With new thinking, better resources usage IBM can improve citizen services

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15 January 2015 | 0

What if the health services could be adapted to prevent so-called ‘super utilisers’ from taking up nearly half of resources? What if care services could increase the effectiveness of care givers, by reducing the burden of non-care activities? What if cars that are parked in a city all day could be used for civic purposes? What if internet users in the developing world could be protected with low-cost infrastructure to allow them safe, secure access, bridging the digital divide?

These are just some of topics covered by research projects underway at IBM’s research labs in Mulhuddart, county Dublin.

The nature of the research topics may seem diverse, but they are unified by theme of better utilisation of technology to improve people’s lives in the density of the global megacities and in the rural heart of the developing world.

Censorship paradox
Zubair Nabi has been working on a number of interesting projects, some of which are product and service based, and some of which look at the issue of censorship.

Nabi showed through a study in Pakistan, where censorship of the Internet is carried out by the government, that even where infrastructure and equipment may be lagging the western world, users inevitably found a way around whatever blocks or filters were put in place, making such moves ultimately futile.

Nabi said that the Streisand Effect had been observed time and again, with metrics to show that as soon as content was censored, there was sometimes, though not always, a small fall in traffic, before alternatives routes were found and traffic invariably rose. These alternatives ranged from virtual private networks (VPN), to proxy servers and anonymisers to encryption and multi-layered routing. This shows the futility of censorship, and, as the Streisand Effect shows, often backfires by drawing further attention to the content being blocked.

However, if Nabi can identify such increases in traffic, so can repressive regimes where the authorities may not respect human rights in the same way as elsewhere. To protect such users, and ordinary internet users, Nabi has researched and proposed a simple solution, which has been dubbed the $35 firewall.

This consists of a Raspberry Pi mini-computer and a CubieBoard. The two combined can effectively create a firewall to provide basic filtering and protection services for users. This is not only to serve and protect those that authoritarian governments might target, but also to form a basic infrastructure to provide connectivity cheaply in the developing world. Nabi reckons that the set-up could be powered for a year by around $25 worth of electricity.

Connectivity boon
Nabi quoted various statistics that showed the economic boon of connectivity. A 10% increase in connectivity can create a 1.4% increase in GDP, according to the World Bank. Citing the work of the Gromeen Bank in Pakistan, Nabi showed that where a mobile phone can be used commercially in a rural village, it can become a micro-business, often benefiting women, and becoming a key source of cash income.

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