Opportunities for tech to bridge inequality

There are now increasingly new opportunities to leverage technology to bridge digital divide and help the underprivileged, observers note.

While there may be a digital divide between the haves and have-nots, there are now more opportunities to leverage technology to help and enable the underprivileged, said industry observers.

Clair Deevy, community affairs lead for Asia Pacific at Microsoft, said in an interview with ZDNet Asia Friday that there was a "constant evolution" and highlighted the advent of social businesses as one of the products of the evolution.

"Where technology may have created a divide, it is also creating a bridge. This area in the middle between non-profits and commercial organizations, the idea that you can do both--having a business that has a positive social impact and be commercial successful."

In the same interview, Ponheary Ly, founder of The Ponheary Ly Foundation which helps the poorest children in Cambodia attend school, gave an example of a video that some students had made that highlighted a problem their village of 200 families faced with some broken water wells.

The students learnt videography from a U.S. volunteer and put the video on YouTube earlier this year.

According to Ly, the video, which won the first runner-up prize at Water Day Film Festival, also got the attention of a U.S. organization that plans to come to the village to provide them tools and teach them how to fix the broken wells.

"Youths can go very fast with new technology," Ly added. "Those who work as tour guides, they can be very successful. The older generation of tour guides work with agencies, if agencies don't call, they have no money. But the young ones, they have their own business on the Internet."

Inspiring others by example
Ly, who was recognized as a CNN Hero in 2010, is in Singapore to speak at Microsoft's first Innovate4Good summit, where youths around the world gather to discuss issues and collaborate on ideas for social change.

The Singapore leg takes place Apr. 28 to 29 with about 100 youths from different backgrounds all over the Asian region. The inaugural global event, which kicked off Mar. 31 this year, covers 6 cities. It started in Redmond, followed by Cairo, and the next three stops will be Beijing, Brussels and Mexico City.

Microsoft's Deevy said she hopes that Ly, along with two other speakers--Efren Geronimo Peñaflorida Jr. from Dynamic Teen Company in the Philippines and Heather Mansfield from Nonprofit Tech 2.0 in the United States--will inspire the event attendees worldwide with their stories of having made a difference themselves and how technology helped create a positive impact.

"Every person now has the ability, through technology, to have a voice that is effectively global," she said.

Deevy explained that Microsoft decided to start Innovate4Good because from looking at the corporate social responsibility (CSR) work it did in supporting underserved communities and the changes happening in the world, it noticed a growing opportunity divide.

"If you missed the opportunity at the beginning, it can impact the rest of your life. If you didn't complete primary school or high school, if you didn't have access to Internet to technology, it puts you on a completely different path."

She pointed out that providing people access to technology can "completely change their life" because for those who have never touched a computer before, learning how to use a computer or having access to the Internet gives them the confidence to go for a job or set up their own business.

"It's the idea that you can take technology and you can work on any social cause, environment, healthcare or education. It's not just a linear path with technology that you go on to become a developer or a technologist. There're so many opportunities that open up," Deevy emphasized.

Sharing experience, learning from others
Ly added that besides sharing her experience through Innovate4Good, she hopes to learn new ideas to share with the people in Cambodia.

"I really want to help my country grow fast. I can tell you that I'm very jealous when I see other people's lives, why they're very fancy and Cambodia is very low. So now when technology can help make people develop fast, I really want to have that in my country."

The Ponheary Ly Foundation currently runs four primary schools and six secondary schools in Cambodia, serving about 2,500 children, with another 500 on the waiting list. The project is constantly looking for donations of computers, as only one of the primary school has a lab with 15 computers.

It is important that at least the primary schools all have computers so that the students acquire basic education levels if they drop out due to family work or lack the transportation means to get to secondary schools which are 5 to 10km away from the villages they live, Ly said.

"If we could have 1,000 laptops, we can put computer labs in all the schools we have, and I hope our students can get high education and develop their village. I don't think they can [achieve] the same level as [students] in Singapore but at least the same as the children in town," she said.