February 5, 2008 By Indrajit Basu, International Correspondent
Photo: People crowd around the eTuktuk during a visit to Weliganga village.
On the streets South Asia, the Tuktuk (so called for the peculiar sound of its engine) -- basically a three-wheeled motorcycle modified to carry passengers -- is a familiar sight. Its popularity stems from the fact that it is almost as affordable as a two-wheeler and it can squeeze into the smallest of lanes and travel over the bumpiest of roads. But up in the hilly region of Kothmale in central Sri Lanka, this humble vehicle has evolved into something much more than just a mode of cheap transport. It has become a full-fledged mobile telecenter, literally taking the concept of Community Multimedia Centre (CMC) to community doorsteps and empowering its people to bring about change and improvements.
In fact so innovative is this concept that it even won the the Stockholm Challenge Global Knowledge Partnership Award in Kuala Lumpur in December -- under the Public Administration category -- as a project that not only tops the list of ICT (Information Communication Technology) initiatives supporting development, but also for taking ICT to communities that have been marginalized by remoteness, lack of infrastructural facilities and poverty.
With a laptop, battery-operated printer, camera, telephone, recorder and scanner, and with Internet provided via a CDMA-enabled wireless connection, a small radio broadcasting set that can narrowcast content through the CDMA-internet connection, and everything powered by a 1000W generator, a dozen-odd Tuktuks (called eTuktuks) roam the 20 odd villages in the 30 kilometers radius of Kothmale everyday to extend the services of a traditional telecenter and radio station.
The eTuktuks roam these villages with three basic objectives. The most important is encouragement of broader community participation in the activities of an existing community, followed by increasing access and awareness of ICTs, and providing training and support for the delivery and creation of relevant localized content. "But above all," says Benjamin Grubb, its project coordinator, "by taking access (to ICT) directly to villages and presenting it to users in a familiar environment, eTuktuk is making technology less daunting."
In its true sense then, this project is just an extension of the good old Community Multimedia Centre and Radio Station. In simple terms, by making the equipment mobile, it facilitates first mile access to remote communities. So what's the big deal? After all, isn't it being done all over the world in some form or other?
The difference really lies in the circumstances under which this concept operates. Its novelty lies not in making a telecenter or a radio station mobile, but rather in the fact that it is bridging a digital divide caused, to some extent, by the lack of infrastructure, even transportation, and poverty.
"In most parts of Sri Lanka, mobility is almost always limited due to the high cost of public transport, irregular services and associated time involved in travel," says Ben. "Access is also restricted due to communal reasons -- factors such as caste, gender and ethnicity." The eTuktuk is also bridging the communal divides by increasing community participation and inculcating a sense of common cause, he addss
The eTuktuk has taken community building to a level which even government efforts could not achieve. According to its project managers, the telecenter and radio is not unknown in the Kothmale region, which had both ever since 1989. However since they were owned by the government and were priority focused, both of these tools were lying in a "state of neglect." By taking the radio station to the doorsteps, eTuktuk then has bought renewed vitality to the radio and telecenter in the region. Compared to the government-owned radio, the eTuktuk has also brought in far more creative reporting formats that incorporate a variety of media beyond basic radio programming, claims its operators.