Archive for December, 2007

How do people fall into poverty in India and Africa?

December 30, 2007

this weekend after reading Dr. Krishna’s papers (Duke University) i feel even more confident that large scale rural poverty in India can be solved, but that it is certainly not going to be solved the way we have been going about it historically. if we want to make a dent in the numbers, the survey data clearly indicate that poor villagers simply need make more money to afford basic needs like food and health care sustainably year after year. information services catering to mainstream agricultural needs are not enough to do this. we need new information services that can *connect* villagers to new local and regional economic opportunities/markets beyond agriculture. roughly, the total market for agriculture is limited to perhaps $100B or $200B annually and crop yields are at the mercy of weather, droughts, and so on. they need to somehow find 10x that. see my earlier post “India’s 450 million.” that got me thinking about all of this.

these papers show several commonly held assumptions are wrong. the survey teams talked to many thousands of families in 36 villages in each of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, and Gujurat in which poverty rates are 25-65% and vary a lot from village to village ( they also conducted parallel studies in Kenya/Uganda and in all cases found several similar patterns across india and Africa.

take education. it is a commonly held belief that villagers don’t want to send their kids to school. but that doesn’t seem to hold up against the data. even then, nor has primary education played significant role in which large numbers of families have risen or fallen out of poverty.

in the surveys they asked what villagers consider to be the poverty threshold, in order of priority. there is some variation among the states, but within each state they found universal agreement on villagers’ priorities which define the point at which they consider a family to be poor — only after this cutoff, villagers opinions diverged in each state.

Rajasthan — food, primary education, clothes, paying off debt

Gujurat — food, clothes, primary education, paying off debt, patching leaky roofs, farming a small plot of land (sharecropping)

Andhra Pradesh — food, patching leaky roofs, paying off debt, clothes

with the exception of AP, primary education was high up on the list only after food. why not in AP? the reason in AP is “not because parents care less about educating children, but because primary education is almost universally provided here and it is no longer something that is out of reach of even very poor households. All but a miniscule number of primary school-age children attend primary schools in these 36 villages, and annual fees for government-run primary schools are a pittance, easily within reach of even very poor households.”

across all three states, there were similar patterns in how families fell into poverty or rose out of poverty over 25 years. The number of families rising out of poverty (11% in Rajasthan, 10% in Gujurat, and 14% in Andhra) has been almost counteracted by the rate of falling into poverty (8% in Rajasthan, 6% in Gujurat, 12% in Andhra) for a net poverty reduction of only 2-4%.

in all three states, the most common pattern for 60-80% of villagers who fell into poverty was nearly identical — inability to afford the heavy costs for health care in chronic and life threatening illnesses, costs of social functions like death ceremonies and marriage functions, which in turn leads these families to take on high interest rate debt from local loan sharks (~3% per month). factors like laziness/drunkenness were identified in single digit percentages and not a major factor.

in the other direction, in almost all cases the only way families have risen and managed to stay out of poverty is simple: making more money by getting out of agriculture and diversifying their income sources so they can afford health care, support a family/social life, get a roof over their head, and repay their debt. they have done this by getting a better job in a city or accessing a new urban market through a contact/friend, farming very different more profitable crops, or getting a government job. it turns out primary education played a relatively minor role compared to other factors — so why push education on them if they will send their kids to school anyways, once they make enough money to eat?

migration to cities and government jobs can work for a limited number of families, and can only go so far and is not scalable. there needs to be a way to enable small-scale entrepreneurs with specialized skills to gain access to local markets to build up their own villages/regions by supplying higher value-add services/goods where the need is greatest and so the price is highest (long tail) — just like how AdWords/AdSense, EBay, and Amazon are enabling all sorts of small businesses in the US to gain access to markets they couldn’t otherwise reach before.

how can we do this in india? Internet access via kiosks and rugged laptops for kids (OLPC) is only part of the equation. perhaps one way to get started would be to create a service for villagers to input classified ads via the web and browse/search them the same way (like craig’s list) — keeps it simple to setup/operate, and easier to focus on getting the content right with categories tailored to rural economy’s needs such as electrical repair work, ads for doctors/hospitals/specialists, tractor repair needs, water purification, dramas/skits/performances, new shop/business openings, bicycles for sale, animal care, and so forth. the list is endless, unpredictable, and long-tail. the important thing is should be derived directly from demand/supply in the regional rural economy and can be extended to incorporate literally anything if a user needs to include it. if the site enables broader distribution not otherwise possible, the early users would be entrepreneurial buyers who want to get lower prices and entrepreneurial suppliers who will “do what it takes” to gain a competitive edge by connecting supply to demand.

for the foreseeable future, my understanding is that Internet/web terminal penetration will remain much lower than cell phones. Internet kiosks are mostly limited to larger population centers, but still within a day’s travel reach of most villagers. cell phones can reach a larger audience anywhere in the villages on a daily basis, and this can be combined with less frequent access to kiosks in larger centers. as site usage grows, it could justify supporting other access methods — which requires additional software development. a rural user could be given the capability to subscribe to “alerts” on a cell phone (txt message, voice mail), even via an interactive voice interface on a cell phone, or via the web itself at an Internet terminal. for instance, a worker who is skilled in electrical work may want to be notified by cell phone when an ad shows up within a radius of 20 miles of his village — once he gets a notification, he can request more details on his cell phone or otherwise go check at the nearest Internet terminal to see more details of the job requirements. replace “electrical work” with “bharata natyam” dance performance and you have a local cultural network.


‘One Laptop’ a hit in Peruvian village

December 27, 2007

‘One Laptop’ a hit in Peruvian village

The children of Arahuay prove One Laptop’s transformative conceit: that you can revolutionize education and democratize the Internet by giving a simple, durable, power-stingy but feature-packed laptop to the worlds’ poorest kids.

“Some tell me that they don’t want to be like their parents, working in the fields,” first-grade teacher Erica Velasco says of her pupils. She had just sent them to the Internet to seek out photos of invertebrates — animals without backbones.

Antony, 12, wants to become an accountant. Alex, 7, aspires to be a lawyer. Kevin, 9, wants to play trumpet. Saida, 10, is already a promising videographer, judging from her artful recording of the town’s recent Fiesta de la Virgen.

Global Warming — numbers please!

December 27, 2007

A few weekends ago after getting into yet another discussion about global warming where everyone thinks someone else has the numbers, but insists that hybrids and CFLs are the way to go… I decided to put together numbers that would be useful to whip out over drinks/discussions – slides available here. They are drawn from the IPCC and a few other sources. Conclusions on slide 3.

Why call it intelligence?

December 27, 2007

What have people been saying about the latest national intellgence estimate (NIE) on Iran?

  • Stupid Intelligence on Iran, By JAMES SCHLESINGER, December 19, 2007; Page A21, Wall Street Journal — Mr. Schlesinger is a former secretary of defense, secretary of energy and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Misreading the Iran Report: Why Spying and Policymaking Don’t Mix, By Henry A. Kissinger, Thursday, December 13, 2007; A35, The Washington Post — “In short, if my analysis is correct, we could be witnessing not a halt of the Iranian weapons program — as the NIE asserts — but a subtle, ultimately more dangerous, version of it that will phase in the warhead when fissile material production has matured.”
  • The Flaws In the Iran Report, By John R. Bolton, Thursday, December 6, 2007; Page A29, The Washington Post

The real news is that these kinds of doubts are nothing new. With the this many former US officials criticizing the latest NIE (Bolton, Kissigner, and now Schlesinger), I can’t help but recall the numerous times during the past 50 years that US intelligence community (IC) was off by +/- five years in predicting the timing of when foreign countries achieve nuclear capability. The NIEs provide a false sense of security in nuclear weapons issues because they are not good predictors — it’s extremely foolhardy to be making critical policy decisions that hinge upon NIEs or IC judgments/guesses. (there is a saying — you can’t prove you don’t have a sister.) see “The intelligence community fails” pages 13-16 of

I suggest we rename the NIE to the “Natoinal Speculation Estimate.” Policy makers in congress and the white house can’t simply insulate themselves by relying on a national estimate like this. Instead, congress and the white house need to be immerse themselves in the details, incorporate the raw data into their thinking, and then go with their gut — just like a judge or jury does in a courtroom — because they are 100% responsibile for the future of the nation.

Also see “A Look Back Reveals Forward Thinking” that examines the predictions in the recently declassified 1974 national intelligence estimate “Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”

The Amazon’s impact on climate change

December 7, 2007

The amazon forest in Brazil plays a unique role in the earth’s climate says this article “WWF says warming puts Amazon at risk.”

“The importance of the Amazon forest for the globe’s climate cannot be underplayed,” said Daniel Nepstad, author of a new report by the World Wide Fund For Nature released at the U.N. climate change conference in Bali.

“It’s not only essential for cooling the world’s temperature, but also such a large source of fresh water that it may be enough to influence some of the great ocean currents, and on top of that, it’s a massive store of carbon.”

Sprawling over 1.6 million square miles, the Amazon covers nearly 60 percent of Brazil. Largely unexplored, it contains one-fifth of the world’s fresh water and about 30 percent of the world’s plant and animal species — many still undiscovered.

Facebook App usage has a long tail

December 5, 2007

(this post was reposted by WebGuild on their site — here)

Earlier posts from a few months ago by bloggers Tim Oreilly and Chris Anderson concluded that usage of facebook apps do not follow a long tail. Were they looking at usage too early (October 2007) and so they didn’t get a chance to see the usage fully materialize?

The graph below shows facebook apps rank ordered on the x-axis by number of daily active users as of around 1pm PST on December 6, 2007 PST. There are 10,205 apps total of which about 9167 of them have one or more more daily active users.

Both axes of the plot below are displayed on a log-log scale. Compared to sharp drop off shown in the log-log plot on Chris Anderson’s blog based on October data, the tail here based on December data looks much flatter — in a matter of 2 months. One interpretation is that the tail is expanding outward with time as more and more apps get written and people learn to tap into specialized interests.

Long tail. Approximately 40 million users use these apps — some users maybe using more than one app. Of the 10,205 total apps, the top 21 apps account for 20 million active users — only half of the total usage. The top 87 apps for 30 million, and so the remaining apps account for 10 million more — something that is worth paying attention to.

Facebook App Usage on December 6, 2007 (log-log)

“Debugging the House”

December 2, 2007

“Debugging the House: From vacuums to towels, new products for the microbe-phobic” is about different technologies to fight bacterial germs in your house from the Wall Street Journal. In particular they discuss the pros/cons of

  • Silver Ions
  • Copper Oxide
  • Steam
  • Triclosan
  • Ultraviolet Light

All that said, the article tries to balance explaining the threat with the paranoia

Many common organisms can be dangerous or even deadly: Some 3,000 germs are known to cause human illness, says John Sinnott, director of Infectious Disease and International Medicine at the University of South Florida and Tampa General Hospital.

Even so, trying to wipe out all of the bacteria in your house isn’t advisable, experts say. Science writer Jessica Snyder Sachs, author of “Good Germs, Bad Germs,” says 99.9% of all germs are harmless to humans, and some are even beneficial. “Our bodies are covered with microbes, and many protect us against the bad guys,” she says.