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virtual villages

Jon Katz on the virtual village project in El Limon, Dominican Republic

June 25, 2000
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EDT

(CNN) Virtual villages are making an impact in developing countries. Kiosks and cafés containing computers are connecting remote rural areas to markets, health information, education and training. The computers also provide an occupation for some in the villages, contributing directly to the local economy.

Jon Katz, coordinator of the Ecopartners Project at Cornell University, designed the hydroelectric system for the village of El Limon in the Dominican Republic and was a consultant for a sustainable village in Yoff, Senegal. He wrote a chapter for "Minigrid Electrical Systems," a publication of the World Bank due for release later this year and co-founded the Peacenet-Econet computer network in 1987.

Chat Moderator: Welcome to the CNN chat room, Jon Katz.

Jon Katz: Hello, I'm happy to be here.

Chat Moderator: Which has made the more profound change in El Limon, the introduction of regular electric power, or the Internet?

Jon Katz: Well, the question is a little bit difficult because the question is really what is going to make the change, not what already has. We're very much in a process of change right now. The immediate and physical effects are from electrification. The long-term effects are still out. We don't know what the long-term effects are, because we're just starting.

Question from Jeff-CNN: Why are Third World countries so desperate for Internet access? Where was this hunger when telephones and computers came out?

Jon Katz: The hunger was there, especially for telephone service. The fact is that in rural areas there is, for the most part, no telephone service still. People very much want telephone access, so the hunger is there. There may have been less publicity.

As for computers, the computer in itself is a tool, and the Internet is a source of communication and information. There's a difference there. The tool is only useful in a context, and a computer by itself still has relatively little use in a rural community.

By itself, without connection, a computer is generally not much more useful than a typewriter, but once it's connected to the world., iIt's a very useful tool.

Question from cecilyCecily: What is the environmental impact of hydroelectric power, if any?

Jon Katz: Large hydro has enormous impact, in terms of ecosystem destruction, in terms of displacing people and animals; those are the main effects of the big system. Small systems have very little effect ecologically. The systems we're talking about do not use dams. They take water out, use it, and then put it back.

In the case of Limon, the water was already in use in an irrigation system. We simply made another stop on the way from the stream to the sprinklers. In other words, the El Limon system had zero ecological effect, because we did not alter water use.

Chat Moderator: What are the negative aspects, if any, of introducing the Internet to a small, isolated community like El Limon?

Jon Katz: We haven't seen anything negative yet. I've read about other situations in Latin America where there was a lot of time spent by the men looking at pornography, and this created many problems in the community. But we haven't experienced any of these problems so far.

There is still a small group of people using the Internet connection. Not everybody comes in to use the Internet. It's about 10-15 people using the Internet out of a village of 350. And, in terms of time spent, there's actually more time spent playing computer games than on the Internet. If anything, it's the computer games that are problematic.

Question from asgerAsger: How can the Internet be useful for an economical development in the area?

Jon Katz: Market information is extremely important. Also, coordination of shipping loads for agriculture. The other potential use is basic education. Actually, in terms of economic development, its lack of basic education. That's probably the biggest problem.

We're moving toward Internet-based distance learning as a solution. That's not in place yet. That's the next step. What we have done so far is gain some basic experience with having Internet in a rural community. The applications are really the next step and also bringing in other communities on a regional network. That's what we're going to do next.

Question from Candyce-CNN: Wireless technology seems to be the most practical way to connect remote areas of the developing world, but it remains very costly. Do you expect wireless communication to be subsidized or otherwise supported by aid agencies?

Jon Katz: Wireless communication is going to become much less expensive in the next few years, and I think the integration of basic telephone service with Internet is going to be the main solution. Any rural community will pay for basic telephone service, and this can support the data, the Internet side. I think the two technologies, telephone and Internet, are going to converge in the next five years, and that's going to be the big difference.

Question from Cecily: How do the people of El Limon currently receive news and information?

Jon Katz: Mostly by radio, they receive a local radio station.

Question from Jeff-CNN: How fast is the Internet access these countries are getting? Is it a quality connection?

Jon Katz: In the case of El Limon, it's the same as a regular telephone connection,. it's It's a 28 kilabaud kilobaud dial-up connection. It's not adequate for a reasonable distance-learning program. It is adequate for Web browsing and for e-mail. This is something that we'll change in the next few years. Much higher-speed access will be the standard in coming years. But, we do have to start someplace.

Question from LJNoel-CNN: Are there any security concerns with this?

Jon Katz: In terms of equipment theft issues, this is largely resolved by placing the equipment in school, and is also resolved by community involvement, where people are very protective of the equipment. We have not had this problem, although people in the village do worry about it.

Chat Moderator: Are the hydroelectric and Internet programs you helped institute in El Limon applicable to other communities and countries?

Jon Katz: Hydroelectricity makes sense where there is falling water, where water goes down a hill. Internet, I think is applicable everyplace. In places where there isn't water, solar technology is appropriate.

Chat Moderator: Why was El Limon chosen for this project?

Jon Katz: El Limon chose me. I was in many communities teaching a hydroelectric workshop in 1996, and El Limon was very enthusiastic about the idea of doing a village-wide system. So, we did it. I had not done anything on a village scale before -- in this case, 65 houses.

Question from OY: Just wondering about something, Mr. Katz, how will having high speed Internet access in Third World countries help starving men, women and children?

Jon Katz: It can make information for more advanced techniques available, more advanced agricultural techniques available through the Internet. In cases of emergency, it can help direct aid where it's actually needed. And it can do a great deal to change people's self-image and self-confidence, so that they can be more productive.

Chat Moderator: How are people in El Limon reacting to having a power source and the Internet?

Jon Katz: The electricity is considered extremely important throughout the entire community. People are very happy about the electricity. The Internet has affected a smaller group.

In particular, it has most strongly affected the eight young people who are learning to use the technology. We are trying to create an economic option for at least this small group of young people and the next step will be a class we're doing in Web page design next month. There are also two adults in the community who are being paid to work on the Internet and video project.

Question from Cecily: Have you run across any language issues with use of the Net?

Jon Katz: Yes. Too much of the Internet is in English from the point of view of Spanish-only speaking people. However, there are increasing amounts of materials in other languages. There's also a big problem with the programs. Some of the programs we use are only available in English. For example, there was a request in the community that the CNN interactive webWeb pages also be in Spanish.

Chat Moderator: What other countries are part of this projector this type of project?

Jon Katz: My understanding is that this is happening all over the world. We're looking for other people who are interested in starting to form networks of rural communities doing interrelated Internet self-help projects. Hopefully, Spanish-speaking people.

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Chat Moderator: Is it possible that places like El Limon, with its Internet access and clean electrical source, might offer future alternatives to the polluted, chaotic conditions found in other "wired" towns and cities?

Jon Katz: One part of our project has been community planning. People in El Limon want to maintain a rural, low-key, low-speed atmosphere in the community. The community wants to remain primarily agricultural, but with other options for individuals. I think community planning is an extremely important part of this sort of project.

Chat Moderator: What is the next step in this process for El Limon?

Jon Katz: The next step is to start reaching out to other communities and also to build a center for these activities, so that the school can go back to being a school.

Question from Celie-CNN: What is the demographic composition of the community? Population? Percentage of children? Average level of education?

Jon Katz: The average level of education is probably the equivalent of U.S. first or second grade. The village of 350 people is more than half children and youth. Unlike many villages in this area, teenagers are generally staying in the community and not leaving. But this is because of the irrigation system, which makes it possible to make a living in agriculture.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us?

Jon Katz: Two things. One thing is that this project is primarily not about technology, but about culture in a time of rapid technological change. And the other thing is that alliances with other organizations, for example the Community Development Organization in Ocoa, have been essential in developing the project.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Jon Katz.

Jon Katz: See you online!

Jon Katz joins us by telephone from the Dominican Republic. is providing a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat.

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