Reflections from the disability workshop in Kathmandu

Posted on March 18, 2018  /  0 Comments

Now that the telecom markets in emerging Asia have matured and now that the potential of easily deployable apps is within reach because of the fast spreading smartphones, we must make access by the disabled a priority. The key to independent living is technology.

Our current work in Nepal, supported by the Ford Foundation, has accessible and inclusive access as the principal focus. The workshop held 16-17 March in Kathmandu sought to prioritize the problems amenable to ICT solutions. This will feed into a pre-hackathon being organized March 18-19 at the Tribhuvan University Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk Campus:
Here are some reflections on problems faced by the disabled in Nepal which are amenable to ICT solutions.

Since 2007, LIRNEasia has been emphasizing the need to see ICTs working in conjunction with “analog complements” to use the terminology popularized by the World Development Report 2016. One of the lessons that I picked up from the two-day interaction with representatives of disabled groups on March 16-17 was that most of the solutions required analog complements of various kinds. Some of the needed solutions could be implemented through mobile apps; others needed government or telco actions.

Many of the problems faced by the disabled involve functioning outside the familiar surroundings of the home. For example, persons who are blind have difficulty in finding out the destination or route of a particular bus at a bus stop. Is it possible to develop an app that will make such information available on a smartphone? It appears relatively easy to develop such an app. The challenge lies in ensuring that accurate, updated information is transmitted from the specific bus that is pulling into the bus stop. In a world where buses run on regular, predictable schedules, the solution may be relatively simple. One could have route information and schedules all displayed at the bus stop and even an electronic display that picks up the exact arrival time of the next bus through specialized communication between the bus and bus stop. This is how the system operates in Portland, Oregon. All that would be required is add-on elements that will make the bus-stop information accessible to persons who are unable to read the printed/displayed information.

But when multiple bus companies are operating on irregular schedules, the solution is more complex. Perhaps it is necessary to bypass the provision of information on the bus stop which could be vulnerable to vandalism and there may be difficulties in supplying energy on a reliable basis. Here, the communication would occur between the bus and the smartphones that request information. This would be very valuable for the disabled, but not limited to them. The challenge would be to ensure that the information on the bus is accurate. If the information is not accurate or is not reliable, trust will be destroyed. In the first instance, limited information such as destination and stops can be provided. Once the person is on the bus, the app may also provide information on the next stop. Times could be provided over the system as a second stage.

Then there was the problem of toilets. If one is on a wheelchair, how to find a usable toilet? How to complain if the toilet is not usable, as promised? Maps, guides, etc. are feasible. But how do we make sure the information is accurate? Who is at the end of the complaint line? Will remedial action result? And, of course, the most important analog complement is the handicapped-accessible toilet. Without an adequate supply of such toilets all the ICT in the world will be of little use in solving the actual problem.

The preconditions for the efficacy of the smartphone based solutions also came up. Suppose a particular app requires Internet access. It would be a pre-condition for efficacy of the solution that the location from where the app is activated has 3G connectivity. The problem could be that the 3G connectivity has not been extended to particular rural locations; or it could be that 3G connectivity exists, but is of poor quality; or it could be that the quality is generally satisfactory but is sporadically unreliable.

The precondition cannot be addressed by app developers. This is a larger question that has to be addressed by the operators perhaps under the direction of the regulator. There is a case for accumulated Universal Service funds to be used to enable the extension of 3G networks to unserved areas. For problems of quality, regulatory actions such as monitoring quality, “name and shame,” or financial penalties would be required.

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