Eduardo Munoz / REUTERS

Information for the Unconnected

Letter from Santo Domingo

Today, Carlos Adon is an experienced HIV/AIDS specialist in a well-equipped private clinic in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. Twenty years ago, he was like most of the country’s other recent medical school graduates: he had been sent into the countryside for 12 months of mandatory service, known as a pasantía year, as a poor community’s sole doctor. With access to only rudimentary equipment and medicines, Adon lugged around outdated textbooks and did his best to serve his patients. But his lack of up-to-date information created problems. At one point, a patient who appeared to have been poisoned by agricultural pesticides nearly died: Adon was unfamiliar with the chemicals used on the area’s farms and had no way to determine the appropriate treatment.

These days, a search through an online medical resource can help doctors quickly identify poisons and antidotes. But in the rural Dominican Republic, Internet access remains scarce, and doctors still lack the information they need, much as Adon did during his pasantía year. Some 48 percent of the Dominican Republic’s citizens lack access to the Internet, and because building broadband infrastructure in remote areas is expensive and data plans are unaffordable for many Dominicans, the country’s connectivity problem is unlikely to end soon.

The good news is that there is an affordable way to bring up-to-date information to the unconnected. So-called offline Internet technologies—or information-sharing platforms that house data originally hosted on the Web but do not require Internet access—can bring data to the poorly serviced parts of the developing world that need it most.

nelson_informationfortheunconnected_clinic_img_8218.jpg KATHERINE NELSON

At the clinic of Rafael Fernandez in the Dominican Republic's Monte Cristi province, March 2017.

At the clinic of Rafael Fernandez in the Dominican Republic's Monte Cristi province, March 2017. At the clinic of Rafael Fernandez in the Dominican Republic's Monte Cristi province, March 2017.

BEAM ME UP

Some communities with limited Internet access have developed information-sharing networks on their own. In Cuba, for example, people have created an informal network centered on a collection of data known as El Paquete (The Package), which compiles movies, newspapers, music, offline websites, and other media onto USB or hard drives that can be exchanged and updated. This system has feature that will let mobile users minimize the amount of data they need to view Internet content and another that will let users save articles, videos, and webpages to view after their devices go offline. The Raspberry Pi 3—a cheap minicomputer—can be turned into a storage device that doubles as a local router, providing a library of information to up to 30 wireless users without connecting to the World Wide Web. Such innovations could help bridge the information gap in low- and middle-income countries as more of their citizens begin to use smartphones. 

Read the full article on ForeignAffairs.com