Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Can Lantern be useful in Bhutan's schools?

Launched in 2013, the Sherig Collection is a free, offline set of educational resources for all schools in Bhutan. The resources can be loaded on a 32 GB pen drive or an external hard drive. It does not require internet, and can be installed on any Windows machine. Content includes Wikipedia, Khan Academy, and many other resources tailored to the Bhutanese curriculum.

In the last couple of years, other initiatives for providing information to users with no internet access have been popping up around the world. An interesting one is Lantern, a crowd-sourced project. Lantern is a tiny web server with a built-in wireless hotspot. Any WiFi-enabled device (laptops, smartphones) can connect to Lantern and access its content. What's unique to Lantern is where the content is coming from. Lantern has a satellite receiver; and it constantly downloads content (at the slow rate of 2MB/day) using a broadcast signal from an Outernet satellite in space. It then saves the files on its internal storage, and users can then access the offline content using their devices.

Friday, November 7, 2014

@KuenselOnline Publishes a Correction. What about @BBSBhutan?

Three days after we first wrote about the mis-reporting of Bhutan's Ease of Doing business ranking, the Kuensel published a correction on its front page. Kudos to the newspaper for taking responsibility and informing the public.
Hopefully BBS will soon follow suite.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Is it Really Easier to Do Business in Bhutan?

Creating an environment conducive to businesses is a top priority in Bhutan. The private sector is where jobs are created. That's why the World Bank's annual Doing Business report, which includes the famous Ease of Doing Business ranking, is a yearly ritual that businesspersons, investors, decision makers - and the public - are watching carefully. The report for this year was published on Thursday.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Turn off annoying Facebook feature, save money and bandwidth

In case you are using Facebook  - and in Bhutan, who isn't?- you may have noticed an interesting change in your news feed in the last few months: as you scroll through the feed, videos posted by friends start to play automatically. The videos play silently (thank goodness for that!). Clicking on the video will turn on the audio. In the ever constant battle among the media companies to get our attention, this feature - called autoplay - is a rather clever way to distract us even further. And because the videos are muted by default, users can live with this annoyance (in fact, some experts speculate that the recent viral success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge can be partially attributed to Facebook's autoplay feature). But what about the data implications?

While many ISPs around the world offer plans which include unlimited (or capped) data quotas, in Bhutan the situation is different: broadband and 3G users pay for each byte they consume. Thus, whenever you visit Facebook (either on a desktop or your smartphone) and there are autoplayed videos in your feed, it means that you have paid for downloading those videos, whether or not you clicked thems. And since videos are data intensive, this hits your account balance rather heavily. Thus, if you noticed that your data balance is draining a bit too fast and you are a Facebook user, it might be a good idea to turn off the video auto-play feature. This will also save precious bandwidth for other applications. If you are interested in disabling Facebook auto-play, use this simple guide. Good luck!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Dzongkha smells like "incense burning under a starlit sky"

I first wrote about the Dzongkha perfume in 2011. I recently bumped into "Perfumes: The A-Z Guide" at the local library. This is a fat perfume "bible" which contains reviews of (almost) every perfume on the planet. I was happy to see that "Dzongkha" got a raving four-star review!


Friday, June 27, 2014

Farewell, Bhutan (K2 #87)

When I first landed in Paro six years ago, little did I know that 2008 would turn out to be an auspicious year that would be remembered in Bhutanese history as a year of tremendous events and tectonic changes: His Majesty, the 5th Druk Gyalpo, was crowned; the first ever elections for the national assembly took place; a democratically-elected government began ruling; and the constitution was enacted.

Significant technological changes engulfed the country as well: In 2008, both broadband and mobile internet services were introduced in Bhutan for the first time. These two technologies signalled the start of a new era in ICT. No longer did Bhutanese need to connect using ancient dial-up modems and wait long minutes (or even hours) to read email, surf the web, or download documents. During the same period, global technological innovations that changed the world took place. Twitter was launched in 2006. Facebook was opened to (almost) everyone a few months later. The first iPhone was introduced in 2007; the first Android-based phone saw light the following year. The combination of global and local developments - social media, smartphones, and faster and cheaper access - has had a rapid and profound effect on Bhutanese society.


Back in 2008, fast internet was too expensive for most Bhutanese: the monthly package for a slow 256 Kbps broadband line - which included a “generous” 0.5 GB of data - cost Nu 1000 and would entail paying Nu 3000 for each additional GB. Today’s standard broadband connections are 8 times faster and 30 times cheaper. If flight technology advanced at the same pace, you would fly from Paro to Bangkok for Nu 700 and reach Suvarnabhumi in 20 minutes...


It was thrilling to experience the incredible changes that took place over the last 6 years: examples include the international internet capacity increasing dramatically to 5 Gbps; more and more government services becoming available online; a very active blogging scene with writers, such as Passu, receiving more than 1000 page views a day and having a voice heard within and outside Bhutan; politicians and journalists skillfully using social media including a Prime Minister with more than 34,000 Facebook “Likes” and 8,000 Twitter followers; a small but promising start of local apps, for example, the beautiful Zakar app commissioned by the Dratshang Lhentshog; and the launch of iSchool, an initiative to tackle the shortage in teachers by using remote classroom technology.

Along with these wonderful developments, challenges abound. I list a few challenges that deserve careful attention going forward, if the goal is to embrace progress while actively supporting an adaptable, healthy and forward-looking society and culture.

The broadband divide: While urban dwellers are increasingly enjoying faster and cheaper internet connectivity, accessing the web in rural areas is often next to impossible. Mobile broadband technologies have the potential to significantly narrow the access gap between these two increasingly growing-apart segments of society. How? By skillful deployment of fast 3G in all gewogs, as well as guaranteeing that cheap devices are available to all. A recent unfortunate decision made by BICMA, the body in charge of regulating the telecom providers, has made cheaper Indian smartphones unusable for 3G in major Bhutan localities. This in effect helped widen the gap instead of narrowing it. In the future, important decisions affecting society and individuals must be carefully scrutinized.


Three years ago I received a phone call from Kuensel reporter Gyalsten K. Dorji. He had an idea for me: write a regular tech column in the Kuensel’s K2 magazine. As all things internet and mobile were still a novelty to many in Bhutan, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to share my knowledge by answering readers’ questions. The first “Ask Boaz” column was published three years ago on June 11, 2011. This is the 87th and last column. I am honoured to hand over this space to Lama Shenphen who will be providing Buddhist-themed answers to youth-related questions. Readers are encouraged to submit questions to shenphenzangpo@yahoo.co.uk

Hi-tech industry: The launch of the much-awaited, World Bank-supported Thimphu TechPark, with its failure to jumpstart a hi-tech IT industry, was a stark reminder that “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t always work. While the lack of speedy and reliable internet connectivity certainly hasn’t helped, the main issue has been the lack of top-notch talent. A thriving IT industry requires the best and brightest to compete globally. Computer programming can be taught at primary school level, and high school toppers in science and math must be directed and encouraged to study computer science and computer engineering (but not “computer applications”) at top universities. A handful of successful IT startups can create employment opportunities even outside of ICT, in fields such as e-agriculture, media, music, health, travel, and education.

Effect on society: No one is certain how living in the “always-connected” age - the result of the addictive combination of mobile internet and smartphones - affects our psyche as individuals, as well as a society. This is research in progress, and we are the ultimate guinea pigs. But given the thoughtful and very careful emphasis that Bhutan places on the effects of development on its culture and well-being, this must be carefully considered. Bhutan cannot - and should not - avoid these developments, but leadership and citizens must be constantly mindful of how technology affects us. As the Buddha said, “Be devoted to heedfulness. Guard your mind.”

Boaz Shmueli was a faculty member and co-director of the Rigsum Research Lab at the Rigsum Institute of IT & Management, 2008-2014.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Getting Hacked (K2 #86)

Question of the Week
Why are so many Bhutanese websites being hacked?
— Chimmi P., Mothithang

Answer
Dear Chimmi,

In the last few years, it seems that almost every website in Bhutan underwent surgery by knives of hackers. From RGoB’s main portal (www.bhutan.gov.bt) to BOB, T-Bank, BICMA, RCSC, DPT, Royal Bhutan Police, DrukNet, tour operators, schools... you name it! Now for the news - good and bad.

The good news: The attacks are often simple ones, and the hackers – perhaps bored teenagers sitting in an internet cafe in Tehran or Istanbul – are not professionals. They usually take advantage of well-known software vulnerabilities in the server. In fact, it’s easy to avoid these simple attacks; one only needs to make sure the server software is up to date (much like the Windows Update feature on personal computers). Many webmasters in Bhutan, however, don’t bother to update the server software, and so suddenly the websites display a cryptic message in Arabic (often bundled with an oriental tune).

The bad news: Given the abysmal state of internet security in the country, combined with the fact that more and more sensitive systems and databases are now online, it is difficult to overestimate the amount of damage that can be caused by malicious, professional hackers. The results can be disastrous. Bhutan must start taking cyber security seriously.

“There are no jobs for IT graduates” has become a common mantra these days, and fewer class XII pass outs are choosing the IT route. The fact is, however, that there are jobs – both in Bhutan’s private sector and abroad – for good computer programmers. The problem is not the jobs – it’s the type and quality of the degrees. I recently met a Bhutanese employer in Bhutan who is looking for skilled programmers, but was not able find a single one although he interviewed hundreds of IT graduates, many of whom are decorated with Bachelor in Computer Application (BCA) degrees. I have had similar experiences. There is a limited market for excellent BCA graduates, but a much larger demand for rigorous B.Tech or Computer Science graduates from reputable universities. The end result: while there are jobs for skilled software engineers and coders (as programmers are often known), the current state is that most of the IT graduates are unemployable.

Readers are encouraged to submit technology-related questions to boaz@thimphutech.com