Low-tech IT solutions needed24th April 2007
Health information is often the key to tackling global health problems, but the Internet may not be the most suitable way to disseminate it to poorer countries, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) editorial.
Most people with ready access to the Internet now rely on it for access to information of all kinds. Global health information is at our fingertips. Health-related groups provide comprehensive and attractive websites.
But, writes Clifford C Missen and Thomas M Cook, this â€ścome and get itâ€? approach to the dissemination of health information often fails to serve the needs of people in developing countries. Only one-sixth of the worldâ€™s population uses the Internet, they say.
While the information is apparently available for nothing, the costs of an Internet connection in Africa can be hundreds of times higher than in the West.
"Some universities in Africa are spending as much as the equivalent of 20 full-time faculty salaries for a 2-megabit Internet connection that is then distributed to 500 to 600 computers, resulting in a costly and painfully slow connection for everyone," they write.
Even then, servers are frequently down for weeks at a time, and connection speeds preclude all but the simplest text downloads when they are working. Multimedia resources are out of the question.
Part of the Global Health Campus Initiative being developed by the University of Iowa, WHO and other partner organisations, is the eGranary Digital Library, which uses a common hard drive to store and deliver more than 700 CDs' worth of web pages and other resources. (www.eGranary.org).
"This â€śInternet in a boxâ€? requires no external connection and provides users with the look and feel of the Internet, including a powerful search engine," they say.
Another project, the WiderNet Project, currently has over 130 eGranary Digital Libraries installed at institutions throughout Africa and Bangladesh, Haiti and India (www.widernet.org).
On-site digital libraries can make use of fast local area networks capable of serving thousands of users at the same time. Institutions can then buy the minimum bandwidth needed to meet other needs.
Another option might be a real-time web conferencing programme specially designed for slow Internet connections, they suggest.
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