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How India created a knowledge society

At a Knowledge Based Economy Conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last week, I met up with Sam Pitroda, advisor to the Prime Minister of India on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations and chairman, National Innovation Council.

He is a globally respected development thinker and is credited with having laid the foundation of India’s technology and telecommunications revolution.

I asked him how India gets hundreds of millions of people to vote without major incidents.

‘‘Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) play a key role and are helping us build a knowledge society,’’ he said.

India’s election will take more than one month to complete. More than 850 million people in India will vote. The Election Commission of India estimates the poll will cost more than $5 billion, making it the second most expensive election after United States of America which spent more than $7 billion in 2012.

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They are heavily relying on electronic voting with use short messaging system (SMS) called COMET. This is happening without a hitch due to many years of preparing India as a knowledge society.

A knowledge society serves to transform information into resources that allow society to make informed decisions.

It is the expansion of ICTs that increases the capacity for creation of raw data and the speed at which it is produced.

Once the data is analysed it becomes a significant resource to drive growth and opportunities for job creation. India generates massive data and uses different applications to gather, analyse and disseminate information. This is all due to improving connectivity throughout the country.

They are empowering people to make better decisions.

A few years ago India embarked on an ambitious project to biometrically register every one of its more than 1.2 billion citizens.

Through Geographical Information System, they have been able to significantly create an address for every building.

They are now laying an extensive fibre optic network throughout the country to create seamless connectivity commonly referred to as public information infrastructure.

The networks will link universities, colleges, schools, local governments and communities. These are the basic platforms for building a knowledge society.

It is on these platforms that they are building not just the capacity of a competitive nation but the opportunity to create millions of jobs. Every citizen will have a virtual identity enabling them to trade online.

Online trade or e-commerce as it is popularly known is fast growing globally.

A report by Mckinsey, Lions go Digital, estimates that in the next ten years Africa’s e-commerce will exceed $75 billion and efficiencies as a result of ICTs will exceed $300 billion mostly in countries that will have built a public information infrastructure.

In Kenya although we have an extensive fibre optic network, we still need to ensure that the last mile infrastructure is in place.

Additionally, virtual health clinics can be built to ease the problems of congestion in hospitals as well as disseminate critical health information while at the same time enabling global standards health care.

New knowledge on agriculture is being developed through gathering of massive mobile data. A farmer in Kenya today can improve milk production through use of mobile applications that help with animal husbandry. We are building capabilities and new knowledge in virtually all sectors.

The application of these new technologies is perhaps more difficult in politics due to its competitive nature. One of Kenya’s innovations, Ushahidi platform is being used in parts of the world for elections.

We have so far not been able to use technology in elections effectively because of poor preparations.

Like India, we should start now to biometrically register all citizens from birth. On the biometric identity, we load, the birth certificate, the voter’s registration, the driver license, insurance, and all other identifications.

By 2017 we shall have tested the system for many of the applications that it will hold. This is how we can help create a more peaceful and sustainable country.

Information becomes more useful when meshed from different sources to create new patterns that bear knowledge.

It is for this reason that open data becomes an essential element in building a knowledge society. Infrastructure alone won’t do it.

It is by giving every citizen the independence of thought and the ability to do things by themselves that creates a true knowledge society that we all desire.

Henry Ford once said: “If money is your hope for independence you will never have it. The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability.”

The writer is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.

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