Monday, October 20, 2003

World Summit Awards Dubai: The Voting Process 

Monday was a contentious day at the World Summit Awards jury as we began our process of voting on the projects we'd select. The first several rounds of voting went fairly well, but we hit a snag at the e-entertainment section. First of all, the committee only presented us with five choices, even though we had to select five; this meant our vote was meaningless and we wouldn't be able to have an impact on the decision. There was also a lot of concern about the quality of some of the projects presented to us. After more than an hour of debate, we decided to have the first e-entertainment panel sit down with the second panel and re-review the sites together to find several more sites that could be put up for consideration.

Unfortunately, because I was departing from Dubai Tuesday morning, this meant I wouldn't be there for the final vote. I submitted my votes on projects I'd reviewed ahead of time, but I wouldn't know who won until I got back. This was a shame, since two US projects were up for consideration during the remaining votes, so I'd just have to wait and see.

Dinner that night took place in an outdoor lakeside pavilion at Dubai Internet City. Once again we were smothered in a buffet of Arab, Indian and continental delicacies. It's a good thing alcohol isn't served at these events, cause I feel like I'm going to gain a ton of weight from this Vegas-like buffet grazing.

After dinner I had a quick drink at the bar with Martin Casey from Ireland, Garegin Chugaszyan from Armenia and Lawrence Zikusoka from Uganda. We marveled at the state of economic development in Dubai, but wondered how all this construction and IT investment would work in the long run. It's great to see the Dubai royal family recognizing that oil wealth won't last forever, and embracing ICT businesses seems like a good move for now.

By 12:30am it was time for me to call it a night; I'd have to get up in five hours for my 20-hour commute back to Washington.... -ac

Evening Dubai Tour 

Garegin Chugaszyan of Armenia IT Foundation Last night Megan Knight of South Africa and I took a break from the formal evening events and went to central Dubai for a few hours. We caught a ride from one of our Dubai colleagues to Bur Dubai's textile souk, then caught an abra water taxi to Deira, where we did a whirlwind tour of the souks -- which I must admit are much more vibrant at night than they are in the day. We each bought some frankincense and sandlewood in the spice souk, and Megan picked up a couple of silk shawls. We had a quick bite to eat at the Persian restaurant along the corniche where I ate a week ago last Sunday. We weren't particularly hungry so we split a lamb kebab, but they piled on huge complimentary plates of mixed salads, Persian bread and soup I felt like I was going to explode.

We caught a water taxi back to Bur Dubai and hailed a taxi for the 40-minute ride through Jumeira Beach back to our hotel. We met up with Garegin Chugaszyan of Armenia's IT Foundation (see picture), Martin Casey of Ireland and Suzanne Stein of Canada and hung out at the hotel bar until nearly two in the morning, recounting the work of each of our panels and lamenting the fact that our work here in Dubai would soon come to its conclusion... -ac

Getting to the Semifinals 

Most of the groups were able to wrap up their lists of semifinalists yesterday afternoon, though a lot of people are still working on their summaries of each candidate. In just about 45 minutes we'll begin a series of plenary sessions in which each group will have 20 minutes to present their semifinalists, followed by a chance for public comments either for or against a particular site, followed by a vote. We'll each be able to vote on a maximum of five candidates. If a project from our own country is under consideration, we will not be allowed to present it, take part in the debate, or vote, to avoid an unfair advantage to those of us in attendance (versus the judges who submitted sites from their country but did not come to Dubai). If we're lucky, we'll have a list of five finalists for each of the eight categories. I'd hesitate to call them winners, since this process is inevitably subjective at many levels. Rather, they'll be presented as compelling examples of what's going on in a particular e-field around the world.

Once the votes for the five sites in each category are complete, there will be a second process of selecting sites that are geographically representive. In other words, we'll have a showcase of creative content from various categories from six regions of the world. There will undoubtedly be overlap between the two groups, but it will help give us a broad sampling of digital content, presented in terms of what's noteworthy in each category, and what's noteworthy in different geographic regions. Unfortunately, much of the decisionmaking for the latter will be done after I have to return to DC for our E-Government for All pre-conference event at the National Press Club on Wednesday, but I'll be able to submit my votes electronically so I'll be counted in the final tally... -ac

Sunday, October 19, 2003

This morning we began the process of looking at the quarterfinalists for the e-culture category. The original list of 70+ products had been trimmed to 18, and our group was now tasked to bring the list down to the top seven or eight. At first we were worried this would be very difficult, but it turned out that the 18 projects easily fell into three categories: three first-tier projects that were the best, hands down; four projects that were good and worthy of consideration, and 11 projects that were not competitive enough to be a finalist. We're now going to write up detailed descriptions of our seven recommendations so we can present them in a plenary session to our entire group of 36 people. From this process, we'l choose the top five sites overall, category by category. We will also identify the best projects on a regional basis. We're rather unclear on how the latter process will work, but hopefully we'll have clarification soon.... -ac

Saturday, October 18, 2003

World Summit Awards Day Two: Dinner with a Prince 

Dubai crown princeAfter wrapping up our work around 6pm, we hastily returned to the hotel to change into more formal clothes for the grand opening of the Dubai Knowledge Village, the new information and education technology campus of Dubai's ICT free trade zone. Sporting our best outfits, we arrived at the village, a, massive pavilion with a broad courtyard cutting down its center. The courtyard was filled with exhibits on the information society, and several hundred guests were already exploring them.

The guest of honor for the evening was Dubai's crown prince Mohammed (see picture), who was being given a tour of each exhibit. A wave of cameramen and Emiratis dressed in their formal white costumes surrounded the crown prince, as he was briefed on each exhibit by docents. I managed to squeeze my way into the camera crew and get a dozen or so pictures of the crown prince before one of his security people politely but firmly grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me back out of the crowd of VIPs.

We were then ushered into a circular courtyard converted into a dining hall for probably over 500 people, including the crown prince and his VIP guests. It truly felt like a royal banquet; hundreds of chefs were dotted along the perimeter cooking a range of food on giant open grills and woks, while a string quartet performed on a balcony high above.

WSA panelists group pictureDinner was preceeded by a multimedia performance or light, music and actors performing as great scholars in Arab history. Each performer talked about the importance of knowledge, information and literacy in the history of both the Arab world and the west, from the invention of the first paper mill in Baghdad over 1000 years ago, to the works of philosphers such as al Kindi and John Dewey. After the performance, we were treated to a feast of Arab mezzes for appetizers, followed by a buffet of over a dozen entrees, from sweet and sour snapper to the most delicious lamb chops I've ever tasted. Somehow we managed to save room for the desert buffet, which of course was highlighted by the incredible selection of phyllo and shredded wheat sweets for which the Middle East is so famous. Before heading to the bus, we posed for a group photo, hoping that none of our stomachs would explode as our elderly Arab photographer precariously steadied himself while standing on a chair.

Returning to the hotel at 11pm, many of us went to the bar for what should have been a quick drink. Soon it turned into an aggressive lobbying effort by our Cypriot delegate to organize a midnight swim in the ocean. Despite my intial desire to catch up on sleep, I gave into peer pressure and joined a dozen or so fellow jurors and hit the water at half past midnight. For an hour or so we floated in the gloriously warm, salty water, relaxing and doing our best to talk about everything in the world except business. I finally got to sleep some time after 2am, giving me about four hours of sleep before our planned sunrise swim. When in Dubai for such a brief period of time, of course, every moment of free time counts... -ac

Day two of the review process 

It's noon here in Dubai and we've just completed our review of over 60 e-science sites. A small number of sites are clearly competitive, while most are not, which is disappointing. Once all groups are done with their set of products, we'll swap categories and review each other's quarterfinalists. Still don't know which category we'll do next. -ac

Friday, October 17, 2003

World Summit Awards Jury, Dubai:
First full day of reviews 

Peter BruckToday was our first day getting down to the hard work of reviewing over 600 submissions from more than 120 countries: recommendations of the best digital content in eight different categories. Peter Bruck of Austria (pictured right) spent the morning reviewing for us the nature of the process, and the importance of focusing on projects that are contributing original, innovative content to the information society.

There are 36 of us on the jury, each of us from a different country, ranging from Argentina to Armenia, from Bahrain to Bangladesh. It's truly an extraordinary group of people, and I feel privledged to be a part of it.

Essentially, what we're doing is dividing ourselves into teams of four or five people, each group selected for geographic and gender diversity. We then tackle all the products submitted in one of the categories. In my case I'm reviewing e-science projects. The awards organizers have created a handy online database for us to submit our reviews, with criteria in six categories, each ranging with a scale from one to six. We'll use this method for weeding out the weakest projects from each category, hopefully narrowing it down to the top 15-20 projects, usually out of a group of 60 to 100 projects for each category. Our group is then assigned another subject area, and review the quarterfinalists, reducing the number down to maybe eight or 10. At that point, the group gathers in a plenary session, and we'll discuss each project one by one, arguing the merits of each, until we can select the top five best projects in each category, along with the best projects representative of each world region. And somehow we'll have to get this done by tuesday.

WSA panelists at workWe've been working for about 13 hours today so far, and probably will go until 10 or 11pm local time, repeating the process each day. Our goal is for each group to finish their work on their first subject area by 4pm Saturday. We'll then break to attend the grand opening of Dubai Knowledge Village, Dubai's new e-learning center. Rumor has it that the Emir himself will be in attendance, but we'll have to wait and see. -ac

ps- I had to skip a bit of blogging for my remaining time in Oman, plus my flight back to Dubai, but we've been busy. Now that I've got blazingly fast broadband Internet access here in Dubai Internet City, hopefully I'll get a chance to blog it all out during one of our coffee breaks. -ac

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Goodbye to Muscat, Return to Dubai 

Had an early breakfast with Margaret before checking out of the hotel and catching a taxi to Muscat Airport. I arrived two and a half hours ahead of the flight, but quickly discovered that the check-in desks don't even open til 2 hours before the flight. So I sat around the stuffy check-in hall listening to Musak renditions of Stevie Wonder songs over the PA system.

Eventually I checked in and waited for my flight, which departed on time and arrived a few minutes early in Dubai. When I arrived there was a man from Dubai internet city there ready to help me through customs. It also turned out that he was there to pick up Osama Manzar from India, whom I met a couple of years ago. Osama didn't know I was coming, so he was very surprised to see me.

After going through customs we went to get my luggage, but it didn't come off the plane. They said it was stuck somewhere in another cargo hold, so they took my hotel info and had me catch my ride to the hotel. Needless to say I was a bit worried about my bag's whereabouts.

The drive to the Jumeira Hilton took us along a 10-lane superhighway through the heart of Dubai's new commercial district, a magnificent mile of audacious skyscrapers. Eventually we goot to Jumeira Beach, Dubai's luxury tourist enclave. We passed the famous Burj al-Arab, the tallest hotel in the world, shaped like the sail of a dhow boat. The Emiratis are truly at the cutting edge of modern architecture.

At the hotel, check-in was very slow, and they weren't particularly helpful about my lost bag. I had a few hours before our first official gathering, and I really wanted to use the time to enjoy the beach. Since I didn't have my bag, I went to the gift shop to see if they sold bathing suits. It turns out they did - billabong bathing suits priced at nearly $100 each! It was totally outrageous. The woman there then told me they had boy's bathing suits for only 10 dollars, and she showed me the largest they had, the equivalent of a size 24. Given the fact I'm a size 33, I was skeptical, but she encouraged me to try it on. I managed to get into the bathing suit, but wasn't convince a) I'd ever get out of it without ripping it, and b) would ever want to appear in public looking so ridiculous. I concluded that this might be my only chance to go for a swim -- and besides, I didn't know a single person here, so who cares how silly I looked? So putting all logic aside, I bought the bathing suit, spent 10 minutes stretching it to its limits, then wriggled my way into it.

I went to the beach, which had a boardwalk down to the shore, a nice outside bar, and countless lounge chairs set up along the water. Noticing how many people who were wearing speedos and thongs -- and probably shouldn't have -- I suddenly didn't feel so bad about wearing a boy's bathing suit. I quickly took off my shirt and darted into the water -- warm, salty water -- and proceeded to spend the next couple of hours relaxing in the surf. Given the long days we were about to spend working, I relished every moment.

our thai boxing filmI spent the better part of the evening on the phone with Emirates Airlines, which was thoroughly unhelpful, and my contact at Dubai Internet City, who fortunately made every effort to assist me. Our group was supposed to meet at 8pm, but I had to wait by the phone for an update. I turned on the tv and left the National Geographic Channel running in the backgroud. Suddenly, around 8pm, I heard familiar music and the voice of Jason Statham saying, "Early morning, as the monsoon rains cut through the haze..." It was our Thai Boxing film! Susanne and I had sold the premiere rights to it to National Geographic, and it had aired in over 140 countries, but since it hadn't aired in the US we'd never seen it on TV. And now out sheer coincidence, it was on here in Dubai! (See screen shot, right) So thanks to the loss of my bag, I managed to watch the film for the first time with commercials added to it, along with Arabic subtitles. It was truly wild to see it this way.

By 9pm, having enjoyed our film for the umpteenth time, I gave up on my luggage and went downstairs to meet with some of our group, who had gathered for an informal chat and a drink. A dozen of us sat around outside at the bar, getting to know each other. By 10ish people began to disperse, so I returned upstairs and was relieved to find my luggage sitting in the room. I unpacked, relished in the fact I wouldn't have to wear the same shirt for five days, and slept soundly.

A Relaxing Day in Muscat 

Since neither Margaret nor I were going to take a tour outside of Muscat today, we decided to explore the city. After breakfast we took a long walk through the souk, which was busy with shoppers picking up spices, clothes and even gold. We made a detour to the post office to get stamps for post cards, then continued through the souk, navigating around the occasional hawker wanting us to buy knick knacks from them. Since we knew that everything would shut down from 1pm to 4pm in the souk and the surrounding area, we decided to spend our day at two of the few places that would stay open: the museum and the mall. But first, a quick visit to the Muttrah fish market.

Just a block west of our hotel, the fish market is a chaotic place right on the harbor -- a dock loaded with boats fresh from the Gulf of Oman, hauling in huge baskets of fish. Along the edge of the dock, rows of fisherman sold stacks of fresh tuna, marlin, squid, cuttlefish, pike and an assortment of local fish I couldn't identify. Further into the covered part of the market, you could take your newly purchased tuna and have it filleted to your specifications by one of several dozen men carving and hacking away with an intimidating assortment of sharp implements.

Beyond the fish market, a more modest general market was crowded with shoppers purchasing fresh vegetables, fruit, cereals and other foodstuffs. At least half a dozen different varieties of dates were available, each in various stage of ripeness, from bright plump dates freshly picked off palm trees to shriveled, darkened dates that have weathered a lengthy drying period in the sun. For 100 baisa (25 cents) I bought a generous plastic bag's worth of dried dates -- sugary, sweet and sticky, with rather sharp pits in the center.

We caught a microbus to head to the Oman Natural History Museum, located 20km west of Muttrah in the Ministry of Culture building. The microbus picked up several other passengers, including three Indians from Andhra Pradesh who were very eager to talk to us about our visit to Muscat. By the time we reached their destination in Ruwi, several kilometers inland, they'd invited us to dinner later in the week. Unfortunately it was my last day in Muscat and I would be unable to join them but Margaret made plans to have lunch with them on Friday.

Having gone about 15 minutes out of our way into Ruwi, the microbus began to work its way towards the main highway along the coast via the Qurm Commercial District, a dense area of shopping malls, industrial parks and car dealerships, some of which were advertising "Huge Ramadan savings!" We drove along Sultan Qaboos Highway until we spotted the Cultural Ministry, home to the Museum of Natural History. The microbus took us as close as we could get to the entrance, and we paid 400 baisa ($1) for the both of us.

The museum itself is modest in size, not much larger than National Geographic's museum in Washington before they made it even smaller by converting much of their exhibit space into a television studio. The museum was crowded with school groups -- equally mixed boys and girls in traditional Omani dress being led around by their teachers and a museum docent.

The main museum hall showed us an exhibit about the historical biodiversity of Oman, from the earliest fossils to the present day. One hall also explained Oman's position on the tectonic plates, and how tectonic movements over the eons had made today's mountains, valleys and coastline, along with the biodiversity of their deserts and oceans. Many of the exhibits had interactive games in which you were challenged to identify a particular type of animal, or answer a question based on the science being presented. All exhibits were available in both English and Arabic, including the interactive games. As we walked through the exhibit we were even able to identify some of the sea shells we had collected the day before along Sawadi Beach.

The second building of the museum was dedicated to Oman's whales and dolphins. Built around the massive skeleton of a sperm whale, the exhibit contrasted the various cetaceans that are known the frequent the Omani coast, as well as rarer breeds that historically exist in other waters but have occasionally been known to appear locally. A group of students were thoroughly absorbed by an interactive exhibit allowing you to listen to the different songs produced by several whales and dolphins, explaining how the songs are transmitted great distances using the water as a conductor.

We left the museum early in the afternoon and walked back to the highway, trying to decide if we were in walking distance to the City Center Mall. We soon concluded we weren't, so we flagged down a taxi and offered him one rial ($2.50) for the drive -- knowing full well that it might only be a kilometer or two up the road. Given the stifling temperatures, though, there's no way we'd want to make the walk. As it turned out, we had to drive past the airport, probably a total of 20 kilometers -- and yet the taxi driver accepted our one rial. He must have been going that way anyway, because a similar drive starting from Muttrah would have probably cost us four times as much.

The City Center Mall is as modern as any mall in the US -- an air conditioned corridor packed with shops of all shapes and sizes, including a typically American food court, McDonalds and all. Even though I'm usually one to avoid Micky-D's, the fact that they were offering a McArabia (a chicken patty pita), I simply couldn't turn it down.

After lunch we split up to do our own shopping; I visited the enormous Carrefours "hypermart" -- a combination of a WalMart, a Target and an Indian grocer, it was an enormous, modern grocery store with exotic foods from all over Asia. I salivated at the selection of fruits and vegetables, and grabbed a package of Thai rambutans to nosh on back at the hotel.

Concluding I wasn't in the market for anything else at the mall, I caught a microbus back to the hotel and spent a couple of hours relaxing and taking a long bath, now that I finally had hot water my room after a day and a half without it. Around the corner I found another cybercafe and spent two solid hours checking email and updating my blog.

At 7pm Margaret and I met at the hotel front desk to catch a taxi to the Al Bustan Palace hotel. The hotel receptionist told us we shouldn't pay more than one rial to get to the hotel; the taxi driver asked for four. Margaret and I successfully haggled our way down to one rial, though the driver kept trying to raise it again once we were in the car. Once at the hotel we caught a bus for the brief ride to the site of our dinner, a campground on the far end of the hotel grounds that'd been decorated with bedouin tents and a handful of camels grazing by the gate.

Inside, a group of Omani singers and dancers began to perform as we entered the grounds. We were led to a tent and asked to take off our shoes and lean against giant red pillows. We were joined by 10 other people. Among the group in our tent were a retired British couple, the husband whom served as an engineer for the architecture firm that built the famous Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai. There was also a mixed Omani/British family: the sons, both in their 20s, were in traditional Omani costume, and the older one's wife, clearly British, wore a long black abaya that covered her from head to toe. Her British parents, in traditional British tourist costumes, joined them.

Ali, our waiter for the night, began the evening by bringing out a mezze platter with a dozen different appetizers, ranging from more typical snacks like hummus and tabouleh to unusual items like Omani date bread, dried tuna salad and pickled lemons. The 12 of us polished off the mezzes as if they were to be our only course during the dinner, almost forgetting the buffet that awaited us. During the mezzes I chatted with the Omanis, learning that the two brothers were half-Brit, half-Omani and had grown up in London but recently moved to Oman. One of the brothers had lived for a while in the US, including Orlando and DC, two of my own haunts. Amazingly, he worked as a 3D graphical artists at the post-production shop in DC where Susanne and I had done our audio mixing for our Thai Boxing film. What a small world.

The dinner buffet included a range of kebabs and curries, along with a spit-roasted goat, a pilaf the size of a small bed and a bottomless bowl of delicious lamb chops. Somehow I managed to make enough room to try most of it, and yet still not collapse from exhaustion before the desert course -- a wide selection of baklavas and Omani halwa. As we ate and talked, the musicians returned, performing a hypnotic drum beat accompanied by clapping, singing and dancing. I tried to get some video of the performance but the lighting was terrible, so you could barely make out anything but music and shadows.

After dinner, Margaret and I had some Omani coffee and shared a shisha topped with strawberry tobacco. Ali, our waiter, said he smokes his shisha three times a day, and his favorite flavor is a concoction of apple and grape, though he was also partial to mint. He prefered "herbal" tobaccos -- in other words, a blend of dried fruit and flavorings that didn't actually contain any tobacco, which apparently was the case of the shisha we were smoking as well. Given the fact that I don't smoke it explained why the shisha wasn't totally wreaking havoc on my lungs. Compared to the shisha I tried my first day in Dubai, which I'm convinced contained actual tobacco, this shisha was smooth, flavorful and pleasant. I could have spent hours there chatting with Ali and Margaret if it weren't for the fact I was flying back to Dubai the next morning and had to get up in barely six hours to catch my flight... -ac

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

The Omani Fort Circuit 

Ali climbs steps inside Rustaq fortMargaret and I met for breakfast around 7:30am before meeting our driver Ali, who would take us on a daytrip to some of Oman's many forts. Forts are to Oman what castles are to Germany; you simply can't drive from point a to point b without stumbling upon some 16th century fortification parked precariously on a stony hillside.

Once in the car, we drove due west past the airport towards Barka, home to a famous fish market and a fort. The highway was dotted with roundabouts, each featuring an amazing clocktower or other edifice constructed for the sultan. Omanis are very proud of their architectural creativity, both in terms of historical constructions and Nouveau Arab architecture, so the clocktowers make for exciting viewing as we head further west. We also passed an enormous, beautiful mosque called al Ghubra -- certainly one of the most amazing I've ever seen. As it turns out this particular mosque is open to tourists for a few hours each day -- perhaps the only one in Oman - but we needed to stick to our timetable if we were to return by sunset. We were covering a lot of ground today.

Heading north off the highway we made the short drive to the coastal town of Barka. Its stout fort sat just off the beach, where an active fish market was taking place. We wandered the market, watching our step as fishmongers cleaned and filleted their catch -- tuna, marlin, swordfish, certainly the most enormous fish I've ever seen at a fishmarket. fortunately we were outside along the beach, otherwise the stench of all the eviscerated fish would probably have been more than I could have tolerated. We were the only westerners present, but no one seemed to mind. People smiled as us, encouraged us to take pictures. A couple of kids wanted 100 baisa each for me to take their photo, but instead I showed them that my digital camera could do a slide show of the pictures I'd just taken, and that was payment enough for them, apparently.

fisherman in BarkaMargaret bought some small bananas and a melon, while I checked out the wide variety of dates for sale. The old men selling the dates each wanted their picture taken, and laughed hysterically when I was able to show it too them immediately on my camera's viewing screen.

Heading over to the fort, we were surprised to get a firm "La" ('no') from the gate attendant. We weren't sure why it was closed so early in the day. As we tried to get an explanation, a British man, apparently an archeologist, came out of the fort with a handful of documents. Apparently the fort had been closed for several months and won't reopen until it's fully renovated. Disappointed, we went outside and appreciated the view from afar. Meanwhile, the archeaologist got on his mobile phone and called the head of the local ministry to see if we could gain access. He came over to us and apologized, and explained that we wouldn't be allowed in, mainly due to insurance reasons. We thanked him for the effort and returned to Ali and the car.

We drove for about 45 minutes through bone-dry hillsides, with more dramatic mountains from the Jebel Akhdar range looming 3000 meters upward to our left. We arrived in Nakhal, a well-to-do village famous for its fort and its hot springs. Visiting the springs first, we arrived in a lush oasis with a rocky stream running through its center. The area was decorated like a nice little park, with umbrella picnic tables and little waterfalls coming down the hillside. The water was pleasantly warm, so you could see why it was a popular spot to hang out and take a dip. Further up the stream we found a flock of goats perched along the hillside. The goats were so accustomed to people we were able to walk right through the flock, marveling at their ability to stand on even the smallest rock, wall or ledge. My favorite goat was standing on a boulder on which someone had spraypainted the name Bob.

Leaving the hot springs and the goat named Bob behind, we returned to the car for the short drive to nakhal fort; unfortunately Margaret got stung by a wasp along the way. Ali found a lime tree and squeezed the lime juice onto the bite; amazingly the juice actually helped ease the sting.

Nakhal fortWe soon arrived at Nakhal fort. Perhaps the most dramatic fort I've ever seen, the imposing structure was balancing atop a boulder-strewn hillside. It was reminiscent of Hosap Castle in Turkish Kurdistan, which Susanne and I had visited in '99, but this particular fort had also been restored to its original condition, repaired with a fresh paint of adobe. We paid the 500 baisa fee and went inside. Apart from a German family and their three kids, we had the entire for to ourselves -- all four stories of it. We spent the hour going from room to room, marveling at the restoration work the Omani government had recently completed. Each room was decorated with traditional furniture, so whether you were in the governor's bedroom, the meeting parlour, or the prison, you got a taste for what it was like back in the 17th century. Up at the top, we had a commanding view of the countryside and the Jebel Akhdar mountains -- it must have been good to be the governor here.

Leaving the castle, we briefly stopped for some bottled water before continuing our drive to a-Rustaq, a larger town famous for its fort as well. Rustaq was a fairly modern city now, with small shopping malls and beautiful, new mosques, but its fort was still the main attraction. While not as dramatic on the outside as Nakhal's, this fort was more impressive for its inside, with giant vaulted ceilings and dramatic natural lighting. Its highlight was probably the prison; a tall, donut-shaped room, it now had a door on the side so you could enter it. Originally, though, the prison had no door -- only a hole in the roof 25 feet up, where prisoners would be lowered in and sealed for months, sometimes years, with food and water lowered in by rope. No wonder the crime rate was so low.

Nakhal fort viewOutside the fort, we made a brief stop at yet another hotspring, this one bubbling up from an underground cave next to a mosque. From the top of the hole you could see boiling water bubbles rising to the surface. About 20 feet away, there was a set of stairs you could walk down to bath in the water. We put our hands in the water - it was nearly scalding hot. Ali was brave enough to put his feet in it, but he could only manage to for about a minute.

We stopped at an indian restaurant for lunch, where we had platters of biryani with chicken and fish. Ali, to our surprise, started to speak Hindi to the waiters -- apparently he spoke Hindi and Farsi as well as Arabic and English.

From Rustaq, we made the long drive back to the coast, where we stopped along the the Batinah shore, not far from Sawadi island. The island, a limestone hulk jutting out of the water, featured an old fort on its cliff. When the tide was low you could wade across the 300 meters to reach the island. The tide was indeed low, but we weren't dressed for the part, so instead we went hunting for sea shells, which were plentiful along the shore.

We returned to Muscat, pausing briefly at the al Ghubra mosque to take pictures at sunset. Back in Muttrah, we were horrified to discover that Ali expected 50 rials for our trip, despite my repeated efforts to clarify the price as 15, not 50. I thought I'd even written it down at the time and shown him, but exhausted from the heat and jetlag, perhaps I made a fundamental error. Either way, we weren't going to shirk him, but we weren't going to hire him for a second day either, something we'd just been contemplating. So our day trip ended on a down note, and I felt somewhat dumb about the whole thing. But as we ate dinner along the corniche, we joked about the mistake and concluded that everything we saw today was well worth the expense. -ac

Arrival in Muscat, Oman 

Left Dubai at the crack of dawn and headed to the airport to catch a flight to Muscat. Dubai's airport is a capitalist wonder -- a duty free paradise on a scale like no other. If you can buy it legally, it's available at the airport -- and at actual duty free prices, rather than the typical ripoffs you see at most airports. I'll definitely have to hunt around here when I finally get ready to head back to the US.

Boarded my Emirates airlines flight -- great airline. comfortable boeing 777 with all the amenities of a transatlantic flight, even though this flight only takes 50 minutes. The flight attendants are a United Nations in themselves -- US, south africa, bulgaria, germany, estonia, India, Pakistan, UAE, Mexico and Malaysia were all represented. And apart from someone's travel alarm which kept going off every 10 minutes, it was a comfy flight.

Muscat arrivals was less comfy. According to the Oman embassy in DC, my UAE visa would be accepted in Oman, so I could get straight in the immigration line. No dice. I get to the front of the line and I'm told I first must fill out a form, then get eight Omani rials to pay for the visa fee -- no other currencies accepted. There were no ATMs and only one currency exchange desk, so I had to stand in line for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, at least two other flights arrived, so by the time I got my money and stood back in the immigrations line, nearly two hours had passed. At least I wasn't deported for identifying myself as Jewish on the "religion" question of the visa application. I was hesistant to write it, but I was more hesitant to leave it blank or writing something random like Rosicrucian or Klingon or Jain or Methodist.

I grabbed a cab at the airport and hit the highway to cover the 40 kilometers between the airport and Muttrah Harbor, which is where I planned to stay. The six-lane highway was as modern as the Hollywood Freeway or I-95, and with the mountains looming over to my right, I felt as if I was zooming through Albuquerque -- if Albuquerque only had beachfront property on the opposite side of the highway.

Muscat is an unusual city in the sense that it's actually a large metropolitan area comprised of smaller, isolated neighborhoods each ensconced in a mountainous cove along the Arabian sea. Driving along the highway, each neighborhood looks as if it's isolated from the entire world, with dramatic, jagged mountains soaring straight up from the perimeter, with a pretty harbor right on the sea. If it weren't for this wonderful highway system zipping up and down the mountains, I can only imagine how slow it would be to get from one area to the next.

Eventually we passed through magnificant stone gates that have been restored with an adobe covering and orange paint job -- almost giving it a disneyfied Aladdin feel to it. We then arrived in Muttrah -- the part of Muscat with perhaps the prettiest harbor in Arabia. The waterfront corniche is now an active thoroughfare, but the street is still lined with whitewashed buildings and giant wooden dhows floating in the harbor. Solemnly guarding the town is Muttrah Fort, an imposing structure perched atop one of the local mountains. Muttrah Fort is actually only one of two forts in all of Oman that were built buy the Portuguese during their stint here in the 16th century. The rest of them - dozens of them - are totally home grown, 100% pure Omani. Hopefully I'd get a chance to visit some of the more famous ones during my brief visit.

The taxi dropped me off in front of the Naseem Hotel, a modest joint that will get you a bed, a strong airconditioner and a broken TV for 10 rials a night -- about 25 bucks. For whatever reason, Oman still hasn't developed an infrastructure for mid-range tourists. Either you pay 25 bucks for a room or 250, with practically nothing to choose from in between.

After dropping off my things I grabbed my camera and walked along the corniche, admiring the view and appreciating the breeze, which just barely made up for the fact that it was 98 degrees and humid. The first thing I needed to do was to swing by a hotel in the Ruwi neighborhood to meet up with a travel agent who was a friend of an acquaintance back in DC. Oman is notoriously expensive, even by western standards, and a day tour could easily set me back $150 bucks if I weren't careful, so hopefully the travel agent would have some ideas.

I caught a microbus across from the hotel; microbuses are shared taxis that meander around the city, between the various neighborhoods. A taxi ride from one part to another might cost you eight bucks or more, but a microbus would cost you 70 cents. The only downside was that your travel route was rarely direct; people in the bus would have different destinations, and you'd just have to wait your turn as the bus dropped people off and picked up others.

As we drove to Ruwi I followed my map, and noticed that it appeared we were passing the area I needed to go to. I asked if this was where the Mercure Hotel was, and the driver simply pointed ahead and said Ruwi. After another mile we pulled over and a Sikh man next to me said "This is Ruwi now." I got out with him and started to walk east, but was unable to find myself on the map. I showed it to him and he replied, "You went too far, so you must walk two kilometers north." Great, I thought. Next time trust your topographic instincts.

I walked in the stifling heat, unable to find much shade as the sun loomed straight overhead. Eventually I got to the hotel, but discovered that the travel office was closed. An older gentleman named Ali said it wouldn't be open for another day or two, but he was one of their tour drivers and said I could book with him. I asked him how much it would cost to visit Nakhal Fort and do a loop to several other sites. He said 15 rials, or about 40 dollars. I reconfirmed that he said 15 instead of 50 by showing him one finger then five, and he said yes, 15. So I agreed to go with him and asked him to pick me up at 8am the next day.

I cooled off with a diet pepsi at the hotel cafe then headed outiside to find another microbus. Ali was just getting ready to head home for the afternoon, and he offered to give me a ride, since he lived near my hotel.

After getting dropped off along the corniche, I then went to explore the souk, Muttrah's covered bazaar. It was approaching 1pm, so most shops would soon close, but at least I got to catch them for a few minutes. The shops here reminded me of the souk in Old Jerusalem - tight, winding corridors packed with shops selling spices, chotchkes, clothing, artwork, and in this case, tons of frankincense. Most of the frankincense was loosely packed in hastily sealed plastic bags - not the kind of packaging the average US customs inspector would appreciate, I imagine.

As the souk shops closed up for siesta, I hiked counterclockwise around the corniche in search of a particular restaurant listed in my lonely planet book. After 20 minutes I gave up -- clearly the scale on the map wasn't as accurate as it could be. I backtracked my way past the souk and my hotel, searching for a few more restaurants. Closed for siesta. Closed for renovations. Out of business. It took me another half hour or so, but some time after 2pm I finally found a hole in the wall Indian joint that offered two items on the menu - chicken masala and chicken biryani. I went for the biryani, which here in Oman is served as a piece of fried chicken buried under a heap of basmati rice, with a cup of curry sauce and a plate of onions and sliced cabbage on the side. At least they had Diet Pepsi, though.

After lunch I went back to the hotel and talked with the man at the reception desk about tour ideas. He mentioned an Australian woman was planning to hire a taxi to take her around greater Muscat for four hours late that afternoon, and asked if I was interested. I wasn't sure just yet, since I was getting a little tired at this point, so I told him I'd let him know by 4pm.

I went upstairs and crashed for a couple of hours -- I could feel jetlag kicking in, so I took a shower and watched some Omani football teams duke it out on TV. I started to feel better so I went downstairs to join the evening tour. An Australian woman named Margaret had booked it, and I offered to split the costs with her. We'd each pay nine rials, or around 25 bucks. But I figured this would be my chance to see the local area in greater detail.

Margaret and I jumped into the taxi, and then proceeded to wait 20 minutes as the driver tried to restart his dead battery. He comandeered two poor young lads walking down the corniche, getting them to push the car while he tried to start the car. The boys tried four different times, then left us to fend for ourselves. The driver now broke out his jumper cables and waited for a kind soul to pull over and give us some juice. We decided to give the guy another five minutes before demanding our money back, but right on cue, the car started up and we were on our way.

We drove along the corniche until it rose out of the cove, over the craggy hillside, and down toward Old Muscat. We had a pretty view of the town as we approachead, its white buildings turning rosy in the waning sunlight. Our first stop was Beit al Zubair, an Omani mansion turned into a cultural heritage museum. It was a wonderful place -- they did a very effective job of using lighting and background music to add ambiance to their impressive collection of weaponry (including their famous Khanjar daggers), tribal costumes, silverwork and furniture. If only more city museums were this interesting.

Outside we found our cabbie sitting in the car, the engine running -- I guess he didn't want to take the chance of having the engine die again. We then drove to the center of Muscat harbor, a dramatic location that hosts the Sultan's palace and two imposing forts. Unfortunately none of them are open to the public, but we stood along the harbor, snapped some pictures and soaked in the view.

Our next stop was Jussa beach, a popular spot about 20 minutes east of town. We zipped up and down the mountainsides, causing my ears to pop again and again. When we reached the beach, the sun had just set below the mountains, so the view was fading fast. But it was still a very pretty spot, with several enormous limestone islands jutting out of the ocean about half a kilometer from the shoreline. Several boatman offered to take us on a ride for a small fortune, but we decided to enjoy the view from a distance. Meanwhile, our driver had called a friend and asked him to bring a spare battery. Of course, as soon as it arrived, the car was working just fine.

"I don't understand," the driver said. "I have no new battery, the car does not go. I have the new battery, the car does not need it."

"It's a universal truth," I said. "You bring an umbrella and it won't rain; you leave it behind and it pours."

With our spare battery stuck in the trunk, we continued onward to the al Bustam palace hotel. Everyone had said it's worth a visit, but I wasn't sure why until i arrived. The hotel is one of the most luxurious I've ever seen, certainly the kind of place the Sultan would want to put his guests. Its atrium was exquisite, rising as high and as wide as the interior to Aya Sofya in Istanbul. It was truly magnificent. While we explored the hotel, we discovered they offered a Bedouin dinner out in the desert every week for 15 rials a person. We decided it would be a good splurge, especially if we did it the night before I returned to Dubai, so we made a reservation.

The taxi drove us back to Muttrah, dropping us off at the souk. The souk was busy with shoppers, and all the shops had opened from their siesta. We allowed ourselves to get lost, absorbing all the sights and smells of the bazaar. Getting hungry for dinner, we tried to orient ourselves towards the corniche, wandering through the gold souk along the way. The souk was full of young women and their mothers, covered from head to toe in their black abayas, each browsing through a small fortune in bridal gold.

"Perhaps you should bring back one of those necklaces or tiaras for Susanne," Margaret said, pointing to a window full of the most over-the-top gold jewerly I've ever seen.

"I think she'd want something that'd make a bit more of a statement," I replied, smiling.

Finally working our way back to the corniche, we walked past the hotel to the Orchid Restaurant, where we each got a plate of shwarma -- mine chicken, hers mutton -- piled over a heap of hummus. Served with a stack of fresh pitas and a bowl of sliced veggies, it was a nice little feast that set us back about one rial each.

After dinner, we returned to the hotel around 8pm. I soon fell asleep, longing for the nap I probably should have taken many hours earlier.... -ac

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Getting to Know Dubai 

After checking out the Dubai public library I made a brief stop at a local travel agent to see if I could get some tickets to Muscat. It wasn't a problem getting a flight out for tomorrow, then turning around in time for my World Summit Awards meetings, so I bought the tickets. That meant I'd have the rest of the day to cram in as much of Dubai as I could, just in case we didn't have much free time to play tourist during the meetings.

I briefly let myself get lost in the spice souk -- Dubai's spice market. Unlike the spice bazaar in Istanbul, which is a large pavilion hosting kiosks of spice vendors, the spice souk here is more like a spice neighborhood; storefronts here and there with giant sacks of jute cloth filled with enormous sums of coriander, cumin, pepper, henna, you name it. What was surprising was how many of these shops kept their spices behind the window, rather than displayed outside for all to see. Given the Emirati's penchant for air conditioning, it made sense to keep precious (and easily spoilable) spices inside rather than out. So in a way the neighborhood left me a bit disappointed - I just didn't find myself wallowing in the fumes of Arabia and Central Asia as I'd hoped.

I soon stumbled upon Heritage House and the al-Ahmadiya school. Heritage House is a small museum meant to show off traditional Emirati village life in the middle of urban Dubai. The free museum is an open-air courtyard not unlike something you'd find in Santa Fe, New Mexico, surrounded by an adobe perimeter decorated by a range of traditional bedouin tools and household items. There appeared to be an interior to the museum as well, but when I asked the attendant if I could go in, he waved his finger at me and said no. Perhaps they were renovating the place or something, but either way I was touristus non gratis.

The al-Ahmadiya school, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise - a two-story adobe structure with an open courtyard in the center, this one more akin to the homes of Cordoba. A very friendly guard encouraged me to take a look around, and motioned at me to open closed doors when I came upon them -- apparently each room had a small exhibit inside. Room to room, I explored the building's history; the al-Ahmadiya was a turn-of-the-century school, one of the few formal centers of learning in Dubai at the time. It was the first school to introduce a more secular liberal arts curriculum to go along with traditional Quranic teaching. The rooms were set up as they would have been in the early 20th century, with lifesize dioramas of students huddled around a teacher reciting the Quran. In other rooms, desks are set up in rows in the more familiar western style as recordings of students practicing grammar lessons played in the background. At one point I stumbled upon a group of men renovating a schoolroom, but they just smiled at me and apologized for the mess they were making.

Leaving the school, I took a long stroll through several of Dubai's other famous souks, including the gold souk (perhaps the largest gold market in the middle east), the perfume souk (I still smell it in my clothes) and the electronic souk, which featured a mindboggling collection of oversized calculators, DVD jukeboxes, and karaoke machines featuring an incongruous picture of Arnold Schwarzeneggar on the box.

Leaving the souks, I stopped at a Persian restaurant for a wonderful lunch of ground lamb kebab with rice and a salad bar loaded with fresh yogurt, mint leaves and the crunchiest cucumber this side of the Straits of Hormuz. From there, I caught my first abra -- giant water taxis that ply their way across the Creek every few minutes. I paid my 50 fils when I got on board and motorboated my way across the creek along with a group of 20 or so businessmen.

Having left the neighborhood of Deira, I was now in Bur Dubai, the southern bank of the creek. I walked through a textile souk that was cooled by a partial covering of ornamental wood beams jutting from the roofs. Many of the buildings had traditional wind towers-- chimney-like structures used to create a natural form of airconditioning.

I soon reached the Dubai museum, hosted inside a 19th century fort. The museum was basically divided in two parts - a military museum occupying the ruins of the fort, and a history museum, adjacent to the fort in a series of underground passageways. The history section was particularly interesting, featuring lifesize dioramas on the different souks that make Dubai famous, explaining the history of each trade practiced there. The museum also featured an archaeological retrospective of Dubai, plus a fascinating section on the natural history of the desert. For such a small museum, it packed in a wonderful amount of trivia with attractive exhibits -- a fine way to spend the hottest hours of the day.

It was now mid-afternoon; after a quick Diet Pepsi at Cafe Mozart, I walked down the corniche towards the big Sheraton hotel, past the Dubai Municipal Center and other archictectural experiments.

I'm now on my way back to the hotel, stopping at a cybercafe to check email and write this blog. Considering I haven't slept since 4am Saturday, I'm amazed I'm holding up this well; but I imagine by the time 6pm rolls around, I may find myself dragging myself back to my room for a much-deserved rest.... -ac

Arrival in Dubai for the World Summit Awards 

Hello from Dubai! It's 10:40am Dubai time, eight hours ahead of US east coast time, and I've been in the UAE for just about three hours now. My flight arrived just after sunrise this morning, wrapping up around 16 hours of flight time from DC to London to Dubai. Didn't get a wink of sleep on the flight, but at least I managed to watch Pirates of the Caribbean one and a half times along the way. I just can't get enough of Johnny Depp's Keith Richards homage, I guess.

Dubai is hot and sticky, probably pushing 95 degrees and 60 percent humidity. Even the Floridian in me finds it oppressive, and the thick layer of ozone hanging over the city certainly isn't helping things. But I'm already fascinated by the place; nothing here looks more than 10 or 20 years old, yet every storefront you pass seems to be selling the wares of the Arabian bazaars of old -- spices, perfumes, gold seem to be everywhere.

The streets are teaming with people, but it's not chaotic like Cairo or Delhi. Just lots of people going about their business -- Arabs, Africans, Indians, Chinese, Europeans. It's very easy to get around the central part of Deira, the section of Dubai that's located on the northern side of "The Creek" -- a busy waterway akin to Istanbul's Golden Horn.

I'm sitting in a public library just off the Creek in the western tip of Deira. The library looks brand spanking new, and it's giving me odd flashbacks to the library I grew up at in Melbourne Florida -- smaller, but still similar in a way I can't articulate. I'm taking advantage of their Internet lab, a quiet, well lit room with about a dozen flat-panel computers each enjoying broadband access to the Internet. As I'm not a resident of the UAE, I'm shelling out five dirhams an hour for access - just under two bucks. So far I'm connecting to everything I want to, and access to my Benton email has been a snap.

A few minutes ago a troupe of several dozen young women from a local school came by with their teachers. They were all wearing dark school uniforms and headscarves. A few of them made eye contact with me and smiled in that shy teenager kind of way; meanwhile I was totally embarassed because I was slogging through my email in-box throwing away the multitudes of porn spam that seems to find its way into my account like flies to a camel. Fortunately the font size is small enough that I doubt anyone noticed. I really have to get some decent spam filters installed at some point.

Later today I'll be figuring out how I'll spend the brief amount of free time I have over here before getting to work on the World Summit Awards nominations at Dubai Internet City. I'm contemplating a trip to Muscat, Oman, which I undestand is one of the few old cities in the Gulf (outside of Yemen, at least) that manages to maintain its historic character.

Anyway, my allotment of Internet access is whittling away, so I better log out for now. More stories from the Persian Gulf soon.... -ac

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Michael Kafabusa Werikhe, Uganda's Communications MinisterMichael Kafabusa Werikhe, Uganda's Communications Minister, spoke later in the afternoon. "E-government is not a substitute for good governance, but it is a useful step in the right direction," he began. "In a nutshell, ther is no substitute for ICT if we truly want good governance." The Minister's comments echoed a video shown a few minutes earlier, showing the decripit state of record keeping in parts of the Commonwealth (for example, a shed in Ghana full of wet, moldy file folders holding records of national budget expenditures.) Computers were being introduce to allow governments to get an accurate account of their records -- and thus be more accountable to their donors and to their citizens.

Governments like Uganda are under "extreme financial stress," he said. E-government can help cut expenses, as well as cut the bureacracies that so often plague government. "Traditionally, governments provide an interface between information services and their citizens. Instead, ICTs should provide a direct interface between government and the citizenry."

"The digital divide is not insurmountable," he added. "We must quickly get on the bandwagon and even strive to play a leading role" in the information society.

"Access to better and more timely information can increase the earning potential of poor people," he said. Uganda is setting up government portals that are accessible via telephone booths with video screens built into them. The Ugandan Communications Act of 1996 restructured and privitized national telecommunications, while creating an independent regulatory agency. there are now two competing wire-based phone companies and three mobile companies. Telephony access thus grew from the tens of thousands of subscribers before the Act to hundreds of thousands today, in just a few short years. Now, they've drafted a national ICT plan that embraces ICTs for development. He hopes it will be finalized and approved by early next year. They're also establishing a Ugandan universal service fund to ensure access in villages with at least 5,000 residents. These villages will each have telephony wired to the community, plus at least one Internet point. He hopes this will help promote the idea that rural markets will be seen as potentially profitable to telecom companies.
During the first afternoon session of the conference, I chaired a panel that was ostensibly on the use of online networks to share best practices with each other. What ended up happening was a whole other matter.

Carl Wright, director of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, spoke about strategies that local governments were using to create e-government initiatives and capitalize on local civil society groups working on improve community ICT literacy. Carl was followed by Dr. Tim Hubbard, head of Human Genome Analysis at the Wellcome Trust/Sanger Institute. Hubbard talked about the strategy used during the work on the Human Genome Project. With scientists contributing to the project from all over the world, they created what was basically an open source network -- all research would be shared publicly, remain in the public domain, and open to rigorous testing by fellow scientists. This openness created a system of checks and balances that ultimately speeded up the project by years.

Wrapping up the panel, Sarah Cripps of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, spoke about CUDOS, a massive online database and directory of university-related information, such as professors, courses offered, etc, at Commonwealth-affiliated universities around the world. (For example, you could do a search for physics professors at African universities with a student population of more than 10,000.) But Sarah also noted that the system is subscription driven - universities must pay 1000 pounds to access the database.

When I opened the session for audience questions, at first no one said a word for about 10 seconds. I had scribbled down a list of at least a dozen questions I'd ask if a circumstance such as this arose, but soon enough someone raised their hand. Their tone set the stage for the next hour of debate: So you've created this massive system for universities in the developing world, but you're expecting them to pay a small fortune to access it?

Ms. Cripps was put on the defensive, noting that her group tried to explore several economic models but this was the only one that made any sense if they were going to get the project off the ground. But the audience was incredulous. Dr. Hubbard soon chimed in, saying that it's vital for a network to be open if it's going to achieve buy-in from the community. I asked him about the economic model for Public Library of Science, the new open-access science journal: rather than paying huge subscription fees, everyone gets free access to the research contained in the journal, while scientists who want to get published must pay a fee to be peer-reviewed, thus putting the economic burden on the producer's side. This allows scientists from the developing world, as well as average citizens, to have full access to research that otherwise would cost thousands of dollars.

Hoping to take some of the pressure off Ms. Cripps, I asked if anyone had a question for Mr. Wright. Someone raised their hand, then promptly made another critical comment about the CUDOS system. I jumped back in and asked Mr. Wright to talk about the role of civil society in ICT literacy training at the local level, which fortunately spawned a couple followup questions from the audience. But the balance of the discussion remained wholly focused on open versus closed content. Several audience members passionately said that open content supporters shouldn't be viewed as trying to overthrow the capitalist system or anything like that; rather, it should be possible to put forward a sound economic argument for making more content available freely. It was clear that this was an issue that struck a chord with this group of ICT leaders, even though this issue wasn't a particular item on the agenda. Undoubtedly it would require further discussion and debate.

Former Costa Rican president Jose Maria Figueres Olsen delivered a speech via video to the summit. He noted that we were only seven weeks away from the Commonwealth meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, and nine weeks away from WSIS. He said that heads of government should work to ensure their ICT initiatives are multi-stakeholder: "I hope we can instill in the heads of government the development of a national position [on ICT policy] that can work with civil society and the private sector." He sees WSIS as an important opportunity to further the use of ICTs for development, and specifically for achieving the Millenium Development Goals, "because we're already running behind.... In fact, it's the only way we'll be able to achieve the Goals."

Peter ArmstrongPeter Armstrong of OneWorld International discussed the progress of OneWorld's innovative Open Knowledge Network (OKN), which he sees as a practical example of digital opportunity in the form of local knowledge. OKN is a reaction to the trend of privatization of knowledge, conceived of at the DOTForce meeting in Cape Town. He uses the story of Pondicherry, India to demonstrate what OKN does in real communities. Local women go online to collect and exchange information on subjects of vital importance to their community: employment information, market prices, weather data for fisherman. OKN creates the capacity for local knowledge sharing in their local language - in this case, Tamil. Women create their content offline, avoiding expenses access charges, but the computers are later synched with the network. They utilize peer-to-peer technology to exchange knowledge directly between the knowledge workers in the community. OKN employs metadata standards for XML and open copyright licenses to allow for open, but accurate content sharing. In sum it makes for sustainable business models acceptable to particular local contexts.

Local communities share data via a common network, which can then be translated and used by other communities that are members of the network. In the case of Pondicherry, the sharing of data is literally life-saving: fisherman rely on the weather data to know when it's no longer safe to fish. At another test site in Kenya, they're utilizing text messaging via mobile phones to improve local AIDS awareness. Villagers with phones sign up for a health information contest in which they're asked in Swahili a particular question related to AIDS awareness. (For example, true or false: can you get AIDS from holding hands with someone who's infected?) Whoever text messages the correct answer first wins a prize. Whether or not you win the prize, you receive another text message with the correct answer.
At the opening of the Commonwealth Network Society Summit in London on Monday, Steven Timms MP, Minister of State for Energy, e-Commerce and Postal Service opened the conference talking about the importance of the meeting in light of the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society. He noted the discord that erupted between governments and civil society participants at the recent Prepcom meeting in Geneva. Paraphrasing Desmond Morris, he said that we all actually agree on 95 percent of the ideas put forth for the Summit, but spend our time concentrating on the five percent on which we disagree. "We must not let this deter us," he said. Without the participation of both civil society and the private sector, "all we have are words and ideas, not actions... There is so much to be gained from working with all of these actors to move forward and bridge the digital divide and economic divide."

Richard Simpson of Industry Canada spoke of ICTs and the development challenge. He said that policymakers must work to "mainstream ICTs into the development process" -- working closely with donors, international financial institutions, civil society -- to support the UN's Millenium Development Goals. He noted Goal 8, target 18: in coorperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies, especially ICTs.

Deekand Jeeha, the ICT minister of Mauritius, gave an inspiring talk about his island nation's ICT policy goals. Historically, the Mauritius economy was based on sugar plantations, with textiles and tourism also added to the mix. Essentially the nation has access to very few natural resources, but it also happens to have a 98% literacy rate -- Mr. Jeeha sees this as a huge opportunity for Mauritius to embrace ICTs as the newest major sector of their economy. The government is working to bring broadband to all public institutions, including govt agencies and schools, by 2005. They plan to create the first cybercity in the southern hemisphere, akin to what's happened in places like Malaysia and Dubai. This ICT industrial complex would create 20,000 new jobs alone.

However, Jeeha doesn't want Mauritius to be seen as a source of "cheap ICT labor." Instead, he hopes the workforce will be valued because it is embracing lifelong learning. So even though their population, at 1.2 million, is a fraction of the size of most countries, they hope to create a critical mass of ICT workers within the population. "As a government we don't have many other choices," he said, reiterating the lack of natural resources.

In terms of e-government, Mauritius is aiming to provide most government services online, with public access set up in schools, post offices, universities. For institutions dedicated to certain populations, like schools, they'll serve as telecentres after school, open to the public. They're striving to make sure that all citizens will benefit from e-government - the govt will also make soft loans available to citizens so they can purchase Internet PCs. They also plan to build a public wi-fi network for the entire country.

"Government can't do everything,' he said. "In some cases it can be the biggest stumbling block. You need a mixture of policymakers and the private sector; civil society can then tell you what the public needs, whereas the private sector can tell you how to do it."

"Unless we change our mentality, nothing is going to happen," he admonished, wagging his finger to the audience. He called on governments to support the creation of a global universal service fund. "In the US, they spend two dollars a day to feed cows," he said. "More than most workers make in much of the developing world." Getting the rest of the world online makes good business sense too, he said. "When the 'cannot connect ones' come online, the information haves will get a new market out of it, so it's sound business sense."

"Do we want a network society or a new epidemic of a network society divide? The choice is ours," he said in his conclusion.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Free Day in London 

Andy, Sissy and John at the Bangladeshi restaurant on Brick LaneArrived in London early afternoon Sunday and caught the express train from Heathrow into the city. After checking into the hotel near Picadilly I realized my phone wasn't working, so I went downstairs to have it activated, and lo and behold my cousin John was there waiting for me - he was in the neighborhood and decided to swing by. We headed off for a walk down to the Embankment to rendezvous with his sister Sissy, who was visiting from Sydney for the weekend. We had a couple of pints on one of the big rusty boat-pubs floating along the Thames, then contemplated a ride in the Millenium Wheel before deciding it was too long a line (sorry-- too long a queue). Instead we high-tailed it to Brick Lane and had a smashing Bangladeshi feast, randomly picking items off the menu without having the slightest idea what we were getting ourselves into (we decided to eschew the usual North Indian classics and go for the house specialties). Actually, calling it a feast is an understatement -- the food took a long time and Sissy and her boyfriend had to leave early to catch their train to Hastings, so John and I were left with a few extra entrees and sides to contend with on our own. With a healthy dose of cucumber raita to keep the chilis manageable, we pushed forward and somehow managed to clean off all the platters. A yummy evening all around.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

This evening I'm off to London for the Commonwealth Network Society Summit. I'll be moderating a panel Monday afternoon on the digital divide and building communities of activists and practitioners to bridge it. Many IT ministers from across the British Commonwealth with take part in the event, so it should be a great opportunity to meet interesting people from all over the world.

I arrive in London early Sunday afternoon and will hopefully get together with my Aussie cousins John and Sissy (John lives in London, Sissy is visiting). I'll then be at the summit all day Monday, then return to the US first thing Tuesday, just in time to have dinner with Susanne and the kitties before catching some shut-eye and heading up to NYC at the crack of dawn Wednesday for a meeting at the UN. Then back to work for a couple of days before repacking my bags for Dubai.... Yes, it's gonna be a hectic week.

I'm trying to pack light for this trip, given the fact it's only for two nights. But I'll be sure to bring my new digital camera and a good book for the airplane -- perhaps Albert Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples, which I've been meaning to re-read for a long time, especially with my Dubai trip coming up next week.

So, the next time you hear from me will probably be from the UK. Until then, hope you all have a good weekend.... -ac

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