By Naroa Zurutuza
Manaus is the capital city of the Amazonas state in Brazil. With 2 million inhabitants – half of the population of the Amazonas state – it is the 7th largest city in the country and one of the host cities of the 2014 World Cup. However, unlike other big cities, Manaus lacks accessible roads – disconnecting the area from the other parts of the country and the rest of the world. The ‘only’ way to access Manaus is by plane or boat – unless you want to drive through Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru to finally reach Brazil.
And Manaus is the city’s capital, so imagine how disconnected the rest of the state is. It consists of remote, isolated villages that are situated in an area larger than France, Germany and Greece’s land mass combined. These villages are home to several indigenous communities – using boats as their means of transport. It takes a 9-day boat trip from Manaus to reach some of these communities. When the river is low, boats cannot go through, and people are unable to reach the nearest town. Within this environment, providing essential services like education and health to children becomes extremely complicated and challenging.
With the support of UNICEF’s Manaus Field Office and Fundação Amazonas Sustentável (FAS), I was privileged to be part of a research trip to the Amazonas for a project called ‘InfoPoverty’ that the Office of Innovation is working on. InfoPoverty is similar to the concept of understanding nutritional needs of children. We all know that a child needs to consume a certain amount of calories per day to be healthy, but what do they need to ‘consume’ when it comes to information? In the connected world that we live in, access to information becomes more and more necessary. If we can determine the minimum amount of Kbytes a day a child should consume to be ‘information healthy,’ we can help the most vulnerable children access better opportunities in life.
The goal of InfoPoverty is to measure the required amount of access to information and to identify who are the most information-deprived children and the factors that are causing the situation. The results and analysis from the InfoPoverty project will help governments, international organizations and private companies like telecoms, Facebook, and more, to target their efforts, allocate their resources, make policy, and plan their programs efficiently.
During my trip, I visited different neighborhoods and indigenous communities in Manaus and in the rural areas. We talked to children and adolescents in each area, understanding how they access information (or how they are unable to access information), what type of information they access (or what type they are unable to access) and what their needs and wishes were.
The results show that while many students in Manaus have a phone (mainly used to talk and send messages to their friends and family and for social media), youth in rural communities do not have radio coverage, mobile phone coverage or anything similar. They live in communities that are 3 to 4 hours by boat from the closest town, and their only way to access information on a daily basis is through watching TV and attending school – if they are even lucky enough to go to school. Also, since some of them can only speak their own language (there are more than 200 spoken languages in the Amazonas) they are unable to understand most of the online, TV and radio content transmitted as it is delivered only in their national language, Portuguese.
To address these issues, an initiative called Media Center for Education (CEMEAM) was established by the government of Brazil in 2007. The initiative allows several communities to receive connectivity for few hours a day – receiving education and lessons via satellite. This project aims to bring secondary education to remote areas in the Amazonas state, where there are not enough teachers. So they built a Media Center in Manaus, a production studio – with its cameras, multiple stages, make-up areas, assistants, etc. – where teachers give live lessons, which are then transmitted via satellite to the rural communities. To access these lessons, each community gets a kit (an antenna, a TV, a video camera, etc.) to install within their community. Aside from being able to watch the lessons, people can also ask questions in real-time – it’s an interactive system. The initiative has been adopted by over 2,000 schools and serves over 40,000 kids from more than 3000 communities.
The CEMEAM is an example of a possible solution to reduce information poverty, and my research is a step in working to find a broader way to help. It highlights the importance of how access to information can pave the way to provide other essential services like education and health to children. It also shows that providing access to information to the most remote, inaccessible areas in the world is possible.
This trip provided me with a better understanding of the different faces of information poverty. It also confirms the importance of InfoPoverty and importance of identifying and mapping different info-poor areas and communities around the world. The results and analysis of this trip will be used to build the first InfoPoverty prototype and will serve as a foundation towards future projects the Office of Innovation is planning to implement in Brazil and other countries.