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Osama Manzar

Founder & Director | 16 Jan 2004

Indians are living at the periphery of information because they don't have the means of disseminating information; they have access only to the traditional tools - radio/ television/ hoardings; a level of interactivity is required, and this is where the Internet comes in

A man who proclaims himself as 'a knowledge worker,' with a firm belief that knowledge is the most important ingredient of the new economy - that's Osama Manzar. Specializing in Information Economy, Osama Manzar has ten years' media experience behind him. He has established the Interactive Media Division of Hindustan Times, launched Digital HT.com, has been a contributing writer for IDG's San Francisco based 'The Industry Standard,' Singapore based 'MIS South East Asia,' copy-edited 'Connected for Development' by UN and Digital Partners, and is a regular speaker on Internet economy.

After co-founding and successfully running 4Cplus, a 'knowledge technology' company in '99, Osama sold off his options to concentrate on the social sector; 'Digital Empowerment Foundation' (DEF) was set up a year ago and envisages to bridge the gap between the ICT and the people who cannot avail it because of the language barrier.

Subsequently, Manzar co-authored 'The Internet Economy of India' and edits 'INOMY,' a webzine on Internet economy. In a candid conversation with Jasmeen Dugal over a cup of coffee at The Hyatt Regency, Osama Manzar, Founder & Director, DEF talks about his experiences as part of the jury at 'The World Summit Award' and how it gave birth to his latest book, 'E Content - Voices from the ground,' released two weeks ago in Geneva.

Q. Osama, your focus is honed on Internet, or rather, Information Economy. How did you get involved in this area?

Having grown up in the IT industry, I joined IS Computerworld where I was responsible for a sixteen-page section on the Internet; after finishing my office work, I used to surf the Net for hours and established contacts with people all over the world, trying to gain as much knowledge as possible through the web.

2½ years later, I graduated to the Interactive Media Division of Hindustan Times and launched Hindustantimes.com and go4i.com. Within two years, I branched out on my own and co-founded 4cplus, which provides technology solutions and services processing information and knowledge in a corporate environment. Parallely, we have been running 'Inomy' - a weekly email newsletter on what is happening in the information and Internet economy in India - that goes to 5,000+ senior executives in the emerging economy sector. Its roots lie in the realization that in India there is no single, organized knowledge center that provides a perspective to the Internet. Encouraged by the response, I wrote my first book, 'The Internet Economy of India,' followed by the registration of an NGO, 'Digital Empowerment Foundation.'

And gradually I saw that there is a lot that needs to be done in the developmental sector; the usage of information, communication & technology (ICT) is extremely important because we are part of a country that is going through development. India has a population of 80% that live in villages and rural areas, so ICT has to go deep into the grassroot level. So there was borne the idea of 'Internet Economy' or rather, 'Information Economy,' i.e. empowering the people with information. In the last three-four months, I have been concentrating solely on this area.

Q. How would you define 'Internet Economy?' Why is it gaining in importance?

What we know as 'Internet Economy' is actually economy that has been influenced by the Internet. If you think about it, Internet is now a part of life. Everybody is talking about information - how well informed you are, are you using information for your benefit or not, whether you are applying Internet for business gains or not and are you informed all the time at the click of a button or not?

Interestingly, if you look at the most common-sensical reason for the developed countries being rich, advanced and economically self-reliant, it is be cause they are 'information rich.' The developed economies are better informed, they use information as the most basic tool to progress, they have all the means of information dissemination, sharing and access, even to their remotest of the areas and people. As a result, developed countries market themselves better, push their desired information to everyone who matter and access information that is important to them. Consequently, development, better economy, education and leadership become by-products of being an 'Informed Society.'

So, more or less, we are now entering an information and knowledge economy era, where Internet has become the default infrastructure. If you think about this, e-content becomes very important. It becomes the final frontier of all the developmental work that is being done using ICT. Consequently, the book 'The Internet Economy of India' becomes extremely relevant. We also have a dedicated website. And I want basic information on the e-content development in each country to be there so that on the click of a button, you can see what the country is all about as far as e-content is concerned. That's my target for the next three-six months

Q. But is it fair to classify economy as 'Internet Economy?'

No, not at all! It's just that everything is very jargonish these days; you jargonize everything. What we used to know, as 'Internet Economy' is just economy that has been influenced by the Internet. It's not a good idea to term it as 'Internet Economy.' Rather, it should be termed as 'Information Economy.'

Economy per se, the flow of money, the revenue must know the importance of the Internet. It's extremely important.

Q. Where does India stand in the bigger picture?

80% of the Indian population speak and understand one of the eighteen regional languages and not English. Indian villages are a goldmine of valuable local information, untapped knowledge, ancient wisdom and glocal products - and all these resources are closely held.

Indians are living at the periphery of information because they don't have the means of disseminating information; they have access only to the traditional tools - radio/ television/ hoardings, but they can't use this to tell the world about themselves; a level of interactivity is required, and this is where the Internet comes in.

Q. What are the various challenges facing India?

India is facing a huge challenge in terms of infrastructure.

Another key challenge is education. Emergence of ICT solutions is a great source of enabling the local knowledge spread globally but ICT has limitations; it does not work in local language. Unless the message on the Internet is local, Internet will not be of relevance to this large section of people living in the countryside and speaking different languages. So a key challenge lies in localizing the Internet.

The challenge also lies in making ICT affordable, in making information accessible at each and every level. This is the basic framework on which we are working on at the moment. And I feel the media should create hype around ICT for developmental sectors like the way it did with the Internet.

Q. How does India compare with other countries in the sphere of e-content?

European countries and the United States are very well equipped with ICT and information. Canada, for example, from what we saw at the summit, is brilliant. They developed an infrastructure for information economy five years back and now they are at the forefront of e-content development.

India has 700,000 villages living at the edge of information. This is in contrast to the fact that the world needs to know and want to use the relevance of India's ancient wisdom, knowledge and information to the modern world. And, this scenario is only Indian. We have other similar, and in fact lesser-privileged countries in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world, which are unable to avail the privileges of 'e-content rich economy.'

Q. You recently attended the 'World Summit Award (WSA) 2003.' Tell us about your experience as part of the jury.

WSA, formed under the UN guidelines, under the framework of 'World Summit on the Information Society 2003' just took place in Geneva from 10-12 December. It is an endeavour to recognize and appreciate various initiatives towards 'information society.' What they do is to choose one expert from each country to nominate the best practices from each country under eight categories - e-learning, e-governance, e-culture, e-entertainment, e-biz, e-science, e-health and e-inclusion. In all, 136 country experts, including me, nominated eight products each from as many countries - all co-ordination online including web, Internet and e-mails.

It was an enormous task. I did a lot of internal mailing and asked a lot of people about their views, and finally we nominated the eight best products. With eight products from 136 countries, more than nine hundred products accumulated. The board had a mechanism to get together in Dubai to choose the best practices from each category in all these countries. Now, calling 136 people to Dubai would have resulted in a massive crowd, and so a grand jury was nominated for the final selections; we sat in Dubai for a week and went through the nominations with a fine toothcomb, arriving at the forty best e-content applications from across the world, with five in each category. Among the finalists, India had also got two entries.

Q. One hears of a similar conference for the South Asian countries?

Yes, for the International audiences, WSA has plans to launch an International conference on e-content in South Asia. This will roughly be in March-April '04 and will be called 'South Asia WSA.' The date is yet to be fixed because we are still looking for sponsors.

I think it's a significant move because in the forty best e-practices worldwide, only two Indian entries are there. If we confine the entries to South Asia, there will be more recognition from local countries, maybe Bangladesh, Srilanka or India. And if you have forty best entries, all from South Asia, you will probably have ten-twenty entries coming in from India.

Q. Do you think such summits will boost the developmental sector in India and other South Asian countries?

Yes, to achieve recognition, the enthusiasm level will be higher. The developmental sector needs a lot of recognition - nobody is recognizing them. So the enthusiasm isn't as high as it should be - we want to progress geometrically instead of additionally. India has to catch up with the times - if we have two best practices today, by the evening we need five. And by tomorrow, we'll need twenty. How do we do that? If we recognize a particular company, obviously it will do better work once it gets into the public eye.

Q. So did the idea of your latest book, 'E Content: Voices from the Ground,' take seed in WSA 2003?'

Yes, 'E Content: Voices from the Ground' was originally conceived in Dubai, when thirty-five WSA jury members met during 17-21 October '03 to select the forty best practices in e-content and creativity. Knowing the diversity of the thirty-five jury members coming from developed, developing and underdeveloped countries, the idea to bring their expertise, knowledge and best practices in the country, could be a great asset for the fraternity, which is always looking for information that could guide them how to produce maximum e-content from the least e-enabled countries, economically, sustainably and effectively.

We asked the fellow jury members if they would be interested for an email-based interview on the e-content scenario in each country, and to my surprise, not only did everybody say 'yes' with enthusiasm, but they also worked very hard to reply the best possible answer in an impossible time period. Besides that, Prof. Dr. Peter A Bruck, Chairman, WSA agreed to guide me editorially and structurally as the co-author of this book.

If you go through the book, you'll get a fair knowledge of what's happening in the world of e-content. It describes the best practices in each country according to the experts, which country has the best infrastructure, which country needs to catch up, etc. You can easily draw a comparison between the countries just by going through the data in the book.

Q. How has it been received?

We've already sold two hundred copies in the two weeks since it's launch in Geneva. It was an incredible experience working on the book and it is doing extremely well.

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