It's Time to Consider an Electronic Peace Corps!

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It's Time to Consider an Electronic Peace Corps!

It's Time to Consider an Electronic Peace Corps!


By David H. Rothman

A deadly, unknown disease is killing hundreds of people in a steamy jungle in the year 2000.

The illness baffles the local public health officials. They can't determine whether the disease is spread through food water, sex, insects, or some other means. Fear grows. The sickness might even become another AIDS, a menace not just to Third World countries but also to developed countries like the United States.

Now, however, in the year 2000, leading scientists often know of mystery diseases within days of the first local reports. So they enjoy a head start in fighting this one.

The reason? An American agency called the Electronic Peace Corps (EPC).

Supervised by a cadre of experienced professionals, Peace Corps- style volunteers are revolutionizing Third World communications. They use computers, radios, and other electronic means to boost health and general living standards in developing countries and perhaps even save lives in developed ones.

Some EPC volunteers work in the field. Others, however, don't leave their regular jobs in their home towns. They share their medical and technical knowledge via global computer networks.

Third World officials can dial up computerized lists to select the right EPC volunteers for their needs of the moment. And time zones don't matter. Computer messages remain in electronic mailboxes thousands of miles away, ready to be picked up at the recipients' leisure.

A real EPC does not exist. But it could. Already the basic plan has won support from such people as Roger Nicholson, former worldwide training director of the Peace Corps; Arthur C. Clarke, father of the communications satellite; and conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr., who was keen on the idea as far back as 1984 ("a concrete proposal available to anyone running for president of the United States--or for re-election").

The EPC concept is simple:

Use cellular radio technology, computers, and other electronics to speed up the flow of technical and medical information from country to country and within countries. The EPC could be part of the existing Peace Corps or else be an independent agency. Other nations, moreover, might want to start their own.

Here is how the EPC could help fight the hypothetical epidemic and otherwise aid the Third World.

Way No. 1: Improve Telephone Service

No, we aren't talking about wiring up every tropical village or placing a Princess phone in every shelter. Nor need we string cables across every river and mountain range.

Rather, an EPC would aid public health efforts and other development-related activities through the same cellular radio technology that real estate salesmen and doctors employ to stay in touch with their offices from their BMWs. Faced with a possible epidemic, regional health workers could consult with the most knowledgeable professionals in their countries and even abroad.

Public health would be just one beneficiary of better phone service. Agricultural organizations, for instance, could more easily keep track of crop prices, and merchants or government officials could better coordinate food distribution.

Way No. 2: Promote Use of Computerized Databases, Expert Systems, and Electronic Spreadsheets

Learning of the strange symptoms, doctors in the affected country's capital could consult a computer database--to confirm that the malady was indeed a new one and to compare it with known illnesses. Computer also could help keep them abreast of new medical trends. A single CD ROM disk, for instance, similar to the kind that stores music, might offer the equivalent of hundreds of issues of medical journals. Imagine the boon to doctors and medical libraries unable to afford normal subscriptions. CD ROMs would be one way to reduce the expense of international computer connections when making massive data searches.

Guided by CD ROMs and expert systems--computers that respond to queries and offer advice the way a human expert might--the Third World doctors could develop some preliminary responses to the epidemic.

As in the United States, computers also could streamline the keeping of records and perform other tasks ranging from the analysis of laboratory results to the monitoring of patients under anesthesia to the streamlining of hospitals' finances. If nothing else, consider the African nation that, aided by electronic spreadsheets, got its budget done on schedule for the first time in years.

Way No. 3: Improve International Communications--Especially the Computer Kind

The gadgetry exists to "mail" computer messages even to Third World capitals with noisy phone lines.

As far back as 1982, Jerome Glenn, a leading U.S. pioneer in computer communications with poorer countries, was sending messages out of Haiti via a suitcase-sized computer terminal. He later institutionalized what he was doing. Thanks to the network he created--called CARINET--an African potter can get information within a day on how to build electrical insulators. Similarly Jamaican farmers may receive advice to plant peppers, not pumpkins, if they want good prices in the U.S.

What's more, since Glenn's pioneer days, international computer communications has been growing steadily cheaper.

For $1, I can send 1,000-word computer letters to a friend in Southeast Asia. He pays more. Just the same, "E-Mail" costs are steadily declining, and an Electronic Peace Corps could allow even the most impecunious public health organizations in the Third World to communicate with major ones in the West.

Computers, of course, wouldn't be the only medium. The EPC might also transmit detailed technical information at times via facsimile. What's more, phone conversations on occasion might be most efficient and add a personal touch. Even television might be used when appropriate; for instance, to show surgical procedures.

No matter what the media, a far-reaching network of public health officials would help save lives by:

Quickly alerting researchers and decision makers of developing epidemics, not just of their existence but of important details. AIDS, of course, is the classical example here. Serious research in the U.S. might have started earlier if better global communications had helped Westerners grasp one of the more important details: that AIDS could threaten general populations, not just "high-risk" groups such as intravenous drug users and homosexuals. Granted, technology alone isn't the answer. Computer nets cannot substitute for improved cooperation between countries; all they can do is make it easier. In this case, epidemiologists with organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control might routinely track even minor anomalies (involving relative few victims) lest they become AIDS-sized threats that leapt across oceans in an era of jet travel.

Speeding up research. How frustrating that epidemiologists, cancer researchers and others are at the mercy of post offices. Medical journals and letters between researchers may arrive weeks late or not at all. And telex is often too expensive. With funding from Apple Computer and McDonnell-Douglas Tymnet network, Baylor University Medical Center and the Pan American Health Organization started a cancer net with connections to five Latin countries. U.S. institutions should be doing more of the same. The benefits can be two-way. The more countries and scientists involved, the more likely it is that researchers can gain fresh insights based on unusual cases. This isn't even to mention the possibility of the spread of new diseases to the U.S.

Sending Third World doctors the very latest information to use on individual patients. Would that the physicians be able to do this routinely. Usually there won't be time or money. But in special cases, a diagnosis from afar might save or prolong life.

Along with the EPC proposal, I'll offer caveats. First off, the organization ideally will emphasize basics such as health and agriculture and not wander off into, say, cultural exchanges. The EPC mustn't be a glorified pen pal service.

Second, let's not spawn a giant bureaucracy overnight.The agency could start as a series of small, closely monitored pilot projects. Not all should be "in house." Why not have some run by private organizations used to operating on tight budgets? And why not tap the technical expertise of sophisticated amateur radio operators and computer hackers, many of whom still harbor the old barn-raiser spirit?

Third, the EPC should build on existing efforts rather than duplicate them. Perhaps it could help fund experiments such as a low- cost communications satellite project started by Volunteers in Technical Assistance to improve communications in remote parts of the world without telephone service. Also, the EPC should work hand in hand with international groups, such as the World Health Organization.

Fourth, computer and electronic experts should not run the EPC. Health professionals, agricultural administrators, economic development experts--they are the ones who should set the tone. The techies should serve the "end users," not the other way around.

Fifth, an American EPC should not only provide U.S. technical expertise, but also help Third World countries share information they develop on their own. The EPC should be a clearing house, not a Great White Father. Ideally, an American EPC would include Third World advisers or directors.

Sixth, the EPC should heed Roger Nicholson's warning: "Without training and spare parts, micro computers will be like the bulldozers that we send overseas, only to see them rust." The EPC should include enough volunteers in the field to reduce such possibilities.

Seventh and last, don't expect the EPC to replace the regular Peace Corps. Tapping out advice on his [or her] personal computer, a public health expert isn't exactly going to be able to give Asian villagers a step-by-step demonstration of water purification. For that you need a Peace Corps volunteer--plain Peace Corps, not electronic--on the scene. The EPC might be a life-saver at times, but never a global panacea. Rather it should be considered just one of many tools with which imaginative health professionals and others in international development can chip away at the problems of the The Third World.

Update, 1996

A year or so ago I heard from Naren Chitty, a former diplomat who helped me refine the EPC idea, and with whom I helped pave the way for Kaypro to donate ten computers to Sri Lanka's schools in the mid-'80s. He noted the many messages speeding over the Internet between his homeland and the United States. "It was serendipitous," he said, "to discover through E-mail a thriving plant where one once planted a seed."

That has been the biggest change--the spread of the nets and technology in general, along with the new opportunities. The Internet is but one example. Via BBS networks, for instance, American schoolchildren can learn geography and other subjects from direct contacts with students and others abroad. And with communications costs lower than in the '80s, high-tech is a perfect medium for cultural exchanges at a mass level. Electronic libraries, moreover, are no longer quite so novel. In an era of the Web, Gopher and similar tools, people in developing countries can track down information on their own without quite so much help from the States. Most of all, computers are no longer such novelties to the elites of Sri Lanka and other developing countries. I can't cite a cyber-census of the island; but I'd suspect that the number of microcomputers at universities there is in the hundreds and perhaps the thousands, a far cry from the Kaypro era.

Sri Lanka is but one example of the proliferation of high-tech. For example, Wired magazine told how, in some circles in China, 286-class computers are enshrined along with the wok and bicycle in a "pantheon of simple, ubiquitous technology."

And yet, if anything, the need is even greater today for an Electronic Peace Corps than in the 1980s. Epidemics can spread more rapidly. And the fates of Americans are more intertwined than ever with people in the Third Word, some of whom have come to our shores to escape wars and find new opportunities here. Indeed it has been suggested, quite correctly, that some of the best participants in an EPC might be our recent immigrants and their children.

There are other changes in the idea I'd make today. Just as the existing Peace Corps is doing already, an electronic version could help Eastern Europe, not only Asia, Africa and Latin America. William Buckley speculated in 1990: "What would happen if a half-million Kaypros--I speak of the Volkswagen of personal computers--were given away--yes, given away--to Eastern Europe and to the Soviet Union? The worriers will ask whether we are playing the role of sorcerer's apprentice, giving away rudimentary instruments that can turn into monsters (with a Kaypro, Stalin might have managed to find and kill even more people). But no: the universalization of the resources of the computer can accelerate that which most needs acceleration: economic relief for 350 million people, Eastern Europeans and Russians, bankrupted by 70 years of socialism."

Also, an EPC could reflect our existing Peace Corps' interest in the environment--in forestry, for example. Certainly the EPC could play in important role in monitoring and coping with pollution and other threats. In this same vein, an Electronic Peace Corps could promote Third World telecommuting.

The idea, proposed years ago by a Tennessee researcher, makes infinite sense; telecommuting could reduce smog in the great cities of developing countries, lessen the threat to the ozone layer, and also encourage greater social stability. The goal wouldn't be to turn every villager into a computer-era clerk. Rather the EPC could encourage Third World societies to create new opportunities in rural areas to help staunch the flow of population into already-crowded cities. Just a small number of white-collar people in rural regions could generate service jobs for many others. The EPC could encourage developing countries to train the children of farmers for jobs they would normally find only in New Delhi, say, or Mexico City. And it could help city-based companies reach out to this new labor force through rural work centers. Moreover, it could assist rural people in establishing their own companies to provide some local employment of the white-collar variety.

What's more, in updating the Electronic Peace Corps concept, I can see a connection with the TeleRead program that I have proposed for the U.S. TeleRead would create an affordable National Library online and drive down the costs of computers optimized for reading, writing and other serious endeavors. And the same technology could travel to the Third World, where we eventually could help countries set up libraries of their own.

Spreading the TeleRead idea on the Internet, I've received inquiries not just from the States and Europe, but from remote areas of the planet. Ironically, in helping others with an EPC and TeleRead programs, we would help ourselves--by creating a new appetite for American intellectual property abroad, while benefiting from the works of people everywhere, including LDCs. At same time such efforts would be a wonderful carrot to encourage developing countries to respect intellectual property rights. Right now in many cases, there are no incentives for this to happen--just heavy-handed threats of trade sanctions.

Another issue that arises nowadays is whether the Electronic Peace Corps should be an international agency. I've already suggested that different countries could start their own EPCs. And someday, yes, there might an international electronic peace corps, as some have proposed. But first things, first. The U.S. and other major powers would actually do the world more of a favor by starting with their own agencies and seeing which ideas worked the best. International agencies can be like ocean liners--ponderous and hard to turn around; at this stage a fleet of speedboats would do better.

Of course, even early on, the EPCs of different countries could create ad hoc bodies to coordinate major projects in different regions of the world. And international organizations could still participate in the setting of technical standards, just as they do now.

Finally, may I emphasize the importance of an EPC working to improve communications within LDCs? It has been rightly pointed out that biggest need there right now is not for sophisticated international networks but for linking of nearby cities. That is why an emphasis on Plain Old Telephone Service would be desirable. What's more, at the moment, simple BBS connections in many cases would be better than full-fledged Internet connections. At the same time we should realize that Internet technology is falling dramatically in price, so that often the Net may actually be the cheaper way to go in the long run.

Whatever form an American EPC takes, the 1987 headline has held up: It's Time to Consider an Electronic Peace Corps.--D.H.R.

David H. Rothman 805 N. Howard St., #240 Alexandria, Va. 22304 703-370-6540(o)(h)

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