Raspberry Pi: A Paradigm Shift for ICT4D?

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.

8 thoughts on “Raspberry Pi: A Paradigm Shift for ICT4D?

  1. I like the statement that this device “could shift us back towards the “I”; towards the computing and data processing and automation.” I believe that this is a largely untapped potential for innovation in many countries. With the right educational environment, it can allow many young talents to fulfill their potential, particularly if programming and development are straightforward in the accompanying system.

  2. Hey, I’m working with some university undergrads in the US to look at models of distribution in Haiti. If we can leverage scale there & create impact then I believe we can advance this very rapidly changing the environment of T4D quickly.
    Open to conversation & learning from all.

  3. Hi Richard, just watched the introductory workshop video. Very interested in learning whether there were or are ongoing conversations at CDIManchester about Raspberry Pi and Development? Had a quick look for publications but couldn’t see anything.

    1. The occasional conversation, though those involved with Raspberry Pi are so busy due to the unexpected demand that even that is hard for them to fit in, and their focus has always been Pi’s founding purpose: to help get more UK and global North students studying computer science. So space for linking Pi to international development is almost impossible to find.

      We hope to publish a short paper in Communications of the ACM later in the year. That began as a very gung-ho celebration of Pi’s potential in developing countries, but some very sensible editorial interventions have poured quite a lot of cold water on my hopes for Pi, and made me recognise there are serious barriers to it ever making a sizeable impact.

  4. Hello!

    I found your article and would like to introduce a project I am working on. I think it is relevant to your article and the interests of your readers and I would really appreciate it if you could post a little information about the project for your readers. I would be open to doing an informal interview if you are interested in that too.

    The project I am working on is a Raspberry Pi Computer Lab in rural Swaziland. Swaziland is a developing country and is classified as middle income, but that is largely due to the huge disparity between the rich and the poor here. This lab will give about 630 students access to computers in a village where technology as such is rare. The lab is geared to be low cost and simplistic and can serve as a model of how much can be done with very few resources and a little know how. This style of computer lab is more accessible to children than even the One Laptop Per Child XO laptop. This is because the Raspbery Pi does not need to marketed directly to the ministry of education, nor does it have to be ordered in quantities of thousands in order to get into the hands of children.

    Computing in the rural world is important for many reasons. Computers and information technology are promising ways to empower people in developing countries with the information they need to make informed decisions for themselves. In addition, IT can enhance the local economy by imparting skills and access to resources in the people, can provide creative outlets for many children through recording programs, writing, programs, and even basic programming tutorials.

    I hope you will help me to spread the word about this campaign. We have just 21 days left before the campaign closes on indiegogo.com

    Please take a look at the campaign here and contact me if you have any questions!




  5. an upcoming solution to the challenge of lack of cheap computing technologies in developing countries is “endlessm”: https://endlessm.com/mission
    This turns a smartphone into a computer and has the potential to cause the next shift in the ICT4D movement because it uses an existing technology platform to provide computing technology at very cheap costs.
    Their idea: “We are developing a platform to give computers to the next billion people in the developing world – not by donating them or lowering costs – but by empowering a device that they already own: their mobile phone. We are bridging the digital divide by unlocking the potential trapped inside of smartphones sitting in pockets around the world.”
    However, this is not yet a fully completed project as opposed to the more or less completed Raspberry Pi project.

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