology, but about the communities connecting and reconnecting […] I feel like a lot of things have been tried, and that’s one of the things that is most fragmented and disappointing – that someone with a great solution in Haiti doesn’t know about the same solution in Montreal,” Gosier told The Daily.

Building on the premise of bridging global  gaps in technology, the conference sparked discussions for students and entrepreneurs alike. This first venture out of Africa hopes to open doors for those in Montreal to get involved. For Nlemba, this means greater participation from youth in the community: “we want to set up a platform for students to be able to create something or have an impact somewhere else in the world.”