In late 1990s, the University of California, Berkley was working on a pioneering wireless networking project that had a deceptively simple tagline: ‘Access is the killer application’. This simple tagline has stuck with me for over a decade. Whether it was my research and entrepreneurial life at MIT and LUMS for the past 10 years, or my recent role in public-sector IT initiatives, enabling access has been a pivotal theme of my work.
One of the most successful projects in my research group at LUMS is a BitTorrent client, called BitMate, which enables computers with a slow network connection to pool their bandwidth for downloading content faster. When we first built the BitMate system, I remember a journalist asking me about the usefulness of our system. My reply was simple: give people a way to access information, and they will surprise you with what they can do with it. BitMate is now used by over 35,000 users from 184 countries to download content like e-books and computer software. Shortly after we released the system for public use, I received an email from a student in Iran thanking me for making the software.
In my recent role at the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), I have found that the basic building block of e-governance initiatives is invariably access to information: access to data about the level of crime reported at different police stations, for better decision-making; access to patterns in which a disease like dengue may be spreading in the city, for better preventive measures; access to information about the level of service rendered by government hospitals, for better allocation of resources; access to information about one’s ownership of a land asset, to avoid fraudulent property transactions.
In the same vein, I hope that laptops awarded to the students in Punjab will facilitate better access to educational content and tools. Indeed, similar programmes worldwide, such as the MIT One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative and the Intel Classmate PC have had a huge impact. The MIT OLPC scheme, backed both by the World Economic Forum and the UNDP has resulted in over 2.5 million laptops being distributed to students in various countries.
Much like the philosophy of educational projects such as MIT OLPC, the Punjab government’s 125,000 laptops use a free, open-source Ubuntu operating system. Supporting open-source software at this scale, in a country with rampant use of proprietary and pirated software, is bold and laudable. Due to its flexibility, zero-cost and broad-based academic support, open-source software is the de facto standard for college and university students worldwide. This is the first time an initiative in Pakistan has promoted open-source software in a project of this scale. With an open-source operating system installed in the laptops, students can benefit from a wide range of free, open-source applications, instead of having to buy expensive proprietary applications or using illegal pirated versions.
With 125,000 brilliant students equipped with laptops, there is great opportunity for the government, IT industry and universities to develop an ecosystem that affords ubiquitous network accessibility, localised educational content and applications to make best use of these laptops in our higher education system.
I remember when my father gifted me my first computer on doing well in O-levels. This introduced me to the wonderful world of computers and eventually led me to become a computer science professor. Seventeen years later, I still have that computer displayed as a trophy in my study room. I hope the students who have received the laptops cherish this award the same way I did many years ago and go on to contribute positively towards our education system.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2012.