Internet for the world: Mason center, professor celebrate 25 years of connecting the rural and the poor

The village of Nangi in western Nepal is as remote as it is beautiful. It takes up to nine hours to reach the next large town from Nangi’s location 7,300 feet up in the Himalayas. The farmers who make up the bulk of the population of 800 use yak to plow their fields, and traditions there are centuries old.

In 2006, village leaders suspected that health care, education and farming methods could be improved by using the internet. Nangi leaders, led by Mahibar Pun, a villager who studied in the United States, received funding from the International Center for Applied Studies in Information Technology (ICASIT) at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government and International Affairs to facilitate their efforts. The source of the funds was an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to the center for establishing rural Internet connectivity to poor nations.

The center’s founder and director, Stephen Ruth, said backing the Nangi effort was one of the most successful of the center’s 20 overseas projects.

“It’s the last place people thought you could set up a successful IT project,” Ruth said.

Today in Nangi, many hospitals have telemedicine capability, schools teach computer skills and yak herders can communicate with farmers via email to get the best deal. And there are now many internet-based programs for tourism and environmental protection.

Not only did ICASIT help achieve connectivity in Nangi, but now more than 100 villages throughout Nepal have internet service, and in 2007 Pun received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, often called the Asian Nobel Prize, for his efforts.

The center marks its 25-year anniversary this year at Mason. Since 1991, Ruth has contributed to the connectivity of more than 20 sites around the world, helping with hardware, software, training and design in remote places, from Ife, Nigeria, to Acornhoek, South Africa, to Bamako, Mali.

Several million dollars in ICASIT grants have come from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and there has also been funding from Soros Foundations, the World Bank, the United Nations, the MacArthur Foundation and others.

Ruth said he and the center depend on collaboration for success. Studying and solving problems, Ruth said, “is a professor’s job. You’re supposed to find interesting things to work on—getting grants that help people is its own reward.”

One of Ruth’s more successful recent research projects was closer to home: A Mellon Foundation grant funded his study of the cost-effectiveness of the then-emerging concept of online learning.

“So I started doing it to test it,” he said. Now, and for the last several years, all of Ruth’s public policy classes are entirely online, part of Mason’s continuing growth in distance learning.

Even with 25 years behind him, Ruth said there are still many projects ahead, if funding is available.

“I think we can reduce recidivism in the prison system by making better use of online learning,” he said. “We can use ICASIT’s research to help more prisoners be job-qualified.”

He also would like to extend the results in Nepal to establish learning and research centers to improve health, literacy and entrepreneurship. And he would like to study how telework, a benefit to a demographic that is already successful, can be used among a broader segment of the population.

It seems there is much of the world that continues to need connecting.