Research Proposalby Brian Kovak
There are many sights to be seen in the developing world that might make one question the world of development. In Botswana I saw families in which older siblings carried cellular telephones while their younger brothers and sisters did not have shoes to wear. A friend of mine tells of people she met in Kenya who regularly use the local public Internet café to check email messages, but lack adequate food to eat. I hope to understand the causes, effects, and implications of such apparent missteps in using information technology to aid in development.
Nearly all of the technologies being used today in developing countries were created with high-income countries in mind. If we would like to use technology to achieve development and stability for the world's poor, we must tailor it to their needs. I believe that this is the next step for our technological progress, and look forward to pursuing this goal in my research and studies. In order to adequately apply technology to the problems of development three areas of understanding are needed: a familiarity with information technology and the ways it can be applied, an understanding of the history of development and the goals that one is trying to meet, and a thorough understanding of the institutions of society and government that affect development. My educational plans have been formed with these three ingredients in mind.
Upon graduation, I will have completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University as a member of the Schreyer Honors College. My engineering education and practical experience working for large companies such as Unisys and Lucent Technologies have introduced me to the latest technology being deployed to meet current demands for reliable and inexpensive communication. This information will prove vital to helping me understand the current state of communication technology in developing countries, many of which have just begun to build telecommunications infrastructures. With this background in mind, I believe that I have the necessary experience to understand the technical aspects of new equipment that could be used to aid a nation's development. In order to expand this knowledge and put it in proper context, I plan to study Development Studies at Oxford University.
During my first year of Oxford's M.Phil. in Development Studies, I will take the core foundation courses for the degree. The History and Politics course will cover the fundamental concepts of development along with specific historical examples of development in action. The role of governmental policy will be covered as well, and in combination with the Economics foundation course I will get a firm grounding in the institutional aspects of development. The Research Techniques for Social Sciences foundation course will be particularly beneficial to me, coming from an engineering background, as it will provide a bridge between these different approaches to research and study. I plan to spend my second year focusing on development economics, and through selecting appropriate optional courses I can earn an M.Sc. in Development Economics concurrently with the M.Phil in Development Studies. I hope to focus my thesis research on the economic effects of wireless communication technology on the developing nations of southern Africa.
Over the last few years, wireless communications networks have become the principle means of quickly building a communications infrastructure in developing countries because of the lack of physical connections between endpoints. This allows speedy deployment and coverage for relatively low investment. Now that these technologies have been in use for a reasonable amount of time, we can begin to study the impact of such networks on the development of a fledgling economy. If the economic risks and benefits can be weighed, it will be possible to better understand the role of information technology in development. By studying the emergence of these issues in particular over the past few years, we can make better future decisions as to whether to construct a new network, or what kind of network to create.
After studying at Oxford, I will be well equipped to work in the nonprofit sector designing and implementing information technology solutions for developing countries. By focusing new technologies in this way, the greatest power of information technology will be realized. I look forward to being a part of that realization.
Personal Statementby Brian Kovak
I have heard the history of physics described as the "Quest for Grand Unification." Physicists have been generating seemingly disparate and contradictory ideas for hundreds of years. The time in between has been spent unifying these ideas to create much more elegant and powerful descriptions of the universe. In struggling with disparate goals in my life, I have looked to physics as an example of the power in the unification of ideas. My studies focus on the data communications and architecture areas of computer engineering, while my faith drives me to focus on serving others. Until recently, these two most important areas of my life took separate paths. I have spent the last year of my life searching for my unification, combining these distinct interests in hopes of finding more powerful goals.
Much of my education has been spent studying the intricacies of computers and the design methodologies behind their creation. As the end of my undergraduate schooling approached, I began to consider how I would apply that knowledge. It appeared to me that designing computer chips that were ever faster and more complex would not serve to improve the lives of people in general. Computing technology had created a digital divide between rich and poor nations, widening the economic gap between the two rather than closing it. As I came to these realizations and my interest in computers waned, I read a passage that I had heard a hundred times before: "To whom much has been given, much is expected." This reading impacted me like never before, and I decided that it was time to commit as much effort to the goal of aiding others as I had to my studies.
To this end, I wrote funding letters, saved what money I had from the previous summer's job, and went on a Habitat for Humanity house-building trip to Serowe, Botswana. I knew no one going on the trip and, despite reading all that I could about Botswana, was quite unsure of what awaited me. Little did I know that while pursuing just one of my disparate goals, I would begin to find the unification of them both.
In Botswana, I met Oscar Lebitsang. As Habitat for Humanity's regional director in the nation's Central District, Oscar facilitates the construction of houses for those who need adequate shelter. He brings together groups of workers at each site by bridging cultural gaps between foreign volunteers and local homeowners. Unfortunately, his attention was diverted when his portable computer's software became corrupted. The computers available to Habitat Botswana are very outdated, and the software Oscar was using was no longer available, making repair impossible. Where technology should have freed Oscar to use his skills more effectively, it instead diverted his attention away from those in need.
Upon my return to the U.S., I realized that while Oscar was struggling to conduct his affairs without a computer, there were thousands of perfectly adequate systems languishing in corporate basements in the U.S. because they were not at the cutting-edge of current technology. The regional difference in the value of a second-generation computer led me to envision and begin to form a non-profit organization to recycle discarded computers that are of little value in the U.S. and give them to development organizations working in areas where the computers are still considered useful. Yesterday, I sent Oscar a laptop that is roughly ten times more powerful than the one he had been using. He will now be able to conduct the logistics of his work more quickly and easily, allowing him more time to work with people in Botswana who need homes. This solution gave me a small taste of the possibilities in unifying my information technology background with my desire to help others, causing both to be much more effective and powerful.
I am excited about expanding the computer-recycling program, and look forward to tackling some of the larger and more far-reaching problems involved with technology in developing countries. One of the major problems I see in the current situation is that information technology solutions are being implemented in the developing world even though they were developed with high-income markets in mind. Problems with maintenance and obsolescence can be at least partially alleviated by designing technologies specifically for the developing world. By designing appropriate solutions, the true power of information technology will be realized, helping those who have the greatest need and can reap the greatest benefits.
Due to my experiences of the last year, I have found renewed vigor to help address the problems that are becoming ever clearer to me. I look forward to further study at Oxford, which will help me understand the context of information technology in development, and will no doubt lead to further unification of my goals and ideas. This unification of ideas has led me to areas of study I had never expected to find. As in physics, the beauty is in the elegant solution to a formerly incomprehensible problem. I have found the problems; now it is time to find the solutions.