Waterloo researchers bring Web access to developing regions

University of Waterloo researchers released a beta version of an open source technology designed to give developing regions around the world Web access for communication and for information on agricultural best practices and health care.

Currently, the biggest challenges to Internet communications in developing countries is keeping it cheap and robust, but the technology, VLink, is designed to be a cost-effective approach to making the plethora of information on the Web available, said Srinivasan Keshav, a professor with the University of Waterloo’s school of computer science.

“Without access to this information, farmers, doctors, students are left behind,” said Keshav.

Phone lines are typically not reliable and PCs are prone to breaking down due to heat and pests, said Keshav, but VLink, in beta since last June, works where communication links are unreliable or even non-existent.

“All we want in the end is for people in developing regions to benefit from it,” said Srinivasan Keshav.

If phones lines go down, as they are prone to do in developing regions, VLink will retry the data transmission so a connection can be made once the line is back up, explained Keshav. And, in regions where no communication link exists, e-mail exchanges can be performed via USB memory sticks that store encrypted packets, physically transported by people between PCs.

Acknowledging the time delay in communicating via travelling USB device, Keshav noted the approach costs nothing. Besides, he added, the use of a PC in developing regions is typically for less time-sensitive tasks like completing government forms and “in these cases, it doesn’t matter if it takes a few hours instead of a few seconds.”

Data security in VLink is ensured using PKI encryption, an important factor considering that the goal is eventually to use the technology for handling sensitive data like medical records. Moreover, those PCs will have communal usage, said Keshav. “A desktop PC in a village is likely to be shared by not just one person, but by 10, 20 people. They may be receiving e-mails they don’t want other people to see.”

VLink is entirely built on Java, with some components built in-house and others recycled from the open source community.

But the technology does a lot more than just facilitate e-mail communications and access to online information. It presents the opportunity to engage in business process outsourcing of data entry type jobs to developing regions, said Keshav. “You don’t need to be working in a factory in a city for you to be making good wages,” he said.

Making such opportunities available to inhabitants of rural communities raises the quality of living, said Keshav, because jobs like data entry are a lot less laborious than planting rice, for instance.

VLink is built on ideas from other research projects like KioskNet, and throughout the course of the technology’s development, funding was granted at various stages. Intel Corp. was one such source of funding. Kevin Fall, principal engineer at Berkeley, Calif.-based Intel Labs, said there are many advantages, given connectivity, that can be reaped in developing regions.

In those places where it can be very costly to deal with infrastructure, particularly information-related, “if it takes you three days to travel by ox cart to fill out a form, if you can somehow do that at a kiosk it’s much better,” said Fall.

VLink can certainly facilitate the outsourcing of information products like markup, editing and analysis, said Fall.

Funding for the project was also received from Microsoft Corp. According to Kentaro Toyama, principal researcher with Microsoft Research India, while mobile phones are ubiquitous in the developing world, internet connectivity to very poor areas “remains a rarity.” There are many advantages to connectivity for non-profit organizations with branch offices in rural regions, and for businesses that operate there as well, wrote Toyama in an e-mail to ComputerWorld Canada.

“VLink is fantastic because it provides a way to connect rural outposts without wired or wireless infrastructure. It effectively provides a high-bandwidth, if high-latency, connection, that is matched to the environment at hand,” wrote Toyama.

Keshav anticipates the beta period will continue through August, after which he hopes the prototype will garner interest from commercial software vendors who will want to further develop on the code with additional features and a graphical user interface.

“We don’t want money,” said Keshav. “We are perfectly happy to have someone take all our IP and commercialize it and make a lot of money. We don’t really care. All we want in the end is for people in developing regions to benefit from it.”

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