At Microsoft Research (and MS in general) we're paying a lot of attention to issues around "digital inclusion." There are lots of things thrown into this big bucket, so we spend a lot of time trying to tease apart the pieces and to develop research efforts and other programs that help address the fundamental issues.
This morning we announced two things in the "other programs" bucket.
The first is a Request for Proposals -- open to academic researchers around the globe -- on how we can help fund digital inclusion projects. The formal RFP has all the details, but the beginning I think sums up really well what the effort is about:
There has been growing recognition that the power of computing and information technology must be, and can be, extended beyond its traditional user base to reach people who until now have not had access to such technology. Being digitally connected has become ever more critical to economic, educational, and social advancement. The term “Digital Inclusion” is used in this document to describe the goal of expanding the capabilities of computing technology worldwide to better serve social and economic challenges of underserved communities, both rural and urban. (The term “Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D)” is also often used in the academic research community to describe the same goal.)
Specifically, Digital Inclusion means that computing must be affordable, accessible, and relevant. Novel approaches in computing technology have the potential for great impact in a range of areas, including education, healthcare, and economic development. The relevance that research projects can have in this area is significant, given that estimates of populations that can be positively affected by computing technologies fall within 2–4 billion people worldwide. Some tough research problems must be solved to realize that vision — such as work in last-mile networking infrastructures, intuitive user interfaces, low-cost computing devices, and geographically relevant applications. The External Research & Programs group in Microsoft Research will support research into the use of technologies, such as cell phones, wireless technologies, and applications, that make computing affordable, accessible, and relevant.
We're making $1.2 million of funding available under this program, which won't solve the problem but heopfully will seed some new initiatives and experiements and broadne the diversity of efforts.
The second program we announced today is the "Microsoft Research Inspire" program. The goal of this program is to help build better connections between the academic computer science communities in developing countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle East and the global community. There are three parts to the Inspire program:
- an effort to match up universities in developing countries with academics who would like to be visiting instructors in computer science. MSR will help with the matchmaking and provide a travel stipend.
- Microsoft Research will be sponsoring computer science summer schools in 2006, bringing together faculty and students from developing countries for workshops, tutorials and lectures.
- MSR will be offering "PhD proposal awards" to up to 100 students finishing up their undergraduate degree who have been accepted to begin a doctoral program in any devleoping coutnry in Europe, the Middle East, or Africa.
I think it's super important that companies take responsibility for addressing issues like digital inclusion, and particularly in ways that build the capacity and abilities of the people in those countries themselves. Real solutions to these kinds of problems start from the inside -- from the people who understand the problems best -- and work their way out. I'm very glad to see my organization step up to do something that will heopfuly make a difference.