Since everything now happens at the touch of a button; the world has gone beyond washing clothes, zapping mosquitoes, or answering calls from somebody sitting three continents away. No longer are the benefits commercially applicable, but capable of being utilized by the state institutions themselves. M-Governance – also called Mobile Government – is being used the world over as we speak, and has only of late landed here. Better late than never, they say? Mobile technology has broken all barriers and even 80 % of those living in poor conditions in the country now carry a phone. This is astonishing to find, yet a feature that should find a way of helping us all – especially those helping us all i.e. the government.
There is something self-affirming in the knowledge that trends from abroad are being replicated in the country; a self-affirmation in the belief that what can happen in the developed world can also be practiced home. State institutions and civil servants in the developing country are often perceived as the most corrupt, and riddled with problems, brimming us all to tears. The state infrastructure is often too outdated to efficiently overturn problems. However, Pakistan’s turning over a new leaf in its history, with the adoption of a computerized national identification system, and the latest – the mobile technology used in Punjab, the employment of alcohol-testing equipment in Islamabad and the placement of SIM technology in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for the identification of missing, unregistered vehicles – all point out to a start of a very promising era. All the current moves made on a federal and provincial level, it is no mistake that the Prime Minister’s vision of a ‘knowledge economy’ can be seen as taking form.
Academicians, and even politicians, are sometimes blamed for weaving together an unreal world; the academicians with their books and research papers, and the politicians with their political campaigns. However, the recent trends in the world of academia and politics see a turn for the better. A big name, Dr. Umar Saif’s name, certainly comes into mind with the mention of academia and politics both. A personality well-known in the spectrum of technology that often writes for dailies, and is currently heading Punjab’s Information Technology Board – Dr. Umar’s background in Cambridge, MIT and LUMS speak before him. In an environment hostile to a marriage of the ‘university can-do’ attitude with the ‘where-to-start-from’ civil institutions’ attitudes, Dr. Umar Saif, along with his LUMSian protégé, Asim Fayyaz, has come out with a lot of initiatives changing the face of Punjab.
From opening up his home to engineering start-ups, to coming out with digital literacy initiatives such as ‘Polly Project’ to groom those less aware of using mobile phones, to educating civilians on their role as citizen journalists by covering the ‘Long March for Freedom’ in Pakistan post Musharraf’s rule – that becoming a big initiative attracting the local and foreign press, Samaa tv, and later Geo Dost; BBC and France 24/7 – Dr. Umar Saif’s biggest achievement, by far, would be mentorship at the Saif Incubation Centre. A framework that is helping breed new start-ups: a new generation of ideas centered in doing something big; something long-standing.
It is here that Asim Fayyaz, the Founding Director of Technology for People’s Initiative, walks in. With his lofty ideas, and “the eternal energy” that keeps the centre pumping, young Fayyaz, with the support of the then Chairman of the Computer Science Department Dr. Sohaib Khan – eager to bridge the gap between academia and the real-world, much accredited to Dr. Umar Saif – was able to interest Google into funding for his project of People’s Initiative Centre. The Centre, responsible for solving civic problems with the government, using specialists in the field, is working tightly on two projects, currently, says Asim: the judiciary and the crime-mapping systems.
The way it works is that, there is an academic professor helping the government official in understanding the problem at hand, a computer science major and a designer all putting their heads together to bring in more creative ways of helping the society combat the particular problem. The centre is where the brainstorming and ideas float from. This nexus is flexible and allows everybody to move forward with their projects and timelines. “We feel this is a very convenient way, having programmable teams. So, as the work goes down in one project, the designers go down to some other project; developer could find work somewhere else, and so on. So, we have a small pool that is cross-utilizable across projects.”
In regard to these practices, it is only helping both the partners of this project, the university and the government, and at large, the people themselves; hence, the name: Technology for People’s Initiative. Was a large amount of money important to raise for this project? Asim says no. $50,000 from Google was all they needed to get going for the entire first year. As a graduate, Fayyaz wanted to change the way things were going around and so he started working as somebody using technology to fight the bad –much like Bruce Wayne. Experience gained from working with World Bank helped provide the exposure, which Asim was very keen on taking forward for the rest of the graduates – in providing them a place to start out from their own university.
The government can ascertain, how over the time period, crime is increasing, or decreasing in a certain locality from the crime-mapping project People’s Initiative is currently working on. Trends become easier to assess subsequently. Similarly, the initiative to improve the judiciary only makes it easier for the government to uproot corrupt practices and unhealthy norms plaguing the systems. Not to mention, it helps the government in keeping check: how well are the judges working, for example. Other two exploratory projects, Asim shares, have been funded by the World Bank and help in tracking the attendance in schools and hospitals with the help of phones, also in ascertaining the extent of poverty in the different areas of Pakistan.
Stories of Bruce Waynes, the likes of Dr.Umar Saif and Asim Fayyaz are a source of great comfort, especially since there is such a difference for graduates to find in their universities and the ‘real world.’ The challenges of course, like any fish swimming upstream, are aplenty. The difficulty arises in asking the government to change their practices – the deeply cemented practices of “writing down everything at once” compared to the automated forms on android phones, notes Fayyaz. The other challenge was in making students see eye to eye with regards Technology for People’s Initiative, that being a viable option as a career.
Fayyaz urges everybody to see the fruits of this labour, making a case that it is only the educated of the country that can make the difference. “We really need the brilliant, the educated from Harvard, Stanford and MIT in our government right now. The government wants them to work for them but can’t hire on private-sector-style salaries so people need to set such systems that can allow people to solve those problems which will benefit all of us.” And that is where the Technology for People’s Initiative comes in.