The Year 2014 in Review

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Here we are again, at the end of another year. It was just a few months ago when I wrote the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) forecast for the year 2014 and now, I am writing the year in review. Time really does fly doesn’t it? So, what did we achieve in ICT in 2014? A lot happened in Liberia’s ICT sector this year (2014), but what is more important is that Liberians were able to gain better insights and appreciate the sector’s impact on the nation through the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak.

At the beginning of 2014 I mentioned that the future of ICT in Liberia is closely related to the number of obstacles that we can tackle. Some of these obstacles include our unwillingness to view ICT as a major driver of economic development, the lack of infrastructure, lack of education and skills, but most of all our unwillingness to change. All of what I have mentioned are things that bring about a “digital exclusion” which negatively impacts economic development in the 21st century. But this “digital exclusion” is becoming to be a thing of the past, thanks to mobile technology, open source software and broadband.  

Despite it being a tragic and challenging year, 2014 did in fact bring a lot of changes in the ICT sector. The Ebola Virus Disease, it is unfortunate to say, has been a catalyst of this change. But prior to the Ebola Virus Disease, Liberia had already begun making progress in its ICT sector.

We started the year with a lot of promising initiatives. There were talks about a Software Engineering Program at the William V.S. Tubman University in Harper, Maryland; improved services were being provided  by telecom operators; schools were talking about technology programs (both standalone and integrated), and even universities were allowing research that would help improve their delivery of education.  There were also changes within the national operator LIBTELCO, with the company getting a new board of directors and a new managing director. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications delivered several new policies and now, it has a Project Management Office as mandated by the National Telecommunications and ICT Policy. The Project Management Office or the PMO is to implement and monitor Liberia’s e-government programs.

The Liberia Telecommunications Authority and Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications have made significant progress with Digital Migration. Digital migration refers to the switch from an analogue broadcasting system to a digital broadcasting system. It has come about because of the developments in the broadcasting industry, which include change in design of televisions from the box-like tube TVs to the thin-panel ones we see today. One such key development in this decade is the shifting from analogue type television broadcasting to digital broadcasting.  Digital broadcasting will improve the consumers' TV experience in terms of better sound and picture quality. It will also free up space in the frequency spectrum that can be used to provide more TV channels and others ICT services.

While we continued to make progress earlier in the year, suddenly and unfortunately, the Ebola Virus Disease broke out and turned out to be the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976. To fight the disease, ICT had to play a major role. Mobile Technologies and Open Source Software have been the most dominant components of the ICT response to the Ebola fight.

For the most part of my ICT career, I have always advocated the use of Open Source Software in Liberia; not because it’s an area of professional and academic focus, but because I feel it is the best way to bridge the digital chasm that continues to keep us behind in 21st century. Over the years there has been a stiff resistance to a significant and ubiquitous adoption of Open Source Software in Liberia. One of the reasons for this is that many Liberian ICT professionals were schooled in proprietary (Microsoft-based) software hence, the lack of understanding of how open source software works. In addition, there are also myths about open source that also have been the cause of its rejection in Liberia. Yet, there are some open source software that are in use in Liberia that Liberians are not cognizant of. The Mozilla Firefox browser we use is open source; the phones that are used around here are built mostly on Java platforms and Java is open source.

The fact is, open source software enhances innovation and can enable a resource-challenged organization or nation sustain its ICT infrastructure and platform at a lower cost than, proprietary software. So when the outbreak happened and there was a blitzkrieg of Open Source Software solutions from the international community, I was not surprised. The open source option is the cheaper and more sustainable solution for a “resource-challenged” nation like Liberia. In finding the cheapest, fastest and most efficient ways to track the Ebola virus and disseminate information among health workers, international organizations, and the Liberian public, a plethora of open source software was deployed. These include DHIS 2, FormHub, RapidPro,  mHero,  iHRIS, Epi Info, Epi Info VHS, EpiCollect, HeathMap, etc.

In addition to the open source software that the international community made available for the fight against the virus, Liberian ICT professionals developed an incident response software to help in the fight against the virus. IRAMP, as it is called was developed by a consortium of Liberia ICT firms. Apart from IRAMP, there were several other initiatives from local ICT firms in the Ebola response. The StopEbolaLiberia.Org web portal developed by a group of Liberia volunteers is another initiative that aims at providing a one-stop shop for information on the Ebola Virus Disease.  

There were many other developments in the ICT sector in 2014. I know I have omitted or neglected to mention quite a few, but this was not intentional. Hopefully, as time goes on, they will be mentioned in future articles. But for now, we can say we have made great strides in the sector. Our focus on open source software should enable us achieve a lot in terms of software and systems development. We look to the year 2015 for this and many other good things as we strive to improve our ICT sector.

Until next week, Carpe diem!!!

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