Information Technology and the Rural Sector
For: 'The bush Telegraph for The 21st Century', Seminar by the NSW Liberal Party
31 July 1999
Draft 2.0, 28 July 1999: http://www.tomw.net.au/papers/itr.html
Tom Worthington discusses how IT can assist the rural sector. He first explores some of the myths of computing and the Internet which impede government policy making in IT. Then he looks at some of the urban biases built into IT development and how these can be overcome. Tom concludes with an example of an IT project which could help rural Australia and create a new technology export market for Australia. The speaker will then take questions and illustrate the answers using a live Internet connection (if available).
In this brief presentation I quickly cover a lot of points, making a lot of claims and suggestions. The support for these is in my book, "Net Traveller: Exploring the Networked Nation", published by the Australian Computer Society, this week. You can order the book from the ACS, read it free on the web and there is a brief slide show also on-line. The on-line version of this presentation contains links to the relevant chapters of the book.
There are many myths about computing and the Internet which impede government policy making:
- Development is rapid: The Internet came to prominence relatively quickly, within about a year. However, for those of us who have been using, and enthusing about it for more than ten years, progress looked very slow. The idea that progress is occurring at breakneck speed can be paralysing for policy development. The problem is not that development is happening so quickly, but that policy happens so slowly. It is possible to change that, by using the Internet to develop policy. Through the Australian Computer Society I helped develop national Internet policy, via the Internet, in 1994.
- Big companies are expert: Big IT companies are not IT experts. They were experts when they were small, which is why they became big. It is new small IT companies who become big, which have expertise. The skill needed is therefore to find the few small companies, and technologies, which will be successful and which big companies will want to buy. Placing your faith, your money, or your country in the hands of a big IT company is to back obsolete technology.
- Overseas companies are expert: The USA has no monopoly on IT expertise. Australia has some of the best IT people in the world and has had them for 50 years. But we need to stop and listen to what they have to say, before rushing overseas for advice.
- Progress is inevitable: Progress is only inevitable, in retrospect. Many technologies fail to work in practice, are of no practical use or simply don't find a market. In many cases there have to be several tries at getting the one technology to work, often by simplifying the concept. Think of it like driving a prototype car down a corrugated country road: you wait to see what bits fall off, bolt back on the more useful ones and leave the others behind, in a pile beside the road.
- We need more bandwidth: We will always need more and cheaper bandwidth. The skill is to find a cost effective use, here and now. This is particularly an issue for rural and remote users, form whom networking will costs more (unless some laws of physics can be revoked).
- Media Companies Know About the Internet: Media companies were late adopters of the Internet and still don't "get it". TV companies treat it as if it was TV, radio companies like radio and newspaper proprietors, like newspapers. The Internet isn't TV, radio or a newspaper. It can combine elements of all, but can be something else.
There are urban biases built into IT development; telecommunications in particular. This isn't surprising as the people who design the technology live in cities and design for the people with most money (in the city).
It is easier to design technology, assuming a constant and clean electricity supply, short cable runs and a repair van just around the corner. Some technologies, such as GSM mobile telephones, have an inherent distance limitation built in. GSM was designed for European cities and can't go the distance in the Australian countryside.
Urban IT developers assume that more bandwidth (bits per second) will be available, more computer power, bigger screens and more of everything else. I suggest that Australia, and Australian companies, can benefit the rural community and make a lot of money by building robust, low bandwidth products for outback users.
Lastly I want to propose a strategy for developing IT suitable for the Australian bush, a way to pay for it and a new technology export market for Australia. This is based on the original strategy which created the Internet. It uses the challenges of the Australian rural environment to develop robust, efficient products for a world market:
- Abolish the Defence Science and Technology Organisation
- Abandon Defence work on X.400 e-mail and other GOSIP technology
- Establish a small Australian Defence Research Agency (ADRA)
- Have ADRA fund research on robust and secure Internet networking and computing
- Test the products developed in rural Australia
- Export these products to the world
The Internet was developed with research money from the US Defence Department. The level of funding used was very modest, when compared to projects, such as the space program. If properly directed, the Australian Department of Defence has sufficient funding to invent the next Internet.
According to the Defence Annual Report 1997/98 the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), is spending $230.3 million a year on R&D and has 2,406 staff. However, DSTO research scientists are public servants and subject to secrecy provisions. This is not an environment conducive to collaboration with the private sector, or spin-offs of commercial products.
Several years ago, the US, UK, Australian and other western governments developed the Government Open System Interconnection profile (GOSIP). This was intended to provide a standardised way for government computers to communicate. But the Internet came along and overtook GOSIP. Defence is about the only part of Government still trying to get GOSIP to work. Our allies are not really taking it serious and Australian Defence should give up on GOSIP and put its efforts into making Internet technology secure and reliable.
In place of DSTO an Australian Defence Research Agency could be established. This would be modelled on the US DoD's Defence Research projects Agency (DARPA) and would work by contracting research to external R&D organisations. DSTO's current budget could be cut to return a 20% productivity bonus to Government and 10% of the remainder retained for administration (with 10% of the current staff level). The remaining 70% of budget, would provide $161 million for grants to Australian organisations to conduct research and development.
There is a strong synergy between the needs of defence IT and that of the rural community. Both need products which will operate in remote areas, a long way from service and support, away from high speed permanent network links and under demanding conditions.
Technologies developed for defence applications in Australia could have immediate spin-off application for the rural community. In addition this would be a good test ground for products for developing countries which lack a fixed IT infrastructure.
Below are some ideas for short term projects (six months to three years) which would be likely to product large benefits for the Australian Defence Force, products useful for the Australian rural community and export products.
- CDMA Internet clients: Telstra and other telecommunications companies have announced they will provide CDMA mobile telephone access for rural areas. While not yet proven in Australia, CDMA appears to be very suitable for Australian country areas for mobile telephony. CDMA also provides a low speed data service (slightly faster than GSM). This could be enhanced with smart client applications to provide a very useable Internet service for rural areas. The same bandwidth techniques could be applied for battlefield data networks. Some examples:
- Power Packer: This would be a wizard (helper application) to shrink the size of MS-Power Point and similar slide presentations. Power Point is used for military briefings, but can produce data files too big to send over a wireless network. Powerpacker would shrink the file to between one tenth and one hundredth the size for transmission. This can be done with no perceptible change in the displayed presentation.
- Web Worker: The web pages can display very slowly over low bandwidth links, such as mobile phones and military data nets. Web Worker would provide a range of facilities to reduce the bandwidth required. Web worker would also maintain an on-line session during breaks in the radio link.
- Mail Minder: A slow link can be clogged by a few large e-mail messages. Mail Minder would allow important messages to be selected for receipt and large ones to be skipped.
- Secure Net: The Internet is good for non-secure, non-reliable communications. However, more work is needed to make it reliable and secure, particularly for wireless networks, such as CDMA. Research could be aimed at the very demanding military communications application, with spin-offs for commercial use.
- Meta-data: Research to help people in rural areas (and military commanders) to quickly and efficiently find the information they need on-line, could be done. Australia is already advanced in its use of on0-pline search technology. An example is the Australian National University S@anity technology, launched on Thursday.
- Field Computer Usability: How do you work a computer in a badly lit, noisy environment, perhaps while wearing protective clothing and being bounced around by vehicle motion? The military research this problem for use of computers in armoured fighting vehicles. The same results can be applied to making computers in agricultural equipment easier and safer to use. The same techniques can also be applied for hand-held computers and for people with disabilities.
- Low Cost Surveillance Platform: In place of high cost surveillance aircraft, the use of small pilot-less aircraft could be developed. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology already has done work in this field.
There currently exists a gap in the military market for surveillance aircraft for military and civilian use. There are large, long range, long duration surveillance aircraft (based on civilian passenger aircraft design) and small, short range pilot-less craft (which look like model aircraft). However, technology now makes possible small, long range, long duration pilot-less craft. The BoM's Aerosonde robotic aircraft, has flown non-stop 3200 kilometres across the Atlantic Ocean.
Small long range aircraft could be used for military observation, early warning and communicates relay, in place of large manned aircraft. They would also have application for civilian crop observation, bush fire and flood observation.
- Bush Telegraph: One neglected aspect of use of the Internet is the need to retain the sense of community between people. This applies as much to a military organisation, as to a local community or rural produce group. Research is needed as to what training, tools and techniques are best to allow for group cohesion.
IT can assist the rural sector. Governments need to understand the myths of computing which impede policy making. IT development is rapid, but Australian researchers can advise what is coming, in time for policy makers to get ready. Big IT companies are not IT experts and small start-ups can be encouraged. The urban biases built into IT development can be overcome. Federal Defence research funds can be diverted to provide commercial R&D spin-offs.
Tom Worthington is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University. He is an electronic business consultant, author and information technology professional, with 17 years experience in information technology, including nine years on high level IT policy and five in Internet applications.
- Slides for the presentation.
- Information Technology and the Rural Sector, Rural Rendezvous Seminar on 'The bush Telegraph for The 21st Century', by the NSW Liberal Party. Contact: email@example.com
- Author's home page