Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ajai Chowdhry on IT in Africa

Real journalism is not an easy gig.  Your job is to report news, which means things nobody knows about yet.  Old news is no news, so you need to figure out what's going on as quickly as you can.  Extra time spent researching or editing is time that the story's not getting published.  Then you get to go on to something else you don't know about, though at least it will usually be in the same general vein.

So I feel a little bit bad as a casual blogger about picking on the CNN headline writer who characterized Indian IT entrepreneur Ajai Chowdhry's comments on African infrastructure as "Why broadband not roads will transform Africa."  But only a little bit.

From what I read, Chowdhry isn't saying that broadband is more important than roads.  The main assertions I get are that Africa's problems and solutions are the same as India's; India has had an advantage in being a single state instead of 53; because of their similarities and decades of close relations, doing business in Africa is not difficult for an Indian company; Africa represents a huge business opportunity; African manufacturing has a huge native market to supply; African unity will only help Africa's economy and stature in the world; and, yes, broadband and the web could and should play a major role in addressing African poverty.

Chowdhry mentions roads in one passage at the end:
But the one area where Africa can make a big difference is by not just looking at putting up roads -- it should look at putting up internet broadband-type infrastructure.
In other words, both are important, and perhaps broadband is being overlooked.

My point here is not to bash on CNN.  As I said, putting this all together is harder than it looks.  Rather, it's that Chowdhry's broad and well-developed view of the situation, from the standpoint of a key player in IT, provides a good perspective of how the web fits into the overall picture of economic development.

Given that Chowdhry is in the business of IT and clearly and openly hopes to gain from helping develop African IT, it's particularly notable how broad a view he presents.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Well now I've done it

Field Notes now has a baby sibling. Its name is Intermittent Conjecture and it has something I haven't seen in years: a post list that fits on one page. In fact, as I write this it contains only an introductory post. Considering that I skipped that formality with Field Notes, I suppose that's another first.

As I say there and said here, the plan now is to relax for a while and post whenever the mood strikes. If it's about the web, it will end up here. Otherwise it will end up there. Unless you are singularly obsessed with or repelled by talk of the web, you will probably not see a lot of difference between the two, other than the range of topics.

If there were regularly scheduled programming, this is where we would return to it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Wikipedia 1.0: journey vs. destination

While browsing through the Wikipedia policy pages (it was either that or just tattoo "Geek" on my forehead and be done with it) I ran across something I remembered running across a while ago, more or less shrugging at and moving on, namely an offline edition of Wikipedia. There seem to be two approaches:
  • The "German model": Distribute a snapshot of Wikipedia on CD. Why, I'm not sure. Perhaps to reach that select audience of people who have heard of Wikipedia but don't have an internet connection to access it*?
  • The "Wikipedia 1.0" model: Select the best, most polished articles and publish them, whether on paper, CD/DVD, read-only web site, or whatever.
The Wikipedia 1.0 project was proposed in 2003. At this writing, several versions have been released and 0.8 will be out Real Soon Now. That's not to say that 1.0 will be two versions from that. The beauty of the x.y version numbering scheme is that you don't have to go from 0.9 to 1.0. You can release 0.91, 0.95 ..., you can release 0.10, 0.11 ..., you can release 0.9a, 0.9b ... [But it looks like we'll go into 2016 still on version 0.8 ... my guess is that 1.0 isn't going to happen -- D.H. Dec 2015]

For my money, it's not particularly important whether 1.0 ever comes out. Plenty of good has come out of attempting the exercise at all, in particular as a spur toward improving the quality of core articles and encouraging the development of Wikipedia's quality and importance ratings. These exhibit a nice division of labor: People rate articles and computers aggregate the best-rated ones.

The main reason not to just leave it at that and integrate the ratings more directly into the UI, is that vandalism still has to be filtered by hand and, despite the lack of imagination exhibited by most vandals, always will be. But most likely even that could be handled without an explicit release mechanism, by means of "flagged revisions," which allow editors to flag particular revisions as being free of vandalism and otherwise up to snuff. Apparently the mechanism has been in place for a while but the community is still figuring out how best to use it.

What's the proverbial "simplest thing that could possibly work" here? Perhaps just allowing anyone -- or anyone with an account -- to tag a revision however they like, and allow readers to filter what revisions they see. E.g., only show me revisions that the quality rating committee has rated "good" or better and my friend Jimbo has rated "funny". The proposal for "sighted revisions" looks pretty close to this, though less flexible.

* That's a bit glib, as there are communities with access to computers but with limited or no bandwidth, but given it was the German edition at 3 Euros per CD, I doubt this was the intended audience. Nonetheless, 40,000 people opted to buy it.