I just arrived in Seoul after a 14 hour flight from New York. We flew above the Arctic Circle, just north of Barrow, Alaska, then cut southwest across the Kamchatka Peninsula. I didn't have a window seat so I didn't get many peeks outside, but managed to catch a couple of glaciers over the northern Alaska coast.
Amazingly, Korean Air only played two movies the entire flight: Ben Affleck's Paycheck and Disney's Brother Bear, both dismal films, but for very different reasons that I'm too jetlagged to get into at the moment. (It's 4am Boston time right now...)
Anyway, I'm enjoying the free broadband at Inchoen airport - my email is faster here than it is at home in Boston.
By the time I post my next blog, I'll hopefully be in Hong Kong.... -Andy
It's 11pm in Hong Kong and I'm in a car heading to the Metropark Hotel in Causeway Bay. It's taken just under 30 hours for me to get here, starting from the time I walked out my apartment door in Boston.
As I has hoped, my mobile phone works well here - I just checked email and called Susanne to let her know I made it okay. So now before I check into the hotel and crash from exhaustion, I'll try to post this blog from my phone, halfway around the world.... -andy
It's just after 9:30am in Hong Kong and I've just posted an audio blog.... -Andy
It's been a fun day exploring Hong Kong; later tonight I'll write up a detailed blog entry. For now, though, I want to share three little videos I shot. The first two were taken at the Man Mo Temple on Hong Kong Island; the third was an ancestor ceremony at the Pak Sing Temple, a few blocks away. Click on the preview picture to see the video. The videos are up to 14 megabytes long, so it may take a long time to download on a dial-up Internet connection.
Hanging incense at the Man Mo Temple:
Hope you enjoy the videos... -andy
Today was my only full free day in Hong Kong; my meetings would start Monday afternoon. But after the 30-hour commute from Boston, I needed to sleep in until 8am; after that I had a quick breakfast at the hotel restaurant, giving me just enough time with my tour book to plan a day's worth of events.
|Women light incense at the Tin Hau temple|
The temple was about a two-minute walk from the hotel. Incorporated into the surrounding buildings, the temple did not stand out at first. I had to climb two flights of stairs before reaching the main hallway, which was packed with several hundred Chinese worshippers. Men and women alike were lighting incense and bringing offerings to the heart of the temple. Some were chanting, but overall it seemed more like a festive cacophony - old friends chatting, parents instructing their kids what to do in the ceremony, etc.
I made eye contact with one of the men who was working near the main altar. I motioned at my camera to see if it was okay to take pictures, so I stood to the side and tried to capture some images with my digital camera. I managed to do this for about 15 minutes, until someone off to the other side yelled something out at me in Chinese.
"No picture," another man said a few moments later. I looked over at the man who initially said I could take photos, and he gave me a shrug with a look that seemed to say, "What can I tell you? It's not like I'm in charge." Not wanting to cause offense, I put away my camera and returned to the periphery of the temple, observing for a few more minutes before taking the stairs back down to street level.
I still needed to get some money, though; having $60 in U.S. cash wasn't going to get me far if I wanted to take a ferry ride or get some lunch. The ATM around the corner from the hotel wouldn't accept either of my cards, so I began walking west down Causeway Road, past Hong Kong's beautiful public library. I stopped at a hotel to see if they had an ATM, but they told me to go into Causeway's main shopping area, just west of the Victoria Park. I stopped in the park for a few minutes, where thousands of woman were picnicking and gossiping with each other. Around the corner I spotted an HSBC ATM and managed to get some quick spending money for the day.
|Dried produce for sale in a Hong Kong market|
Leaving the market I slowly wandered westward, meandering a maze of pedestrian bridges and skyways that interconnected many of the skyscapers in Hong Kong's Central district. Somehow I managed to find myself at the entrance of the convention center, site of the 1997 handover from the British. Apart from the nice view of Kowloon and Victoria Harbor, there wasn't much to do around there, so I started walking west and uphill, towards the Peak tram.
The Peak is the most popular tourist attraction in Hong Kong. More shopping mall than vista, the Peak is home to a galleria of shops and restaurants, perched atop the highest hill on Hong Kong island. Half the fun of visiting the peak is taking the furnicular tram that runs the steep course up the hill. So I hiked up a busy road near the high court complex, thankful for the bottle of water I'd picked up earlier at a 7-Eleven store. Once I reached the entrance to the tram I had to queue for about 10 minutes with a small horde of fellow tourists. The Peak is also home to Madam Tussaud's wax museum, among other tourist traps, so the tram ticket center did its best to entice visitors with a sample wax figure - in this case, Hong Kong's very own Jackie Chan. I found myself staring at Wax Jackie for an otherwise disturbing amount of time. His skin looked real, his hair looked real -- even his eyes looked real. The whole thing was very strange. A Chinese boy behind me started to cry -- perhaps he was freaked out after losing a game of "who''ll blink first" with the paraffin Kung Fu master.
|View of Hong Kong from the Peak|
After riding the tram down the hillside, I decided to walk to Hong Kong's Soho neighborhood, a maze of restaurants and bars. I started by looking for a couple of noodle shops recommended in the Lonely Planet book, but somehow I got disoriented and ended up in a different corner of Soho. Rather than hike back across to near where I started, I quickly spotted a Thai restaurant called the Siam Café, and had their fixed-priced lunch of coconut chicken soup, drunken noodles and dessert. The drunken noodles were very spicy, with fresh peppercorns still on the stalk, popping like grapes when you ate them. Dessert turned out to be two little morsels of coconut tapioca pudding, each wrapped in a dainty little palm leaf gift box.
Cutting west through the rest of Soho, I found myself on Hollywood Road, which soon led me to the Man Mo Temple. One of the most famous temples in Hong Kong, Man Mo was one of my favorite spots during my first visit in 1997. As had been the case seven years earlier, my second visit to the temple was fascinating. Huge coils of incense hung from the ceiling, constantly tended to by two volunteers. Deeper in the temple, several people were lighting incense sticks and candles, occasionally banging a gong along the side of the hall. No one seemed to mind that I had a camera, so I spent a while hanging out, observing people as they came in and out to say their prayers. For such a chaotic city, it's hard to step away from oases of serenity such as this.
Leaving Man Mo Temple, I walked further west to visit a trio of temples in a neighborhood that was one of the first settled by the Chinese after the British planted their flag on the island. The first temple was reminiscent of Man Mo, with its enormous collections of incense coils hanging from the ceiling, but on a smaller scale. The second temple was surprisingly un-temple-like. After climbing a stairwell, I found myself in a room with half a dozen middle-age people sitting in chairs, either asleep or looking terribly bored. One person was praying in the inner sanctum, while several others stood the side and stared at me. For whatever reason, this didn't seem like the type of place that welcomed outsiders, so I politely turned around and went back down the stairs.
Just across the street, though, I had a much more positive experience. The Pak Sing shrine looked more like a modest dry goods store that had been converted into a house of worship. There were six people inside, but the place was small enough that even this felt a little claustrophobic when I entered. Two of them saw me and smiled, motioning me to come in closer while the others prayed at the inner shrine, chanting for the spirits of their ancestors. I made eye contact with one of the first two people and motioned to my camera. He nodded his head and smiled. I got in closer and slowly panned my camera while taking a short video clip of the prayers.
Leaving the shrine, I walked downhill through Sheung Wan towards the waterfront, first exploring the antique stores and curio shops along Cat Street. Eventually I reached the Central Star Ferry terminal, where I boarded a ferry for the 15-minute crossing to Kowloon, on the mainland side of Hong Kong. The views of Hong Kong from Victoria Harbor were just as spectacular as I'd remembered from seven years' ago. Reaching Kowloon, I first paid a visit to a tailor shop to see if I could get a suit made. While Hong Kong's tailors are no longer legendary for their affordable first-rate suits, they're still quite a bargain, so I ordered a suit, two shirts a tie for the equivalent of $250. After getting measured for the suit, I took a brief walk through the Peninsula Hotel, observing its well-dressed guests having high tea in the atrium. Susanne and I had come for high tea back in '97, but doing it on my own didn't seem like much fun. Instead, I went exploring up Nathan Road, admiring its famously garish neon signs hanging high above the street.
|Neon signs in Kowloon|
We slowly made our way down Nathan Road, pausing briefly to pay homage to the notorious Chungking Mansion, made famous in the movie Chungking Express. By the time we'd worked our way through the crowds and across the busy roads to the waterfront, it was 10 minutes to 8pm, just prior to the light show. The waterfront was crowded with thousands of locals, undoubtedly attracted by the fact that tonight's show would be accompanied by a Cantonese-language narrator. All of us became transfixed on Hong Kong's skyline as tens of thousands of lights danced and flashed to an orchestrated history of Hong Kong, punctuated by bursts of fireworks from the rooftops. The view was spectacular, but the fact that it was narrated in Cantonese made it more than a little difficult to follow the story line.
The show lasted 20 minutes, followed by a molasses flood of people all trying to leave the waterfront at the same time. We struggled upstream, so to speak, trying to get further inland to a restaurant district just east of Nathan Road. But the whole area was cut off by road construction, so we backtracked along Nathan Road until we could find a safe place to cut westward by a few blocks. By now it was nearly 9pm, and we were all getting very hungry and somewhat dehydrated. Fortunately we found a pan-Southeast Asian restaurant that wasn't too crowded, and ordered a combination of Chinese, Thai and Indonesian dishes, accompanied by the coldest bottles of Tsingtao beer available legally without a permit. It was a delicious meal, but by the time we got back to the Star Ferry terminal and caught the boat back to Central, we knew we were too exhausted to find the subway down the street. So we hailed the first taxi we could find and climbed in clown-fashion, five of us jammed in a car that probably should have only seated three. The taxi driver spoke no English, and the Cantonese-language directions on the hotel's business card still didn't prevent him from getting lost twice. On the second occasion, we gave up and got out of the taxi, preferring to walk the five minutes' distance to the hotel than drive in the wrong direction for an equal amount of time.... -andy
Because I needed to leave the Metropark Hotel later today in order to move to the location of the conference, over on the southwest corner of the island, I got up bright and early, eager to accomplish at least one tourist activity before having to get to work. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, I started to make my way to the New Territories -- the swath of land north of Kowloon leading up to the mainland Chinese border -- to pay a visit to the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery. Although it's not an important monastery as far as history is concerned - it's only a few decades' old - it's supposedly a nice place to visit to get away from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.
Getting there seemed like it would be a difficult task - it involved several subway transfers, plus a switch to the commuter train that runs to the Chinese border crossing - but in reality it was very straightforward. The subways in Hong Kong are as efficient as they come; in particular, the fact that you can see a little arrow moving along the digital map of the subway system displayed inside the train guarantees that you won't accidentally head in the wrong direction (or at least not for long).
So after heading in the wrong direction, for only one stop, thanks to that little blinking arrow, I was able to get to Sha Tin, one of the largest "new towns" in the New Territories. The train terminal was attached to a large mall, full of American stores ranging from Mrs. Fields Cookies to Tie Rack. Apart from the fact no one was speaking in English, I could have easily been in any US suburb. Stepping outside, though, I was quickly overwhelmed by the syrupy humidity, reminiscent of Bali or southern India. Fortunately the walk to the temple was only 10 minutes or so, but then I'd have to climb about 450 steps to get to the monastery. I just hoped my bottle of water would last the entire journey.
I followed the map to reach the trail head leading up to the monastery. The setting was rather strange; one moment I'm walking past a giant IKEA store and government offices; the next moment I'm in a bamboo forest. No exaggeration. But that's the New Territories for you - even though it's crammed with enormous housing estates and malls, it's surrounded by lush green hillsides, making it easy to disappear for a verdant hike through the countryside.
Following the signs to the monastery, I reached the first of what would be nearly 500 steps to the top. The entire path upwards was lined with Buddha statues, statues different from any Buddha I'd seen at a previous temple. In fact, each statue was probably unique. There were thin Buddhas, chubby Buddhas, bald Buddhas, hairy Buddhas, Buddhas with walking sticks, Buddhas with dogs and dragons and frogs, macho Buddhas, androgynous Buddhas. The entire climb was a lesson in Buddha diversity.
The only Buddha I didn't see, though, was a sweaty, exhausted Buddha, which is exactly what I felt like by the time I reached the top of the hill. I entered the monastery and made eye contact with a Chinese visitor who probably had just spent the last 10 minutes recovering from her climb to the top. She smiled broadly and shook her water bottle in the air as if she were waving a championship sports trophy. I was almost too exhausted to laugh, but I had to nod and snicker.
|Courtyard of the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery|
At the front of the plaza was the main temple. The interior was crowded with 10,000 Buddhas - or at least I surmised as such, given the name of the complex. The walls were covered with niches each featuring a miniature Buddha. There were so many of them, if you blurred your eyes they would have looked like a wallpaper pattern. At the center of the temple was a statue of a serene-looking monk. As I approached I realized it wasn't actually a statue - there was a sign in English above him saying it was the corpse of the monk who founded the monastery. His entire body was covered in gold paint. He looked like he was straight out of the James Bond movie, Goldfinger - quite appropriate considering some of the Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun took place in Hong Kong.
Once my pulse had returned to normal I was ready to start the downward walk from the monastery. Of course it was a lot easier than going up, but my thighs started to quiver by the time I got to the bottom. The entire experience made for quite a workout, but it was a pleasant excursion that showed me a sign of Hong Kong that I hadn't seen before.
Returning to Kowloon from the New Territories, I visited the tailor that was making a suit for me. I tried on the suit to see how it fit; it wasn't bad for a first fitting. I also tried on the two shirts he was making for me; I liked them so much I immediately ordered another four. At $25 a shirt, how could you not get more?
Before heading back to the hotel I had a quick lunch at a Vietnamese noodle restaurant, enjoying a large bowl of chicken and cellophane noodle soup. I then returned to Hong Kong island by way of the Star Ferry, soaking up the view and the relatively cool breeze as the boat made its way from Kowloon. Exiting the ferry at Central, I walked among the skyscrapers, admiring the architecture of the HSBC and Bank of China buildings before swinging over to the Bank of America building to take advantage of my home bank's no-fee ATM. By 1pm, I was back at the hotel to pick up my bags and catch a taxi to the Meridien CyberPort Hotel, home of the ICT summit I was going to attend. The taxi went past the Happy Valley Racecourse and through a long tunnel under Hong Kong's central hills, ending up on the far southern side of the island. The hotel was located near the southwest corner of Hong Kong, with a fine view of Lamma Island and several smaller islands, with over a dozen large freight ships riding through the channel.
The hotel is incredibly swank and modern - it literally opened only two weeks ago. Because it's part of the Cyberport complex, Hong Kong's new silicon valley, the hotel is wired to the hilt. In my room I discovered a plasma screen TV with full Internet access and a multimedia deck that allows me to plug in DVDs, CDs and a variety of flash memory cards. The room also had one of the nicest views I've ever had in a hotel, with a view of the western sun hovering over Lamma Island and the East Lamma Channel. The room seemed even more spectacular because of the strategic use of mirrors on the walls, making it appear as if I was surrounded by water on three sides.
Unfortunately, I was unable to get email to work through their plasma screen PC, and my laptop wouldn't connect via their wireless Internet connection. The hotel's guest relations manager came by to help, and she ended up staying 90 minutes as she talked to tech support, who seemed baffled by the fact that I owned a Macintosh. Eventually we were able to get the Internet to work, though I discovered while walking my laptop around the room that the best Wi-Fi signal in my suite was curiously by the bathtub.
Our first official gathering was to start in a couple hours, so I headed outside for a quick swim in the hotel's gorgeous pool. I jumped in and enjoyed the fresh, warm water, only to spot a pool boy running towards me as if I were drowning.
"Please get out of the pool!," he yelled. "The bacteria levels are too high!"
Needless to say I got out as fast as I could. I asked him if there had been a sign posted, and he posted to a piece of paper that had been plastered below two pages' worth of pool rules. No wonder I missed it.
I returned to my room and bathed as thoroughly as possible. And to think SARS had been my only worry on this trip.... -andy
During the first morning of the Hong Kong Global ICT Summit on E-Content and E-Creativity, the first presentation came from Louise van Rooyen, Executive Director of the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association. The 14th largest economy in the world, Australia also has one of the fastest growing economies, she said. But the country's vast distances are a constant challenge - people who live far from the major population centers are often faced with high telecommunications costs. Approximately one in three Australians live and work away from the big cities.
Australia ranks 6th in the International Telecommunication Union's digital divide index, and also places first in the world in terms of literacy and school enrollment rates, putting the country in a strong position to develop an ICT literate economy and society. From 1995 to 2001, a quarter of Australia's growth came from the ICT sector.
Australia utilizes mobile phones at a high rate - 14 million phones in a population of 20 million people. But payphones still remain the primary communications link for many rural Australians, since they lack mobile coverage and broadband penetration.
Australian civil society aims for subsidized Internet access for people in rural communities, along with equitable deployment of broadband whenever possible. "ICTs have enormous potential for bridging geographic, cultural, political, social and other gaps, and if equitably organized, ICTs can bring people together in a completely individual, private, virtual space," she said.
Currently, 52% of Australian households have Internet access, but there are wide disparities for low-income groups, senior citizens, indigenous groups and people with limited formal education. "The divide is not sharp, but it increases the social and economic disadvantages that already exist," she added.
E-inclusion initiatives should address access, said, but ICT literacy initiatives and increased public awareness are also key. ICTs must be integrated into the social fabric of everyday life, with easy access to technical support for all users.
The Australian government invested USD$250 million networking the country in 1997, followed up by a AU$73 million e-content for learning initiative with New Zealand known as the Le@rning Federation (LF). Now, 290 towns have their own ISPs or other local Internet point of presence, while the LF initiative is helping create socially and locally relevant educational content.
"Broadband connectivity is probably our single biggest challenge in the short term, both in the cities and in rural communities," she said in her closing. A recent study suggests that universal broadband would lead to economic benefits totaling AU$12-$30 billion, making deployment an even higher priority for rural and urban communities alike.
Waheed Al Balushi of the Bahrain Internet Society gave an overview of the state of ICTs in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain. It's one of the smallest countries in the world, but has one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the Arab world, and serves as the leading financial services hub in the Gulf region. Less than a million people live in Bahrain -- just over 700,000 people -- and more than half of the population uses mobile phones. Bahrain has a high literacy rate, with large youth population - 60% of Bahrainis are 25 years old or younger. About 22% of Bahrainis use the Internet, second only to the U.A.E. in the Arab world.
King Hamad of Bahrain has launched his Project for Future Schools, a new initiative to bring computers and ICT curriculum to all Bahraini schools. Al Balushi's organization, the Bahrain Internet Society, is working to raise public awareness on the Internet, and promotes the goal of all Bahrainis having safe and reliable access to Internet services and content. "People will spend money buying a car, but they think twice before buying a computer," he said. Many Bahrainis remain afraid of Internet technology, so much needs to be done to demonstrate how it can be used in socially and culturally relevant ways.
With the Ministry of Commerce, they've launched the Bahrain eContent Award this past week. "This award aim to encourage e-content and e-creativity in Bahrain," Al Balushi explained, saying the initiative is modeled after the UN World Summit Award held last year.
MD "Zaman" Akteruzzaman, president of the Bangladesh Multimedia Association and founder of the Bangladesh Youth Forum on ICT, spoke of the technology challenges and opportunities faced by Bangladesh. In 1998 the government stopped charging import duties on computers, helping lower the price significantly. But telecom access is limited: there are less than two million fixed line and mobile phones in a country with a population over 100 million.
|ICT Minister Abdul Moyeen Khan and Zaman take questions from the audience|
The Bangladeshi government is supportive of the Digital Solidarity Fund, an international fund for supporting telecom infrastructure in developing nations, proposed by the Senegalese government last year. The prime minister has expressed interest in the creation of the initiative, which has faced resistance among western governments. Whether or not the fund is created, he said, it's necessary for the world to address the challenge of helping all people to be empowered by ICTs, no matter if they come from a developed or developing nation.
Zaman then discussed the national ICT policy, which among other things emphasizes public access to government information through a national e-government portal that's now in development. The nation's ICT infrastructure should extend to all citizens, empowering people and enhancing democratic values, he explained. The technology must also be affordable and accessible to people in remote areas - a particular challenge for a country with a large rural population. They are expanding access through existing infrastructures, including broadband that was deployed for the national railways, as well as for gas and electric utilities. The government is also deploying Internet kiosks to all post offices, which in many cases will be the first Internet access point in many communities.
Following the presentation, Effat El-Shooky of Egypt's RITSEC programmed noted that developing nations such as Bangladesh and Egypt must find ways of collaborating to address the digital divide. "We really need to see more South-South cooporation on this issue," she said.
Marcelo Santiago, President of Brazil's Interactive Multimedia Association, presented late in the morning on Tuesday. With a population of 156 million people, approximately 16% of them have Internet access. Only 1/3rd of Brazilians own computers. For those who are online, home access is the most popular. Internet users are mostly urban - 45% of all Internet users are in the greater Sao Paolo area, for example.
Despite the relatively small number of people online, Brazilian Internet users are very much enthusiasts of the medium, trailing only the US and Spain in terms of time spent online by the average user. Much of this relates to Brazil's youthful population.
Brazil faces many challenges, including the need for a more comprehensive national ICT policy. There are also many bureaucratic roadblocks to launching new businesses, stifling innovation. Brazil is working to invest in e-government and school connectivity; its online tax filing service is the most utilized online tax filing program in the world, with 90% of the population having their taxes filed online.
A large country with limited rural Internet access, improving infrastructure is only a first step; the Brazilians hope to deploy distance learning programs to improving education opportunities in remote areas. "In such a huge country, how can we bring the content to the people who really need it?" he asked.
|Susanne Stein presents at the Hong Kong conference|
Canada is a world leader in Internet and broadband access, though surprisingly its level of cell phone penetration is lower than some western countries, with a level of less than 40%. About 80% of the country has been deployed for broadband. Much of this was due to a 1997 broadband taskforce that sought to extend broadband to all communities. Today, half of all homes with Internet access in Canada use broadband; only Korea's broadband levels are higher.
ICTs have had a major impact on Canada. In 2002, there were $13.3 billion in e-commerce sales, while in terms of education, Canada ranks first in terms of online course availability and 2nds and overall courses online worldwide. Canada's e-government initiatives are also regarded as some of the best; according to Accenture, only Singapore rates higher in e-government services deployment. Canada's Government Online initiative has spent nearly $300 million on e-government deployment, and now nearly 50% of Canadian users have used e-government services.
Stein concluded by presentation by quoting former Prime Minister Chretien: "In the 21st century, our economic and social goals must be pursued hand-in-hand. Let the world see in Canada a society marked by innovation and inclusion, by excellence and justice."
Carlos Vera Quintana, director of Ecuador's telecenter initiative, spoke of the challenges of getting a small, rural country online. Ecuador has less resources than many other countries and must focus its policy priorities on the basic needs of its citizens. The government recognizes the need to make Internet access more affordable, but financial strains make it difficult to address nationwide. Still largely an agricultural economy, Ecuador lacks strong manufacturing and ICT industries. But technologies such as mobile phones and cable/satellite television is becoming more commonplace, though affordability is still a major barrier for Ecuador's citizens.
Currently there are 1500 cybercafes in the country, but overall PC penetration remains low - only eight computers per 100 people. The government seeks to deploy mobile labs as well as establish rural wi-fi initiatives, since wire-line access is prohibitively expensive in remote communities. The government is also working to launch 200 telecenters around the country.
But Internet deployment is more than just a financial challenge. In some communities, Internet access is seen by corrupt community leaders as a threat , since the Internet will help educate the population and make them more civically aware. If successfully deployed, therefore, Internet access could revolutionize civic participation as well as help Ecuador built an information-driven economy.
Effat El-Shooky of Egypt's RITSEC initiative spoke about Egypt's focus on e-learning and ICT access. In 1985, Egypt established its first government agency on the role of ICTs in government and Egyptian society. In the past two decades, the agency has worked on a range of programs related to debt, unemployment and other challenges, and what role ICTs can play in solving them.
In 1999, President Mubarak launched the process for creating a national ICT strategy to encompass e-government, e-learning, e-health, e-business and e-culture. At the heart of the strategy was the Free Internet Initiative, which providers dial-up connectivity to every operational phone line in the country. The program is based on a revenue-sharing model with the national telecom company and the national government, and has proved to be very successful. The government has also implemented a subsidized computer purchasing program in which Egyptian families may pay a monthly fee as part of their utility bills to have a computer at home.
Currently, there are nearly 700 Internet clubs around the country, hosted by youth centers, public libraries, schools and NGOs. Over 100,000 Egyptian citizens use these clubs for their Internet access and training. The program places a particular emphasis on low-income and disenfranchised communities, especially the youth in these communities.
In terms of e-learning, the government has launched training programs including basic skills development , teacher training, high tech universities, and promoting lifelong learning. The programs are at various levels of deployment, she said, but it's important that the government is implementing them as a comprehensive suite of e-learning opportunities targeting different age groups and communities.
Egypt sees e-culture as an important area of investment as well; given Egypt's long and rich history, there is much to be gained to digitizing Egyptian cultural resources and using it building blocks for teaching Egyptian history.
Alexander Felsenberg of the German Digital Economy Association began the afternoon session with an overview of Germany's digital divide efforts. Germany's digital economy employs approximately 940,000 people. In general this number has been stagnant among Germany's software producers and IT services providers, but there has been growth among e-commerce and online advertising professionals. Ninety-five percent of the workforce is employed by small or medium enterprises.
In terms of infrastructure, 34% of the country has broadband available through Germany's private telecom companies. Germany has the highest number of Internet users in the EU, but the overall Internet penetration rate is somewhat lower than in Scandinavia. Germany is also in the process of rolling out digital television, with a plan to end analog broadcasting by the year 2015.
Felsenberg then gave an overview of the last 20 years of German ICT policy, explaining the evolution of the industry from government-owned to privatized, and how this lead to the growth of Internet providers in the late 90s. In 1993, 6.5% of the population used the Internet; today it's closer to 55%. There's a direct correlation between Internet access and one's age - they younger, the more likely you're online - and education level - less educated Germans tend to online less than the educated.
According to Felsenberg, the lack of ICT skills is a major barrier to bridging the digital divide, as well as high access costs, lack of public interest, and security/privacy concerns. The government has invested in connecting schools and libraries to the Internet, while private sector entities like the Chamber of Commerce and Siemens have embraced ICT literacy programs like the European Computer Drivers License program and multimedia development competitions for students. In terms of e-government, the BundOnline 2005 initiative is brining government information and transactions online, along with online bidding for government contracts. The government has also enacted initiatives to promote online gender equality and access among the elderly.
Felsenberg wrapped up his presentation by talking about the importance of public-private partnerships to bridge the digital divide. He cited the Digitale Chancen Foundation as an example: an initiative inspired by the Digital Divide Network that uses the Internet to promote public Internet access points around the country. Digitale Chancen utilizes resources from government and the private sector while being managed by a university. Combining resources allows programs like this a greater chance of success and sustainability over the long term.
Yvonne Wong of the Internet Professionals Association presented the Hong Kong case study. Approximately 68% of people have PCs at home, while 60% have Internet access. Broadband is universally available, and half of the population utilizes. Perhaps most impressive is Hong Kong's mobile phone usage rate - 104%, a number made possible by the fact that the average person in Hong Kong has at least one phone.
Despite these positive numbers, Hong Kong has a digital divide, particularly among the elderly, low income families and immigrants from mainland China and other parts of Asia. There's also a direct correlation between access and education level. There is also a gender divide, in which males are still more likely to be online than women.
Hong Kong has invested in a "Web Care" campaign to promote Internet access for women and the elderly. Over 240 free access points are located around the region, but some of the most popular ones force people to queue up in line for long periods of time before they can go online. Hong Kong has also begun to address Web accessibility as an important issue, encouraging the adoption of accessibility standards in e-government and the private sector. The government produced its own internal accessibility guidelines, requiring compliance by all government websites. To continue raising awareness on the issue, the government hosts an accessibility forum each year, keeping the public and private sector current on the latest accessibility strategies.
Osama Manzar of the Digital Empowerment Foundation gave an overview of India's effort to utilize ICTs for development. With more than one billion people, India has the second largest population in the world. More than 70% of the population lives in rural areas, with literacy hovering around 50%. Around 53% of the population lives below the poverty line. Less than one person per hundred own a computer, and there are less than .1 cybercafes or telecenters per 10,000 people; approximately 1.7% of the population uses the Internet.
India has some media strengths: television and radio penetration is around 80%, but overall, new media content is extraordinarily limited in local languages - 18 languages are recognized as official languages, and countless others are spoken at the local level. The digital divide remains wide, but this "canyon," as Manzar put it, is really an opportunity for India's economic development.
Despite its many challenges, India is now the second biggest software exporter in the world. Indian expats are the largest diaspora population working in Silicon Valley as well. Internationally, there has been much investment in India, with many donors and NGOs using the country as a testbed for bridging the digital divide; Manzar cited a litany of programs sponsored by entities ranging from OneWorld International to the World Bank. The government has also begun deploying "rural information kiosks" in every village in the country.
Yesterday was my turn to give my overview of the digital divide in the United States. I didn't have an enormous amount of time, so I focused on explaining some basic statistics on the digital divide in terms of income, education level, ethnicity and disability. Additionally, I added my usual pitch for factoring the need for improving 21st century skills and a diversity of relevant content in the policy equation, which lead to some interesting discussions with members of the audience.
Unfortunately my own 21st century skills failed me when I tried to record an MP3 file of my presentation, so I could post the audio of my speech on the Internet. For some reason, the software I was using never turned on properly - I might have double clicked and put the recording on pause - so all I ended up with was a few seconds of pre-speech clapping. Oh well. I'll see if I can get the video they made of the speech so I can share that instead... -andy
After wrapping up the country presentations late Wednesday morning, we spent the afternoon and early evening holding a planning meeting for the Global Alliance to Bridge the Digital Divide. The group wanted to explore ways of capitalizing on our collective experiences in the content side of the digital divide, from e-learning to e-government to accessibility for the disabled.
By the time we wrapped up work it was approaching 9pm. As much as we wanted to head into central Hong Kong for a night out on the town, we were all just too exhausted to leave the hotel. So we tried out the Meridien's swanky new sushi bar, Umami. The barbecued eel was outstanding, as was the mushroom and buckwheat soba soup. I even tried my first cup of sake -- it was interesting, but it won't become a habit for me.
I started to get a second wind around 11pm -- a 12-hour timezone change will do that -- but reason got the best of us, wrapping up the evening for a good night's sleep... -andy
Today we were hosted by the Hong Kong Science Park in the New Territories for a fascinating tour of the cutting-edge research and development taking place there. An incubator for businesses involved in telecommunications, precision engineering and biotechnology, the science park is a brand-new research facility about a 45-minute drive north of the island. The CEO of the park gave us an overview of the project, then invited several representatives from three of their incubator projects to talk about their work.
Of the three presentations, one stood out in particular. Lawrence Mo of Kanhan technologies talked about his company's cutting-edge work in text-to-speech technology. Kanhan has developed a server-based technology for converting the text of websites written in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and Japanese into spoken language. Unlike VoiceXML technology, their system will work on any existing website, not requiring any retooling of existing websites.
Mo demonstrated a Hong Kong e-government portal that allows a users to hear a spoken version of the site in multiple languages. Rather than using client software, the website's text gets directed through Kanhan's server,which produces a streaming audio file of computer-generated spoken voice. This would allow a user to access spoken Web content on a computer that didn't have assistive screen reading software installed on it, such as a PC at a library or telecenter. The system is also able to "learn" new words that aren't in its pronunciation database, allowing its vocabulary to grow over time. The system also has a telephone gateway so Hong Kong people can call a local telephone number and listen to the text contained on the website.
The technology is part of a growing number of tools that have tremendous implications in bridging the digital divide. Creating intelligent tools for having website text read allowed and accessible over the phone opens up a whole new world to people with visual empairments, limited literacy and different language backgrounds.
I'm exploring the possibility of having the company experiment with my blog to use it as a test case for their text-to-speech technology. I'll let you know if it works out.... -ac
The Global ICT Summit on E-Creativity and E-Content, featuring nine technology ministers and 60 invited speakers from 22 countries, kicked off its first full day of public presentations at Hong Kong's new Cyberport center. Francis Ho, Hong Kong's Permanent Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology, welcomed a packed audience in the Cyberport's arcade auditorium. Secretary Ho recalled the importance of computers and Internet access during Hong Kong's SARS crisis one year ago; with schools closed because of quarantines, students and teachers were forced to utilize technology to continue their education. Unfortunately, he noted, this meant that students who were quarantined at home without Internet access were caught off from the rest of the world. Despite Hong Kong's immense progress in bridging the digital divide, many of the region's low-income families lack Internet access or the skills to use it.
The first plenary panel focused on corporate strategies for global social responsibility. Ken Larson of HP talked about the company's history of codifying notions of corporate citizenship into the company's mission and goals from the company's inception, dating back more than 50 years. He cited HP Corporate Affair's mission "to build a brand a grow the business through recognized leadership in global citizenship." Larson noted that recent trends in the public's eroding trust in corporations, along with global political instability, make it more important than ever for corporations to embrace corporate citizenship as a fundamental aspect of their business strategy. "You are going to want to do business with a company you can trust," he said. "Community engagement is fundamental... It's now the global community; it's no longer just the community located around a factory."
HP frames its digital divide work in terms of "e-inclusion," Larson explained. He noted that HP sees ICTs as a tool to unlock the potential of individuals and communities, particularly by engaging in cross-sector initiatives. "We don't go in with a [technology] solution in mind," he said. "We go in to engage a community." Larson talked about a new networking device called the 441, a low-cost, open-source computing device that's being deployed in South Africa. In India, HP's Village Photographer technology is allowing villagers to get access to mobile devices combining photography, printing and networking to allow them to register for national ID cards and become eligible for government services.
Dr. Winnie Tang of ESRI discussed the role of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in global development. "You and I have the responsibility to make the world more sustainable," she explained; GIS technologies allow us to have a better grasp of how the planet works, interpreting layers of data onto geographic digital maps. She demonstrated a digital map of Mexico city, with interrelating data layers related to poverty, access to affordable housing, water drainage, income, unemployment, and other poverty-related data. Similarly, ESRI is working with the Kenyan government for examining geographic patterns of AIDS infections. They are also a partner in Afghanistan's world food program, tracking the movements and distribution of food aid across the entire country. "GIS is an indispensable technology for encapsulating and sharing geographic knowledge. "Let's work together to make the world more sustainable."
Cahit Gurkok of United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) is now discussing global strategies for "jumping" the digital divide. Of course, catch phrases such as bridging the digital divide or jumping it are simply slogans rather than actual strategies, he noted, but he emphasized it's very important to collect accurate data on a variety of metrics to understand the state of ICT equity and implement evidence-based policies. Using the ITU's Digital Access Index, Gurkok displayed a map in which countries with higher success in bridging the divide were raised like their were mountains, and countries that have a larger digital divide were displayed as valleys. The map painted a stark picture of the state of the international divide - and an appropriate one, given the previous presentation on GIS digital mapping by Winnie Tang of ESRI.
Along with traditional digital divide statistics, Gurkok showed trends in technology-related patents, as well as the availability of funding for technology innovation and deployment. Other charts compared the connection between inter-regional trade and inter-regional bandwidth availability; one map color-coded countries based on technology innovators, technology adopters, and technology excluded. I'm hoping I can get a copy of his powerpoint presentation because there's no way to capture the wealth of data he managed to present in a 10-minute forensic sprint.
A colleague from Bahrain just snapped the following picture of the back of my head while blogging from the Hong Kong summit.
Dr. Ali Abbasov, ICT Minister for the Republic of Azerbaijan, began the plenary session on e-government. "There are two billion poor people in the world, two billion that do not have access to electricity," he said. "Poverty is the reason of the ill development of ICT and other infrastructures." He discussed the potential of ICTs as a tool for reducing corruption and increasing good government. "People need to know what governments do with their money and their national resources," he continued, and e-government can be a strategy for doing this. "Now the main challenge is how to accelerate ICT for development in poor countries and address regional digital divides."
Diana Voicu of Romania's ICT ministry discussed the challenge of achieving high-performance e-government with scarce resources. "Technology doesn't replace good management, but good government management requires technology," she began. "We had a vision that ICT is the driver of economic growth. ICT could not only contribute, but could also help achieve the best results for the common citizen."
"By using the new technologies government will better fulfill its obligations towards the citizens: provide better education, social protection, promote economic growth," she continued. The government first launched its digital reform program in 2001, starting with 40 e-government projects, four of which were deployed at the national level. This implementation was done in conjunction with legislation reform addressing privacy protection, digital signatures, copyright and e-commerce. After contracting with vendors like Microsoft, the Romanian government successfully deployed a national e-government portal that was honored as one of the best e-gov sites in last year's World Summit Awards program.
On the evening of May 10, after sorting out my rooms Internet access and taking that unfortunate swim in the hotel pool, I brought my laptop down to the bar for a beer and a blog. Elizabeth Quat of the Internet Professionals Association was already there, having a meeting with Bangladeshi ICT Minister Moyeen Abdul Khan. I briefly said hello and chatted with them, but let them get back to their meeting, while I spent the next hour blogging with a beautiful sunset over the East Lamma Channel outside my window.
Around 6pm, everyone whod arrived at the hotel for the conference gathered in the bar for cocktails, followed by dinner in the main restaurant. It was wonderful catching up with each other; the last time wed been together was at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva last December. Dinner itself was mostly western food, so it was a little disappointing, but we discovered a sinful pleasure on the dessert platter multicolored wafer cakes shaped like hamburgers , stuffed with different cream fillings. Granted, they werent exactly a classic Cantonese delicacy, but they certainly were satisfying.
Since several of us were still on western time zones, we found ourselves getting a second wind just before midnight, so I invited everyone to my room for a night cap. Everyone briefly swung by their rooms to get their drink of choice from their mini-bar, and we hung out until around 2:30, continuing the reunion that had started earlier that evening. We took advantage of the Internet access and the giant plasma screen by showing off our favorite websites. I disturbed everyone by giving them a tour of the collection of punk kitten music videos at RatherGood.com, while Suzanne Stein put us all to shame with her vast collection of cool sites. Strindberg & Helium, a Flash animation site depicting the Swedish artist with an imaginary pet helium balloon, was downright bizarre, while another site about a woman so obsessed with Billy Bob Thornton shed edited herself into video clips of his movies was simply hilarious. Marcelo SantIago of Brazil then brought along a flash memory stick of photos hed taken when wed all first met in Dubai; since each of our rooms included a private multimedia server, we ran a slideshow of the photos on my plasma screen while my laptop played a varied selection of songs from iTunes. As had been the case in Dubai, it seemed wed be in a pattern of working for 12 to 15 hours a day, then enjoying long nights over drinks and story telling. Id really missed these guys.... -andy
After a full day of country presentations on May 11, all the speakers gathered in the hotel lobby for a bus ride into downtown Hong Kong. Being a large, diverse group, it seemed everyone had different priorities as to how we should spend the evening. Eventually we split up into two groups; the first group would go to a Chinese restaurant in Causeway Bay, while the second group would leave the bus in Central and take the ferry to explore Kowloon. I decided to go along with the Kowloon crowd.
We waited for a while at the ferry, which was running a little slow due to the skyline light show, which was just wrapping up. Suzanne Stein of Canada had just bought a bag of wasabi-flavored broadbeans from a vending machine, so it was fun seeing how people from around the world responded to their first wasabi experience. Eventually the ferry arrived and we rode across the harbor to Tsim Sha Tsui terminal. From there we walked north towards the Temple Street night market, which some of us had tried to visit on Sunday night but never made it to the center of the market. For most of the group it was their first time in Hong Kong; you could almost feel them soaking in the neon from the bright billboards suspended high above the streets.
Not too far from the Jordan Street subway station we found ourselves at the same small market we'd visited on Sunday. Alexander Felsenberg of Germany and Waheed Al Balushi of Bahrain spent much of the time shopping at camera and electronics booth, exploring the various tripods and high-powered flashlights, while the rest of us perused the rows of luggage and t-shirts. Many of the shirts had classic mangled Hong Kong English, like Haikus written by randomly selecting words or phrases from a hat.
We were eager to get dinner at some point, but we had a hard time settling on what we wanted. Some people were interested in eating in the Temple Street food pavilion, with its tented and open-air restaurants, so we worked our way north until we reached the area. The tents were packed with Chinese and western tourists, sitting around large tables covered in countless platters of Cantonese cuisine. We began to settle at a table when it became clear from the expressions of some in our group that they weren't too keen about eating in an open-air market, so we got up from our table before the waiters had a chance to put any tea on it, quickly sneaking out the back of the tent.
As we exited the tent we found ourselves smack in the middle of the Temple Street market. Closed off to vehicular traffic, the street was teaming with tourists exploring row after row of market stalls: clothing, paintings, electronic surveillance equipment, DVDs, Hello Kitty paraphernalia, chop stick sets, faux antiques, postcards. Suzanne Stein and Louise van Rooyen of Australia found a marvelous collection of hand towels decorated with cutsy-cute Asian cartoon characters, each containing another collection of cracked-English text. Alexander, Waheed and I discovered a booth with a variety of laser pointers. Alexander andWaheed got a set of them, probably for use in presentations; I, on the other hand, got a set as a toy for my cats.
We spent about an hour exploring the night market, picking up a variety of souvenirs for friends and family. Given the fact that I'd been nominated as the de facto guide for the evening, since I'd been to Kowloon on several occasions, I found myself spending much of my time trying to keep track of everyone so we didn't get split up. It was approaching 11pm and we still didn't have any consensus on what we were doing for dinner. Alexander and Lawrence Zikusoka of Uganda had picked up a beer while strolling around -- no open container laws here in Hong Kong -- and I started to get the distinct the impression that dinner in any formal sense was becoming less likely. Waheed and I walked down the street to the local 7-Eleven store to find some kind of snack. I was overwhelmed by the selection of Asian snacks available, so ended up purchasing an eclectic dinner of curry beef buns, M&Ms and pear juice. Before I had a chance to eat any of it, though, suddenly the group decided to get dinner after all, so I shoved my new purchases into my backpack and led the way to find a place to eat.
Since half the group didn't want to try food from the night market itself, we backtracked the route we'd taken to get there and found a Singaporean restaurant that was still open. As luck would have it, the restaurant had a private room that sat around 10 people, so we managed to get our own private space there, complete with a flat panel TV showing Japanese television and placemats with adorable little pigs printed on them (they were on display in the bathroom as well). Dinner arrived in fits and starts; Lawrence's vegetable fried rice arrived almost as fast as he'd ordered it, while my mee goreng took its time. Given the variety of eating habits around the table -- Lawrence was avoiding meats altogether while Effat El Shooky of Egypt, Waheed and I didn't eat pork -- but we still managed to get a taste of at least three or four entrees each. My mee goreng was outstanding, as was Louise's fish soup and Suzanne's curry. Lawrence's fried rice had a subtle curry flavor to it, a subtlety that could only be pulled off by a Singaporean chef.
We weren't exactly sure when the subway closed; I was under the impression it was some time between midnight and 1am. So we wrapped up dinner and managed to catch one of the last trains from the Jordan Street station. Crossing Victoria Harbor underwater, we exited the subway at Central and then split up into two groups to take a taxi back to the hotel, finally getting back to our rooms around 1am.
Our morning began with a tour of Cyberport, Hong Kong's new state-of-the-art information technology campus. Occupying the beautiful southwest coastline of Hong Kong Island, Cyberport is intended to be a high-tech town dedicated to developing the region's ICT sector. Our hotel, the Meridien Cyberport, is part of the campus, all of it networked with wireless Internet access and a mobile telephone network (the cordless phones in our hotel rooms work everywhere on the campus).
We began our tour passing by the giant LED television screen located in the courtyard that sits between the hotel and the conference center. It's one of the largest LED screens in Asia, and can be used for displaying satellite TV or the Web. Further along, we visited Cyberport's mobile phone lab, a space shared by several mobile services developers who create digital content for mobile phones and wireless PDAs. We were then led to a conference room, where the manager of Cyberport gave us an overview of the facilities before taking us to a 360-degree multimedia screening room. Reminiscent to the 360-degree movie shown in EPCOT's China pavilion, the room gave us a chance to see an impressive, digitally animated promotional program highlighting the history, culture and technology of Hong Kong. The high-definition projections that shone on the walls were so bright they often reflected their images onto us as we stood in the center of the room.
Our next stop was a digital production facility, which included a variety of editing, mixing and animation suites. The animation lab featured a smart suit -- a body suit with dozens of small sensors capable of turning the movements of the person wearing it into an animated character. We also got to see a demonstration of the 3D scanners that allowed animators to do a complete 360-degree map of a person and use it to create animated digital images of them.
On May 14 we had the opportunity to go on a site visit to Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, Hong Kong's premiere high-tech business incubator. The campus of the park was located in Sha Tin in the New Territories, not far from the Monastery of 10,000 Buddhas that I'd visited earlier in the week. All the overseas delegates at the conference were shuttled in a large bus, giving us a chance to drive through Hong Kong's Causeway Bay before taking the underwater tunnel into Kowloon. Elizabeth Quat, the conference organizer and our host, played tour guide for us, standing up at the front of the bus with a microphone, while I helped along pulling interesting trivia from my Lonely Planet Hong Kong guidebook.
We arrived in Sha Tin an hour after we left the hotel, getting dropped off at the center of the new high-tech campus. We were a little embarrassed to discover that a group of Finnish biotech executives were waiting for us in the main conference room; apparently the tour we'd get at the facility would also be with them, and they had to wait for us while we ran about 45 minutes late. The CEO of the science park gave us an entertaining, interesting overview of the facility before turning us over to a group of businessman whose companies had been incubated there. We were then taken on a tour of some of the technology labs, including a clean room (which we could view through panes of glass) to a mobile phone lab that was completely shielded from outside radio signals.
Around noon we returned to the main building on campus and had a buffet lunch with some of the executives we'd met during our tour. The group was then going to return to Cyberport for a brief break before continuing with a press conference and a private-sector discussion of Hong Kong's ICT industry, but I had other plans. Earlier in the week I'd ordered a suit from Stitch-Up Tailors in Kowloon, and I needed to return to try on my suit one last time just to make sure it fit properly. This would be the last chance I'd get to run over to Kowloon, since the conference would begin in earnest the following day. Elizabeth had said I could split from the group after lunch and catch a shuttle bus to the Sha Tin commuter rail stations, where I could make my way south to Kowloon before returning to Cyberport for the next session. Suzanne Stein asked if she could come along --she was curious about getting some shirts made -- so the two of us departed immediately after lunch.
We rode the shuttle to Sha Tin station, where we paused briefly so I could point out the 10,000 Buddhas monastery high above the hillside. If we didn't have such a tight schedule I would have suggested we'd visit it, but we had to make it to Kowloon as soon as possible. The commuter rail connected us to the subway in Kowloon Tong, where we continued south until reaching the Tsim Sha Tsui station. From there we walked in the directions of the Star Ferry, briefly pausing to get a look at the interior of the Peninsula hotel, where people were enjoying the start of afternoon high tea. Reaching the store a few minutes later, Andy the tailor brought out my suit and had me try it on -- it looked really good. Suddenly I became overwhelmed with a feeling of dread, a feeling that I wouldn't be able to leave the tailor without ordering another suit. I resisted for a few minutes, but the pressure soon hit Suzanne as well, who found herself ordering a couple of pinstripe suits for herself. I couldn't take it anymore: the pinstripe fabric was so inviting, calling out to me. With a snap of Andy's fingers, a huge bolt of pinstripe fabric came off the shelf and was set aside along with the two bolts Suzanne had selected. I ordered another suit and managed to get a great discount, because it was my second order and I'd brought along a friend. Custom-made tailoring was a nefarious plague spread by beautiful textiles that succumb the unsuspecting shopper. I could only imagine how many other colleagues would end up buying clothes before departing from Hong Kong.
With my suit, six shirts and a tie in hand, we high-tailed it back to Cyberport. We ended up running a little later than expected, as our taxi driver struggled to figure out exactly where this new-fangled Cyberport thing was located. By the time we got back, the press conference was well under way; fortunately, though, neither of us had a major role to play in it except to stand up and wave to the cameras, which we soon did upon our arrival.
Later that afternoon I managed to take a brief break in the hotel while the board of the World Summit Awards had their meeting over in the conference center. We soon found out, though, that the advisory board of the Global Alliance would have yet another meeting at 9pm that night in the lobby of the hotel. Suzanne and I grabbed some sushi and soup in the hotel sushi bar before rendezvousing with the rest of the group. Over additional platters of sushi, the group met until just after midnight. It was exhausting, frustrating work, but we managed to accomplish a lot more than we had in our previous meeting. We left the meeting feeling pretty good, though thoroughly unable to continue socializing. I went back upstairs and tried to go to sleep, but working so late had left me pretty wired. I spent about an hour playing with my digital camera trying to get long-exposure night photos of the view outside my window. By 2am I was finally ready to crash and managed to get to sleep.
Following a catered lunch buffet, we returned to the plenary conference room for more presentations. My favorite of the afternoon was delivered by Rodrigo Assumpcao, the Brazilian government's e-inclusion guru. He gave a powerful presentation about the role of e-government in making government accountable to its citizens, and the need for bridging the digital divide to create an environment where all people are empowered to participate fully in civic life. His comments were very much in line with the "E-Government for All" work that I'd been doing for the Benton Foundation and EDC.
One of the next panel sessions was dedicated to Web accessibility for the disabled. As it turns out, Hong Kong's government has taken accessibility very seriously, so presenters described a variety of programs to make sure that all local government websites are fully accessible. Along with strict accessibility guidelines, the government does Internet training with the disabled and senior citizens to promote access to e-government in otherwise underserved communities.
Later in the afternoon, Bangladeshi ICT Minister Abdul Moyeen Khan gave a presentation describing the opportunities and challenges faced by Bangladesh when it comes to using ICTs for development. Khan also presented a brief video about Bangladesh's growing hi-tech industry. It was particularly interesting for me since I was going to have breakfast with Minister Khan the next morning.
As the sessions wrapped up for the afternoon, I slipped away a little early to help Louise van Rooyen prepared her presentations on e-learning and e-culture for tomorrow's breakout sessions. Louise, who's director of Australia's Interactive Media Industry Association, had been given a CD-ROM with video clips from an Australian edtech project, but the clips weren't compatible with her PC, so I offered my Mac so we could preview them. The clips turned out to be a little off-topic for what she was going to present, but we managed to explore some fascinating short films and music videos made by Australian prisoners as part of a 21st century skills initiative for the incarcerated.
Later that evening, all the overseas guests at the conference were invited to dinner in the hotel's brand-new Chinese restaurant. Attendees were encouraged to wear their national dress, if they had one. Osama Manzar of India, Charles Nduati of India and Lawrence Zikosoka of Uganda all wore magnificent costumes, while I and the other westerners stuck with traditional business attire (though several people commented I should have come dressed as a cowboy). Seated at my table were Cahit Gurkok of the United Nations, MD Akterazzuman of the Bangladeshi Multimedia Association, and representatives from Hong Kong and Romania. Cahit and I had a great conversation about Turkey, where he was born, and shared travel stories from around the world. Cahit was a great storyteller and had most of the table listening along, often laughin gin hysterics.
Following dinner, most of us went upstairs to the bar where we spent a couple of hours drinking shiraz red wine and Asahi beer. I hung out much of the time with Louise and Rodrigo Assumpcao, but the whole gang was pretty much crammed around two small tables, giving each of us plenty of opportunities to flutter from conversation to conversation. At some point in the evening I realized this would be my last full night in Hong Kong; tomorrow I'd have to depart dinner early to catch my 12:40am flight back to the States. It was somewhat bittersweet, but I didn't let it get me down, so I ordered another beer at last call and enjoyed the camaraderie for just a little while longer.... -andy
On the final morning of the conference, I'd started the day by reconsidering when I'd go home to Boston. There was so much going on this week I still hadn't had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with several people I was eager to talk with about our "e-government for all" work. I called the airline office to see if switching my ticket by one day was feasible; they told me it could be arranged for a modest penalty, but I'd have to come to downtown before 11am that day, since the airline office was only open for three hours on Saturday. Conference events would start at 10am, and I was just about to meet with Minister Khan from Bangladesh for breakfast, so I decided to drop the idea.
Breakfast with Minister Khan was very enjoyable; along with a variety of work-related things we talked about my problems getting my ticket changed over the phone. He suggested I stay for the extra day, even if it meant being a little late for the morning sessions; how often would I have the chance to meet with all the people who'd gathered here from all over the world? Inspired by his words of wisdom, I darted back up to my room, grabbed my ticket and hailed a taxi to go to the airline office in Causeway Bay. The ticket change should have taken only 10 minutes, but I ended up spending nearly 45 minutes there as the staff struggled to figure out how to reload the ticket-printing machine with paper.
By the time I'd taken a taxi the 20-minute drive back to Cyberport, I was running about 40 minutes late. No one seemed to notice, though, as everyone was watching an award ceremony for Hong Kong's Web Care competition. The contest honored local websites that were accessible to the disabled, as well as accessible sites designed by local students. The organizers even brought in a well-known Hong Kong movie heartthrob to give out some of the awards. If it hadn't been for the posse of paparazzi following him around, I would have just assumed he was just one of the older students, just woefully underdressed in a muscle shirt.
|Silvia Amici speaks during the afternoon breakout sessions|
In the second batch of breakout sessions, I attended the panel on e-culture and e-inclusion, which Suzanne Stein moderated. The session was a fascinating mix of presentations. Silvia Amici spoke of her organization's work to promote Web accessibility and universal design in Italy. Louise gave her second presentation, this time focusing on projects targeting underserved Australian populations. A representative from Hong Kong's public broadcaster discussed the network's online strategy, while Eglal Bahgat, deputy director of Egypt's Cultnat Center, discussed the rich amount of content being produced about her country's long history.... -ac
After the conference wrapped up, I briefly returned to my room to pack my belongings before rejoining the group for a dinner e excursion on Lamma Island. Now that my ticket had been changed, I didn't have to stress about leaving dinner early and arranging a boat ride back to the hotel; instead I could enjoy this final gathering of colleagues from around the world.
|Louise van Rooyen on the boat to Lamma Island|
Following dinner I went on a walk with Marcelo, Suzanne and Waheed down the lengh of the harbor. As we got further away from the restaurants the path turned very green and very hilly. Further down the path we reached a spot with a marvelous view of Hong Kong's city lights, but we couldn't linger for long since we had to make the last boat or we could be stranded at Lamma for the night.
Returning to the pier, we found out that the boat would continue to Tsim Sha Tsui and Central after stopping at Cyberport. Most of the group returned to the hotel, but around eight of us decided to enjoy a night on the town one last time. The boat ride was tremendous; the seas were chopping so we found ourselves getting tossed about as we marveled at the Hong Kong Skyline while traveling clockwise around the island. We exited the boat at Central and hiked uphill to Soho and Lang Kwai Fong, Hong Kong's famous pub district. The streets of Lang Kwai Fong were jammed with people from all over the world, drinking beer and cocktails while listening to a cacophony of music. We strolled the neighborhood, soaking it all in while trying to decide where to stop for a drink. Eventually, we bumped into Sam, the director of labor relations for Hong Kong, had attended the conference earlier in the week. Sam and his wife kindly offered to have us join him for a drink. They were a fascinating couple, each speaking many languages (Sam speaks 10 in fact). As the bar got ready to close down its outdoor seating for the night, Sam invited us for a night cap at the exclusive Jockey Club in Happy Valley, where he and his family were members. We split into to groups to take taxis to the club, but didn't stay for long. As we had suspected might be the case, the fact that I was wearing shorts and some of the others were wearing t-shirts made us well below the usual dress code. Sam then suggested we have a drink down the road at the bar of the Conrad Hotel.
We stayed at the Conrad until after 2am, splitting a large bottle of Cabernet, telling stories from home, talking politics. We finally wrapped things up as the cleaning crew came in to vacuum the floors. I shared a taxi back to the hotel with Louise, Suzanne and Rodrigo, where we all marveled at Sam's kindness and generosity. We'd only just met him briefly at the conference, but he and his wife insisted on buying all our drinks; she even gave Louise a colorful purse she'd just purchased at a night market. It was really nice to enjoy the company of new friends that night, particularly in the heart of the city.
Today would be my last day in Hong Kong; my flight would depart just after midnight, so I'd have to head to the airport at 10pm. After meeting with colleagues for breakfast, a group of us checked out late in the morning to move our belongings over to the Metropark Hotel in Causeway Bay. Suzanne Stein and Marcelo Sant'Iago were both staying there, and Suzanne was kind enough to let Louise van Rooyen and me leave our luggage in her room for the day while the four of us played tourist with the free time we had left.
We hired a minibus taxi to take us to the Metropark; with all of our collective luggage there was no way we could have jammed all of our stuff into a standard taxi. The minibus looked like it spent most of its time transporting livestock, but it still got us to where we needed to go. Over at the Metropark, the hotel wasn't ready for new guests to check in, so we all left our luggage with the bell stand, baffling the attendee as to why this Suzanne Stein character had such a ridiculous amount of luggage going up to her room.
|Suzanne Stein gets fitted at the tailor in Kowloon|
Back at the tailor, Suzanne got fitted for her suits while Louise browsed and Marcelo politely declined several offers from George to get a suit made. Once our business was done, we went downstairs to the local McDonalds to take advantage of the public bathroom facilities. There was a huge line for the women's bathroom, so Marcelo picked up a fried shrimp snack; it was tasty, but more fried than shrimp.
We then walked towards the Star Ferry to return to Central. A small elderly gentleman in Buddhist robes approached me and tried to get me to make some kind of contribution. This being Kowloon, notorious for its dime-a-dozen scams, I declined. I walked a few more steps with Marcelo before we realized that the elderly fellow was now handing papers and trinkets to Louise and Suzanne. Uh-oh. Marcelo and I just shook our heads and grimaced while the ladies made their transaction: apparently they'd each get some prayers said for them at some local Buddhist shrine for a small fortune -- about 20 bucks apiece. I hope they're damn good prayers for that price.
|Filipino amahs picnic in the atrium of the HSBC building. Click on the picture to see a video.|
Heading uphill from the HSBC building, we climbed through the park adjacent to the St. John's Cathedral. When it was built in the 1800s, locals complained it was an eyesore; today it's once of the few significant colonial-era buildings left on the island. The cathedral was packed for Sunday afternoon services; a choir sang a beautiful hymn in the back of the church. A man standing near the entrance quietly told us we couldn't take pictures, so we stood silently, listening to the haunting hymn as the congregation fanned themselves for relief from the mid-day heat.
A few meters up the street from the cathedral we reached the entrance to the Peak Tram. This was to be my second trip to the top of the Peak on this trip to Hong Kong, but it was the first time up for everyone else. For a Sunday afternoon it was surprisingly quiet in the ticket line, so we were able to get our tickets and climb into the tram in a matter of minutes. Louise and Suzanne were engrossed in conversation for much of the trip while Marcelo and I quietly enjoyed the view; after a while I had to give Louise a poke on the shoulder so the two of them would look out the window to see what they were missing: a spectacular view of the Hong Kong skyline as the funicular pulled us higher and higher.
|Andy, Marcelo, Louise and Suzanne pose for a photo at the Peak|
"I just wanted to see how they were organizing their questions," she said afterwards, laughing. "The 'where are you from' questions were just a list of checkboxes with only a handful of countries, and some of the questions were a bit leading, like, 'Do you agree or disagree - Hong Kong is a shopping paradise."
"Don't forget they're totally skewing their whole data set by preying on smokers at the garbage can," I added. "Wonder if they're all more likely to show other addictive traits, like compulsive shopping or gambling..."
After having our fill of the view, we needed to fill our stomachs; it was nearly 3pm and we hadn't had any lunch yet. We went to a café on the second floor of the Peak Galleria, which featured a marvelous view of the city. At first we sat outside in open sunlight, but after 30 minutes we felt we were being rotisserie roasted by the hot afternoon sun. Fortunately a table with an umbrella soon opened up, so we moved over to it, probably adding a few weeks to our lifetimes by avoiding the inevitable skin cancer we were giving ourselves in the open sunlight. Marcelo and Louise got noodle dishes while I had an oriental chicken salad and Suzanne stuck with sushi. The food was average at best, and the bill was, well, let's just say you pay for the view and not for the quality of food or service.
By now it was nearly 4:30pm, and Louise had to be back at the Metropark at 6pm for her ride to the airport. I'd wanted to take them to the Man Mo Temple, but time was running tight. So we decided to take the next tram down from the Peak and catch a taxi to the temple. The taxi took us uphill through the Mid-Levels, past the island's main mosque and synagogue, then plummeting downhill again towards Sheung Wan. We exited the taxi a couple blocks east of the temple so the driver didn't have to navigate the local one-way streets.
|Beams of light cut through the incense smoke at Man Mo Temple. Click on the picture to see a video.|
I found myself checking my watch every few minutes, somewhat concerned about Louise missing her ride to the airport. As long as we took a taxi back to the hotel, we still had a little time. So we walked a couple of blocks to the Cat Street antique market, where we all stocked up on gifts and souvenirs. Soon enough, though, it was 5:30pm, so we caught a taxi back to the Metropark.
Once we got there, though, I discovered that Louise's ride was actually coming at 6:30, not 6:00, so we actually had time to spare. We decided to have a parting drink in the hotel bar. Marcelo and I made it down there first while Suzanne and Louise freshened up. For some strange reason, the bar was playing Elton John's "Your Song" over and over; Marcelo and I lost track after a dozen times in a row. By the time Suzanne and Louise joined us, it was nearly time for her to go, so I ran down to the bell captain and told him that she'd be running a few minutes late. I should have said longer; we ended up spending about half an hour in the bar before parting ways with Louise.
Since I too had to go to the airport in just three hours, I wanted to stay fairly close to the hotel. Suzanne and I hung out at the bar a little while longer while Marcelo had a quick shower, then we went for a walk around the neighborhood. We probably should have gotten some dinner but I was still full from our late lunch, so we ended up swinging by the local supermarket, where we picked up a few beers to drink upstairs, noshing on cashews and watching MTV Malaysia in Suzanne's room.
By 10 o'clock, it was time for me to go, so we all said our goodbyes. Who knows where we'll see each other next; Osama Manzar and Zaman are each trying to organize similar events in India and Bangladesh respectively. We'll just have to wait and see.... -andy
Monastery of 10,000 Buddhas | Victoria Harbor & the Star Ferry | Exploring Hong Kong | The Man Mo Temple
Cyberport and the Science Park | Global Alliance | The ICT Summit | Lamma Island
Andy's Hong Kong Journal
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