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Raspberry Pi: A Paradigm Shift for ICT4D?

29 October 2012 8 comments

Here at the Centre for Development Informatics we’ve spent years avoiding a techno-centric approach to ICT4D.  But . . . we are rather excited about Raspberry Pi.

If you don’t already know it, Raspberry Pi is not a low-cost computer.  It’s an ultra-low-cost computer (see photo below)[1].  And it was the subject of a recent demonstration and discussion workshop (see links for video) for CDI members in Manchester.  This focused on the development-related potential of Pi and its add-on interface ”Pi-Face”, which is being developed at the University of Manchester by Andrew Robinson.

Although credit card-sized, Pi is a fully-functioning computer.  Hook up a keyboard, mouse and monitor and away you can go with Linux and, for example, OpenOffice.  And, as noted, it is ultra-low-cost.  The actual production costs will depend on scale, with the economics catching even Raspberry Pi Foundation – the non-profit creators – by surprise.  Expecting they might eventually ship around 10,000 Pis, they have already shipped more than one million.

At those sorts of production scales, costs for Pi could be reduced to around the US$15-20 mark.  Adding a keyboard, mouse and Pi-Face will stack less than US$2 on top, and looking at similar products it is likely that a small screen can be produced for US$15.  Of course, cost is not the same as price but we are talking of a complete computer system that will likely cost less than US$35 to produce and perhaps US$50-60 to buy.  Just the Pi-plus-Pi-Face combination could be supplied to developing countries for as little as US$25.

In many ways, its key attributes are those of a mobile phone (not surprising since it runs with the same ARM chipset you’ll find in many mobiles):

  • Very low cost puts it into the category of “semi-disposable” device, and a ready addition to many other innovations without breaking the bank.
  • Its robustness and low maintenance requirements make it particularly suitable to harsh developing country environments.
  • Its small size and portability make it suitable for applications that other computers can’t reach.
  • It has very low power consumption, so can work more easily in electrical off-grid environrments.

But it’s not a mobile phone, and you can’t use it for calls and text.  What it does do is connect readily to a host of other devices.  And, unlike a mobile phone, it is easy to customise, using common open source software and “tinker-able” hardware components.  All run by a .org not a .com organisation.

Raspberry Pi may just fizzle and die, without much effect on international development.  But the potential is certainly there for it to paradigm shift ICT4D.  The mobile phone explosion has shifted ICT4D’s emphasis towards the “C”, with widespread acceptance that “m-development” models will dominate.  Raspberry Pi could shift us back towards the “I”; towards the computing and data processing and automation that were the origins of ICT4D in the 1970s and 1980s but which have fallen by the wayside.

At present, Pi is a solution looking for development problems, but three application areas spring to mind:

a)    Micro-enterprise and household computing: providing access to standard computing applications not for the community but for the individual enterprise and household.  Add an Internet connection and we might call it not OLPC (the One Laptop per Child initiative) but OTPH: a one telecentre per household approach that moves us beyond community computing models.

b)    Technical education: the prime motivation behind Pi was to reignite interest in computing as a subject among schoolchildren.  There’s a great thirst for IT education in schools, colleges and universities in developing countries but budgetary constraints are a major barrier (see earlier blog entry on revising computing curricula in Africa).  Pi can help to overcome those – the possibility is that it could do all the OLPC does at half the price, and allow kids to open the box and play about much more, learning how IT works.

c)     Data collection and automation applications: there’s a trickle of new electronic applications for development – smart motor controllers that save power and extend motor life, low-cost health monitors, water quality and climate change measurement devices, field-based agricultural sensors.  Raspberry Pi could turn that trickle into at least a stream if not a flood.

The promise of Pi, at root, is to enable a new ICT4D innovation paradigm: one in which Pis are widely used and understood within developing countries, and in which grassroots innovation is really possible for the first time in the ICT4D domain (see earlier blog entry on grassroots ICT4D innovation).  There’s no reason the same informal sector micro-entrepreneurs who now fix mobile phones can’t also work with Raspberry Pi.  But they can customise and adapt this technology much more than they can a mobile phone.  It can therefore be appropriated far more by the base of the pyramid.

Pi also allows a new model of collaborative innovation: that done working alongside base-of-the-pyramid consumers.  Large firms, university departments, social enterprises can now afford rapid, mass prototyping – trying out and iterating quickly through many different models until they find one that works.

As yet, of course, this is promise not reality, and one can foresee plenty of issues around everything from distribution through support and training to growth in e-waste.  But the international development impact of Raspberry Pi – good or bad, large or small, paradigm-shifting or incremental – is up for grabs.  Over to you.

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