Given the fact that most of the Internet got started in America -- and Americans dominate its use -- it's easy to forget the rest of the world is not only using the Web, but doing so in unique and creative ways. Amazon.com and AOL tend to get the lion's share of attention when it comes to how things should be done online, but names such as Bhoomi, Golaganang and e-Boks, although lesser known, are still valuable online creations that have sprung up around the globe.
Some are surprising and unusual solutions to familiar problems -- a "last mile" powered by bicycle pedals, a cell phone-based parking solution and many flavors of online education.
Here is a brief look at some innovative IT solutions happening around the world.
Access Across Archipelagos, Slums and Deserts
The Solomon Islands People First Network is a rural e-mail network that connects this remote island nation using solar-powered computers networked over short-wave radio.
Archipelago Net uses a fiber-optic backbone with wireless LAN links to connect the thinly populated 30,000-island archipelago between Sweden and Finland. Connectivity has made the islands more attractive for year-round residents, and as one official joked, "Every fish will have an Internet address."
While Internet penetration remains low in Egypt, the government is making it easy for people to get started -- with free Internet access and nearly 400 government-subsidized IT clubs.
In a rather strange experiment called the Hole in the Wall project, computer scientist Sugata Mitra installed touchscreen computers without instructions in walls throughout the Indian slums. Poor children with only access and opportunity quickly taught themselves to use the computers, access information and play games.
In Laos, bringing the Information Age to rural farmers in Ban Phon Kam and nearby Laotian villages is a difficult task. There are no telephone lines or electricity in the area. The Jhai Foundation's answer is a rugged solid-state computer, which draws only 20 watts (70 watts when printing) and is powered by a car battery and a bicycle-type foot crank. The computer runs on a Lao-language version of Linux. A wireless LAN, based on the 802.11b Wi-Fi protocol, transmits signals between the villages to a server at the Phon Hong Hospital for switching to the Internet or Lao telephone system. Villagers can now make telephone calls with voice over IP, send e-mail and print materials, which will help villagers profit from crop surpluses and export textiles by giving them the ability to communicate with Laos' capital. Young entrepreneurs are helping to launch business development activities.
Dialing Up Train Tickets and Parking Places
In Canada's two largest cities, Montreal and Toronto, Bell Canada converted pay phone boxes into Wi-Fi hot spots for its AccessZone pilot. The phone boxes were replaced by wireless transmitters, and DSL carries both pay phone and wireless service from the same location.
In Japan, commuter rail tickets are a dial-tone away. NTT DoCoMo and the East Japan Railway Co., are developing Mobile Suica, which incorporates a rail-pass transponder in a DoCoMo cell phone. The Suica technology, scheduled to be operational by year-end, includes an integrated chip and antenna, and acts as a prepaid fare card as the commuter passes through the gate.
Parking in Ireland's capital city has gone mobile. Dublin motorists can use mPark to pay parking fees by mobile phone. The motorist stops at a parking facility and dials a number posted on the payment machine. The machine gives instructions verbally, telling the motorist to enter a four-digit number displayed on the machine. The motorist's name appears on the parking machine's screen, he or she selects the amount of parking time desired and the machine prints a ticket to display on the vehicle dashboard.
Australia also developed a mobile phone payment system for parking. The my-T-phone pilot project allows customers to register their mobile phone number and vehicle details online. They prepay their parking fees by credit card and go online to check their account balance, parking history or change their vehicle details. To pay for parking, customers can call the number displayed at the car lot to start the virtual parking meter when they arrive, and call again to stop it when they leave. SMS is used to confirm fee payments and warn if an account has insufficient funds. Customers also have the option to prepay for parking time. The service sends a reminder 5 minutes before the prepaid time expires. Parking inspectors view a list of vehicles authorized to park in the area using a WAP phone or handheld computer.
Tooling Education with the Internet
The United Kingdom's government-backed media giant, BBC, got permission to launch a tax-supported online digital curriculum service for schools in the country. Following complaints by educational publishers, money was also made available as "e-learning credits" to allow schools to acquire software from commercial educational publishers.
UaeMath, based in the United Arab Emirates, aims to provide free math help and integrate technology, curriculum and user needs to make students appreciate math and thus improve their socioeconomic status.
Educ.ar is Argentina's national Internet education portal aimed at democratizing education in the country by providing high-quality, interactive educational content and services. Educ.ar integrates all official academic subjects in all levels of the Argentine educational system.
In England, the BBC reported that the Venerable Bede Church of England Aided School, scheduled to open in September, will use retinal scanners to identify children in the school lunchroom and library. Administrators of the 900-pupil "school of the future" maintain that the scanning technology will be safe and less costly than swipe cards or other identification systems. However, the technology is questioned by some who don't see the need for it.
Four Out of Five Continents Use E-Government
To ramp up government use of IT, South Africa's Golaganang project will provide computers, software and Internet connectivity to 50,000 government employees and their families. The government hopes the project will stimulate a culture of digital learning and propagate an information-driven economy -- something the South African government places high on its policy agenda. The package will cost employees from $10 to $40 per month, and subsidies are available based on a sliding scale.
Bhoomi, a major document computerization project, delivers 20 million land records to 6.7 million landowners through 177 government-owned computer kiosks in the Indian state of Karnataka. The project has reduced red tape and corruption in access to land title records.
On Oct. 6, 2002, Brazil conducted one of the first totally "informatized" elections in the world. Brazil's 115 million voters -- who are required by law to vote -- all used electronic voting machines witnessed by representatives from 37 countries and three international agencies. Electronic voting machines powered by car batteries were carried in canoes up the Amazon to remote villages. The operating panels, with numerical keys from zero to nine, display a photograph of the candidate once their number is keyed in. Once voting is completed, the machine plays a tune to let the voter know the job is done. The system covers state and federal representatives, senators, governors, and presidential candidates.
In a recent election, citizens of Anieres -- a suburb in Geneva, Switzerland -- cast their ballots in person, by mail or on the Internet. The online voting used several methods of security and marked the first binding vote occurrence online in Switzerland. Online voting is scheduled in Zurich and Neuchatel, and if successful, could spread to national polls.
E-Boks is a secure and free electronic archive for citizens of Denmark. Documents, from both public authorities and private enterprises, as well as the citizens' private documents, can be transmitted and stored electronically in a secure, remote location, which is accessed via the Internet. Denmark's 2.4 million households each receive an average of 230 administrative letters annually by mail. Replacing this physical mail with e-mail is expected to save the senders approximately 1.6 billion Danish Kroner annually (approximately $220 million). The costs associated with establishing and running the e-Boks service are covered by charges to senders, who pay a fee to join and a transmission fee equivalent to about 25 percent of the current costs of mailing a physical letter.
Wayne Hanson is the editor of Government Technology International.