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Wrestling The Crocodile: IT Development in East Timor

Presented at Victoria University of Technology’s “Cooperating With Timor Leste” Conference, June 2005, published in
Development Bulletin No. 68, October 2005, Australian National University

For the purpose of elaboration "wrestling the crocodile" (or alligator for the North Americans) is an IT community term for engaging in a particularly complex IT related issue that challenges the technician with the strength, speed and diversity of problems. For the obvious reasons relating to Timorese mythology it serves as a highly appropriate double metaphor for dealing with the issue of effective IT development assistance from economically and industrially advanced nations to a nation like Timor Leste. The reasons for this complexity starts of with problems relating to basic social and physical infrastructure, extrapolates to include matters of maintenance and training, and is finally confronted with what should be the first issue considered; utility.

Consider if you will, a well-meaning Australian who, having recently spent a lazy few thousand dollars upgrading their personal computer to what constitutes the "latest and greatest" for a consumer commodity spares a thought for the plight of the East Timorese, our dear close neighbour, who are living in such impoverished conditions. They get in their mind that perhaps one of the things that a Timorese family could really do with to improve their lives is an old computer. So they wonder down to their local friendship city association and the goods get bundled up for the next lot of "gifts" and eventually find their way to a school or community centre or even an extended family in a distant district.

Is it possible to imagine of a worse possible application of scare resources? A desktop computer is not a light system; it costs a significant amount of money to transport such a thing from Australia or New Zealand to East Timor. In transit components will be rattled and possibly damaged. Once reaching East Timor, even in the relatively technologically advanced capital, finding replacement components is almost impossible. Assuming for a moment that it does arrive undamaged, gets through the notorious harbour-side customs, it then has to travel the many miles along the winding mountain roads to reach, say, Same. Assuming that journey is also successfully and the system is actually allocated as planned then there's the problem of how it is going to be used. Electricity in the regional capitals is sporadic at best and each and every sudden loss of supply adds additional stress to the components and the possibility of disk head crashes. Dust and humidity will play an extraordinary damaging role, let along the propensity for mosquitoes and spiders to decide that the computer is a fine place to live. The operating system - and it would probably be MS-Windows 98 - is already obsolete and of course, is in English, as are the manuals, if they are provided at all. There is of course, no Internet or networking to speak of and the machine is used for a few games of solitaire before something breaks and it is thrown out, becoming a testament to inappropriate, if well-meaning, technological gifts.

The issue here is a complete lack of consideration of the utility of computer technologies to the East Timorese context. So rather than engaging in haphazard donations with the hope that somehow the utility will be obvious and the necessary social and physical infrastructure will arise automatically with the provision of computer systems it is absolutely imperative that a significant degree of project planning occur prior to the provision of what is effectively an end-user tool. In project planning boldness of scope and long term objectives are not negatives as long as there is sufficient attention to detail and utility. Thus, in the first instance, consideration is necessary to determine what usefulness a computer has and how this is applicable to the people of Timor Leste.

Additional care must be made from the outset of course to ensure that what doesn't engage in well-meaning racism where the "simple" lives of the East Timorese and their low level of economic development and infrastructure is interpreted to mean that computers don't have any utility in an East Timorese context at all. It is difficult to imagine a strategy that would permanently impoverish the people of East Timor than the suggestion that they do not need information technologies. If the changes in telecommunications and information technology over the past ten to fifteen years are impressive enough, rest assured, "you ain't seen nothing yet". The simple fact of the matter is that, with sufficient infrastructure, equipment and training, the people of East Timor would use information technologies for the exactly the same reasons that they are used in advanced economies. The primary uses are;

a) Computers as communication devices. Primary use to communicate asynchronous recordable data between points. The benefits that this could provide to medical, educational, policing and commercial activities are self evident.

b) Computers as organisational management tools. National database development for medical, educational and policing needs. Production of minutes, agendas, plans of action, memos, spreadsheets, databases and storage thereof etc.

c) Computers as computing tools. Programming, planning, modelling and systems organisational tools.

There are of course very real limitations to achieving these ends in the context of Timor-Leste.

a) Lack of physical network infrastructure, sporadic electricity supply. Lack of maintenance technologies.

b) Lack of social capital, poor organisational development, educated users, and maintenance crew. Dealing with these limitations in turn, the recommended solution for a geographical and infrastructure environment such as Timor Leste is widespread wireless networking. One may refer to this as a recommended cost-effective solution for developing countries by Kofi Annan in June 2003. Certainly the "lay of the land" in Timor Leste is conducive to such a technology. The distance between Ainaro and Same is 60km by road. But the real distance is only 16km. The longest distance between district capitals (excluding Oecusse) is Baucau to Lospalos is 60km. Even so, it is well within fiscal possibility to use subdistricts instead. Certainly the option of a variety of wireless networking solutions (point-to-point, point-to-multipoint, cloud) has been the recommendation all IT professional who have studied Timor Leste's infrastructure. By way of comparison Mauritius has recently taken the opportunity to make almost their entire mountainous island accessible to wireless networking.

These recommendations were, and are, aptly helped by the existence of usable telecommunications assets, including no less than 23 towers throughout the country as part of a total of $20m USD worth of IT assets “left behind”. Under such circumstances, it is difficult and indeed, demonstrably foolish, to look past microwave technologies for national networking in Timor Leste. The climatic conditions make frequency diversity a necessity, with competing claims for low band (fewer towers, taller) and high band (more towers, smaller), also accounting although there is a necessary bias arising from the pre-existing towers. Expert considerations accounting for all these factors suggested that 6-7 GHz band is the most suitable with prospective tenders requiring the ability to implement a Synchronous Digital Hierarchy network with self healing architecture. Such a network can carry fixed voice, mobile, TV and radio.

For electrical supplies recent developments do indicate the viability of solar power for "village level" computer technology, to the point that the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in late 2004 started using solar powered computer systems for educational needs in remote villages. The Uttar Pradesh Education for All Project Board bought some 1,000 computers for all 70 districts in the state, however, lacking a stable electricity supply schools have purchased solar panels (costing approximately $2,500 AUD each) which provide sufficient electricity to power the computers in each school. Even Dorset in England, not exactly known for its sunlight, also started using solar technology last year for almost fifty computers at Medina High School where over a thousand students study. Simply put, distributed, independent and renewable energy sources are a realistic and effective investment for electricity supply in communities where centralised power with ongoing costs is simply not viable.

In many ways, the lack of social capital, the low level of organisational development, and the lack of educated users and maintenance crew can be more difficult that the lack of physical infrastructure. Even under these circumstances, the government of Timor Leste is to be applauded for its initial emphasis on raising the literacy rate and general level of education. For obvious reasons, raising these standards must occur prior to increasing computer and technical literacy. Unlike many who perceive Timor Leste’s linguistic diversity as problematic and question the wisdom in choosing a relatively obscure language such as Portuguese as a national language, in the long run such choices can be turned into a positive. Whilst short term international trade advantages will clearly arise through ability in English, Mandarin and Bahasa the romance languages should not be discounted. The future possibility of a highly literate, multilingual Timor Leste that acts as a regional translation centre (perhaps even challenging Singapore in this role) is far from improbable.

Assuming a useful degree of general literacy, computer literacy and technical training is required. In Timor Leste’s case, this is significantly different to the mainstream sort of computer education received in advanced industrial nations. In such circumstances, with stable infrastructure, ready supply of replacement components and so forth, many computer training packages are more strongly orientated towards routine administrative tasks using specialised applications. This is quite inappropriate for Timor Leste’s conditions, indeed, such teaching as common as it may be in economically advanced nations, would be a terrible waste of resources. In relative terms, much stronger emphasis must be placed on hardware, networking, and operating systems knowledge rather than applications and programming. This is simply a result of the conditional circumstances. If and when, Timor Leste’s social and physical infrastructure develops, the relative weight can be altered.

An interesting side effect of these circumstances however is the opportunity for Timor Leste to make substantial contributions to software development and open source software applications and programming development in particular, both for general use for all regions in similar conditions to Timor Leste and for the particular conditions and organisational requirements for Timor Leste itself. After all, in an environment of relative impoverishment it simply doesn’t make sense to utilise the more expensive proprietary solutions (even if software piracy is rampant throughout the country). As a very modest contribution to this myself, Peter Gossner and Kevin Scannel have added a list of words for Tetum spell-checking for the OpenOffice application suite.

In summary, effective IT cooperation with Timor Leste requires both bold vision and a realistic assessment of needs. Only the most mentally truncated or sadistic would propose a telecommunications future for Timor Leste where the neglect of European colonialism is repeated. However equally as dangerous are impractical assistance in skills and equipment which are inappropriate to the current or future needs of Timor Leste no matter how well intentioned. Whilst this presentation serves only as a general overview of opportunities and directions that could assist Timor Leste the specific recommendations are worthy of more thorough investigation. To return to the metaphorical title, it must be recognised, that unlike other “crocodiles” in IT, the crocodile of Timor Leste, although extremely challenging can be, if treated properly, a friend for life.