Global food crisis may create an appetite for IT

Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the UN’s World Food Programme says that 100 million people face hunger and 33 nations face instability as a result of the rise in food prices.

The problem is recognized by governments, with most major developed countries contributing emergency funds for food assistance to those affected.

The problem has been largely caused by technological change — the diversion of crop production to bio fuels that run cleaner than fossil-based fuels.

Those same governments that are giving aid continue to focus on bio-fuel development as part of their environmental and fossil fuel dependency policies — making the situation worse.

This crisis is horrifying and deeply saddening, and the information technology trade will be an important player in the world’s response.

In the developed world the reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels will receive more attention. Collaboration technologies will reduce our need for work-related travel and increasingly more people will be able to work at home. Technological developments to reduce domestic and business energy costs will continue.

In the countries affected by the crisis, technology is playing an increasing role in alleviating it. Work continues on the development of crops that will produce more and which can grow in more adverse conditions. NetHope is an organization that brings together the IT organizations of the world’s major charities. It includes Save The Children, Plan International, the Red Cross and World Vision — for a total of 22 major non-governmental organizations.

Ed Granger-Happ, Chairman of NetHope and CIO of Save The Children, says: “We can solve our communication and technology problems faster and cheaper together than on our own.” NetHope organizations are leading the application of information technology in the developing world.

Technology is being used in fascinating ways. In Africa, there are now twice as many cell phones as landlines. Senegalese fishermen use them to negotiate the price of their catch before they get to shore.

Internet-based information kiosks in India let villagers access information, diagnose plant diseases and communicate with produce buyers. When the Tsunami hit Asia, a portal connected the aid organizations in the 31 affected countries to list staffing skills, post digital images and record best practices.

Another collaborative portal supports HIV/AIDS workers. Hand held computers are being piloted in Kenya and Lesotho for recording the distribution of food aid to reduce administration, reduce costs and speed the distribution process.

Collaborative technologies can also enable people in wealthier countries to help. Last year the University of Waterloo established a relationship with NetHope that has students in our online MMSc in the Management of Technology working together online on information technology related projects for the development agencies, using Microsoft Groove. They have worked so far on project management capabilities and the creation of a database for NetHope member connectivity worldwide.

There is huge potential for the application of collaborative technologies to allow us to make a direct contribution to third world development.

Dr. Peter Carr is the director of the technology management program at the University of Waterloo. This is the first in a series of columns for ComputerWorld Canada

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