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Microsoft Strives to Bring Relevant, Affordable and Accessible Technologies to the World’s Rural Underserved Populations


Michael Aldridge, group manager in the Unlimited Potential Group, discusses the new Unlimited Potential Rural Innovation Award, part of Imagine Cup 2008, and how Microsoft takes a multifaceted approach to drive sustained social and economic opportunity in the developing world.

REDMOND, Wash., July 2008 – Microsoft executives have always believed that the magic of software could change the world, and many of them have witnessed firsthand how technology has solved key global problems. But high-tech innovations have largely changed lives for the small percentage of people who can afford to buy them, so Microsoft is making investments and taking action toward bringing these same benefits to the rest of the world.

This effort is central to Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential Group (UPG), which seeks to engage the more than five billion people in the developing world who have yet to experience technology’s full benefits. One part of that effort, Rural Shared Access Computing, focuses on driving relevant innovation to people who make between US$2 and $5 a day, live in rural communities and have yet to harness the potential of the information society.

PressPass: What would you say your vision is for the Rural Incubations team in the Unlimited Potential Group?

Aldridge: Historically, our company has focused on the one billion people at the top of the economic pyramid. However, UPG was given the charter to think creatively on how we can touch the next five billion potential customers through new solutions that will engage and develop socioeconomic value in their lives. We see our work as a great example of how Microsoft is leading the industry in this area.

How we innovate for this population requires three core tenets: a focus on relevance, accessibility and affordability. Through the years, we have learned that technology for technology’s sake is not a solution to the complex challenges faced by rural populations in China, India, Southeast Asia or Africa. If something is not relevant, it doesn’t matter how cool the technology is, it will fail.

Our primary focus in the Rural Incubations team has been to look at ways to provide shared access to computing in rural areas that will help give people in these areas opportunities to gain 21st-century skills that can lead to new jobs and opportunity. We are also looking at how we can think about mobile solutions to help provide more value through mobile phones, which are being adopted at an incredibly rapid rate in the developing world.

PressPass: Based on the tenets you mention, what is one service or application this population is likely to enthusiastically embrace?

Aldridge: Initially, we thought affordability would be the number one priority among this population, but through the years, we’ve found that was just not the case. Affordability is actually closer to a third priority. Relevance — doing things to make their lives easier — is number one.

The mobile phone is hugely relevant to this population, and we are looking at how we can better innovate around that. I just came from China a couple of weeks ago, where we were visiting people in an extremely remote rural village. Universally, being able to make a phone call to loved ones and reach the outside world is critical — yet only recently have people in this area had access to decent telephone communication through mobile networks. The villagers might have loved ones working in other areas, or small-business owners might need to reach out to suppliers and sell products beyond their immediate location. In some instances, people travel many, many miles to work, or to rural boarding schools provided by the government. A mobile phone offers some incremental improvement to the hardships of life in this area. That’s incredibly motivating and what makes me extremely excited to go to work every day to think about how we can create solutions that will help people in fundamental ways .

PressPass: A Rural Innovation award has recently been added to the global Imagine Cup competition. Why is this award important?

Aldridge: The award was envisioned as a way to tap the creative power of students around the world while stimulating the software ecosystem to get thinking about how to apply their talent and energy to the challenges of underserved populations. We hope this effort is the first step toward planting seeds in the minds of students that might germinate into real-world solutions. The overall theme of Imagine Cup this year is environmental sustainability, and students were asked to contribute to the mission of protecting our world for generations to come. This theme dovetails nicely with our rural innovation mission, as environmental sustainability is one of the critical issues facing populations in the developing world.

PressPass: What would you say was the outcome?

Aldridge: We have five teams from around the world. We are very excited about the diversity and relevance of the solutions as well as the diversity of rural challenges they are trying to address. Entries ranged from technology that enables communities to be more proactive in reporting environmental challenges with mobile phones, to a solution that helps governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reforest the jungles of South America with a tree seedling-management system. Each team’s project was very exciting for different reasons. The student teams have had the opportunity this week to pitch their solutions to a panel of thought leaders who tomorrow will be choosing a winner.

On or after July 8, visit the Imagine Cup Virtual Pressroom to find out the winning team for the 2008 Rural Innovation Award. We wanted to come up with a relevant prize for this award that would offer a truly amazing experience for the winner, and the winning team members will get to be interns with one of our key partners, the Technology for Emerging Markets group, and Microsoft Research in Bangalore this summer, led by Dr. Kentaro Toyama. His team, incidentally, just won the Stockholm Challenge this year and has helped to develop several innovative ideas that have been turned into solutions for shared computing.

PressPass: What makes Microsoft unique in the rural innovation space?

Aldridge: Microsoft is unique because from a technical and business standpoint we are a company of broad interests, diverse areas of expertise, a tremendous global reach, the ability to make long-term bets and the desire to change lives for the better. Our charter within the Unlimited Potential Group is to really think creatively and be a change agent within the company, engaging a broad set of different businesses. For example, there is our strong partnership with Microsoft Learning. We just came back from visiting villages in rural India and examining how we can adapt our Microsoft Learning curriculum to better operate in places that have only four hours a day of power and very slow Internet connectivity. We also have worked closely with the Windows and Office teams to help influence ways we can change licensing models to better fit scenarios for governments and commercial companies that want to partner to bridge the digital divide. We also work closely with other field organizations like our Public Sector group, which works closely with governments as they develop their own strategies for how to extend the benefits of ICT to their underserved populations. Trying to address the global challenges of the underserved is clearly a long-term endeavor, the same long-term view that has historically served Microsoft well in other endeavors.

PressPass: What would you consider the most compelling ongoing rural innovation projects at this time?

Aldridge: The work we’ve been doing in rural incubations is helping to make it easier for Microsoft to provide valuable and relevant services to underserved communities through telecenters, or kiosks, which provide an underserved population with access to PCs, much like a cybercafé. These kiosks, each equipped with a few PCs, are made available in areas where cybercafés would not normally exist.

This may sound really basic, but we’ve learned that people making less than US$2 a day don’t really buy the “If you build it, they will come” philosophy. Just putting a PC out there with connectivity doesn’t guarantee success, and historically sustaining and increasing the impact of a telecenter has been difficult. These populations not only lack infrastructure, they must grapple with the elements as well — dust, sun, wind and rain. There is a lot of local research and connections to be made before you can really drive change from telecenters. One focus has been to try and better understand the key to success and reasons for their failure. We did a two-year tracking study in rural India with over 300 telecenters, or kiosks, as they are referred to there. Six out of 10 failed in the first two years, but of the ones that survived, one of the key success factors was that they built their business around computer training, and having owner-operators as strong entrepreneurs. Our efforts seek to bridge the digital divide in ways that will impact people’s livelihood and improve their ability to find more sophisticated jobs.

Our work with Microsoft Learning is focused on tailoring our curriculum in digital literacy and Windows and Office. Currently, this kind of IT training is offered all over India; however, the quality and consistency is spotty and employers don’t trust a person’s competency when they complete a course from an unknown company, which is a lose-lose situation for both job seekers and employers. Microsoft can play a unique role here, partnering with the kiosk operator to deliver a consistent quality experience with a trusted and familiar brand. Microsoft is well known in India and Microsoft Learning has been delivering certifications in core IT skills for decades. This is what we are researching in rural India this summer, and it is a perfect example of how a relevant offering, not just a low price, is critical to creating value for rural customers.

We’re also very proud of a program Microsoft Research in Bangalore developed called Digital Green. It just won the Stockholm Challenge, a prestigious international ICT award. This project disseminates locally, relevant agricultural information to small and marginal farmers in India through mediated digital video that sustains relevancy in a community by developing a framework for participatory learning.

This project has met with early success in the popularization of sustainable farming practices in the 12 villages in which the system is currently deployed. Over 1,000 farmers are continually involved in the content production and dissemination aspects of the system. At least five times more farmers have attempted better agricultural practices after integration of the Digital Green system, since the NGO’s previous efforts.

PressPass: What’s next? How do you envision these rural innovation programs, and Microsoft’s role, evolving and expanding?

Aldridge: We’re very encouraged by Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential vision and how that applies to the work of our group in particular. Our charter going forward will be one of the torchbearers within the company for that mission.

People have a perception that Microsoft has a PC-first mindset. But we know that many within this population have their first experience with technology on a mobile phone and we are thinking hard about how we can develop solutions that harness this.

The Imagine Cup also in my opinion was a breakthrough, helping us engage young minds and the best and brightest within the academic community to help people in rural communities with no access to power, who often live in extreme conditions. This truly underscores the reality that Microsoft can’t do it alone. We need the energy, talent, voices and creativity of our many partners to truly make a difference.


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