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Jamaica's underachievement in ICT

Published:Monday | December 24, 2012 | 12:00 AM
In this 2010 file photo, Dr Judith Kirlew (centre), president of the Soroptimist Club of Kingston, looks as Raphel Sappleton points to an image of students at one of the three computers which were donated to the Shortwood United Church Early Childhood Development Centre. - FILE
In this file photo, students of the Brooks Level Basic School in Stony Hill enjoy their new computer received from the NCB Foundation.

By Evan Duggan, Contributor

INDEPENDENT JAMAICA has had an inconsistent history - illustrious in several regards, yet unremarkable in others. We have much to celebrate and a great deal to be proud of. Our global stature defies our relative size as our flag is recognisable and respected, and our people fly it high in all corners of the world. However, the true promise of independence - the vision of prosperity and a thriving, vibrant economy that engenders opportunities for our people to pursue their dreams and unlock their potential - has eluded us and remains, for even the most optimistic, somewhere on the distant horizon.

Before Independence, Jamaica exploded out of the blocks like its athletes, our most discernible insignia of character and hope. Our port cities were bustling - flooded with the influx of rural workers seeking a piece of the economic pie. By the 1950s, the pace of our growth was staggering. We quickly positioned ourselves among the world's leading producers of alumina. Agricultural exports grew briskly. Tourism became an increasingly important contributor to our developing economy. The productivity of the Jamaican worker was at its peak. By Independence, we were a nation of tremendous potential, ready to conquer the world.

Somehow, we lost form - our backs arched, our strides shortened, and our heads fell. We became decreasingly productive, perceptibly less competitive globally, and increasingly vulnerable economically and socially. Instead of sprinting to the 50-year mark, we barely hobbled to the line.

The Blame

Over the second half of our journey as an independent nation, we have often jogged when many of our contemporaries, some with less favourable starting positions than ours, have sprinted. The blame for our underachievement, apportioned by even some of the culpable, has been ascribed, often exclusively, to one of several favourite sources, including the political process and governance mechanisms, the Church, the education system and its graduates, among others.

Without resorting to reductionism - the art of advancing simplistic and/or partial explanations for complex phenomena - I will focus on one of the noteworthy contributors to our underachievement: the failure to exercise our enormous brainpower, a superabundant Jamaican asset, to maximally exploit available information and communications technologies (ICT) resources to provide high-quality solutions to our information-processing problems.

Many developing countries have invested great optimism in the demonstrated impact of the application of ICTs in enabling the economic and social transformation of several previously underperforming economies.

In the ensuing examination, I engage this notion, emboldened by the results of recent secondary research conducted by my research team on data provided in two World Economic Forum global indices: the Networked Readiness Index (NRI) and the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI). The former assesses a country's preparedness to participate in and benefit from ICT developments; the latter ranks, along several dimensions, the capability of countries to compete globally.

We extracted and correlated data for Jamaica and other Latin American and Caribbean countries that were included in both indices. The results indicate that the development of human capital, an NRI factor, was most influential on innovation, a GCI component, and that both were significant predictors of GDP per capita for these countries.

Jamaica has accumulated an impressive ICT infrastructure over the years and facilitated the emergence of a highly sophisticated telecommunications industry within the last decade. However, on the ICT application side, we have experienced a steady decline, both in comparison to our own competencies attained during the early years of Independence, and to many of the countries we now view as aspirational peers. In our jubilee year, the promise of applying ICT to advance development goals remains unfulfilled, and replicates, perhaps with a few years' lag, the disappointments of our economic trajectory since Independence.

At Independence, data processing, as it was known then, as a global commercial enterprise, was relatively immature. The electronic-computing discipline was approximately 25 years old, if the baseline is the introduction of Dr John Atanasoff's and Clifford Berry's computer-engineering innovation, which produced the first electronic digital computer - the ABC computer. This preceded, by seven years, John Von Neumann's contribution of a computer-processing architecture to computer science. Within a decade or so into Independence, Jamaica had developed a vibrant computing sector and a dynamic professional society, the Jamaica Computer Society (JCS). The society established several fruitful international alliances, including reciprocity with the British Computer Society, and organised high-quality annual conferences.

The inaugural JCS conference was only 24 years removed from the publication of Dr Grace Hopper's 1952 seminal paper The Education of a Computer, which advanced the idea of the development of software programmes using symbolic language. Hopper's work laid the foundation for the development of the information systems (IS) discipline, the branch of computing that is concerned with the application of ICTs in organisations.

The microprocessor

Eight years before that first JCS conference, 'Ted' Hoff, Jr proposed the concept of a microprocessor. Three years later, in 1971, Intel introduced the first commercial microcomputer chip, which accelerated the miniaturisation of computers and the eventual convergence of the related-but-hitherto-separate worlds of computing and telecommunications, and fast-tracked several phenomenal ICT-enabled innovations.

Jamaica kept pace with the best in world in information systems application capability until the mid-1980s. Within the sector, expertise in application development was pervasive and computer-programming creativity and ingenuity endemic. Then, paradoxically, a few years after TIME Magazine's insightful selection of the electronic computer as the 'person of the year' for its 1982 award, and at the onset of the digital revolution, our steps faltered: Many Jamaican organisations that had invested significant resources in establishing world-class information-processing capability misinterpreted the emerging ICT trend and unceremoniously abandoned their mainframe environments in favour of a network of - and sometimes unconnected - personal computers. Some experts migrated; others became creatively idle.

'Server-side' novices

This was indiscretion from which we have never recovered. This misstep (1) initially depleted human capital, eroded computing competencies, and destroyed the critical mass of IS developers required to sustain a viable IS sector; (2) gradually dismantled the foundation for acquiring, assimilating and utilising new ICT application knowledge and capabilities, and left us unfamiliar with existing and emerging software-production methods; and (3) eventually triggered the precipitous decline of our IS development sector - a pivotal segment of an indigenous ICT industry.

Consequently, during the 1990s, when ICT-enabled innovations demanded expertise in client-server processing - a computing paradigm that required mastery of both microcomputer (dubbed a 'client' in this arrangement) and mainframe (called a 'server' because it provides specialised services to clients) technologies and related techniques for accommodating their seamless interface in order to deliver distributed, enterprise-information systems - we were virtual 'server-side' novices. This deficit fettered us to almost exclusive reliance on imported commercial off-the-shelf applications and rendered us incapable of producing specific competitiveness-enhancing, indigenous applications that are required to infuse ICT into important national processes - not to mention participation in the global software ICT market.

Another factor that may have contributed to our undistinguished ICT application-delivery performance since the mid-1980s is the baffling choice and mix of undergraduate computing programmes, which, for some inexplicable reason, pervaded tertiary institutions in the English-speaking Caribbean

This was unearthed in a 2004 study I undertook to compare undergraduate computing programmes in the English-speaking Caribbean with randomly selected institutions from the United States, Canada, and 10 software-exporting nations. Although much - but not all - of this problem has been corrected in Jamaica today, the prevalence of this error of choice during the formative years of our ICT industry severely constrained the development of an appropriate application-development ethos.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the world's largest educational and scientific computing society, in consortium with US academic institutions, business organisations, and accreditation bodies, has been developing curriculum models for undergraduate computing programmes for 40 years. ACM now recognises five branches of computing studies. Three of these are computer engineering (CE), which is concerned with the design of computing machines (physical devices); computer science (CS), the study and creation of algorithms (procedures), technologies, and tools that enable computing machines to function more effectively; and information systems, the branch of study devoted to the application of the technologies and products provided by the aforementioned branches to deliver information-processing solutions to organisations.

The salient findings of my 2004 research are that, in contrast to the other institutions studied, those in the English-speaking Caribbean overfocused on computer science education and grossly underproduced IS graduates. Although there are some overlaps, CE and CS programmes are designed to prepare students to become ICT creators; IS to educate ICT appliers, with specific understanding of other business disciplines, organisational processes and human behaviour. For many years in the English-speaking Caribbean, the overwhelming majority of graduates from our computing programmes were equipped to operate in technology-creating organisations, yet they were all employed by technology-applying enterprises.

If we genuinely seek therapy, we must be honest with ourselves and take advantage of the insights that the introspection during our jubilee year have provided. Jamaica needs a disciplined, multi-source attack on the anatomy of the multi-headed monster of underachievement that has terrorised us since Independence in several areas - none, in my view, more glaring than our faltering flirtation with ICT application. In this regard, we squandered an excellent start and failed to capitalise on early momentum. We can re-establish the expansive talent pool of software developers, restore the ICT competencies lost in the 1980s, and re-ignite the sparks of IS development creativity. We can, quite quickly, become net producers of ICT innovations, with the capacity to satisfy local demand and supply the global market. When we do, we can enthral the world in this arena almost as convincingly as our athletes have in theirs.

Creative developers

To be fair, there are extremely creative Jamaican application developers who now produce high-quality applications ('apps') for a variety of mobile and other platforms. These emerge largely from individual heroism or the fragmented and uncoordinated efforts of miscellaneous groups with little possibility for synergy. I, therefore, recommend the following interventions to assist in restoring Jamaica's once-superior ICT application development capacity as a fulcrum for stimulating economic development and progress:

1. Hone the ICT talents of outstanding high school students by organising an annual national computing Olympiad, where (similar to our sports competitions) youngsters compete to develop useful apps and entrench ICT development skills.

2. Equip the HEART College of Innovation and Technology to accelerate the production of skilled graduates with particular focus on developing apps for high-demand areas, in order to participate in the US$20-billion global apps market.

3. Endow the merged Central Information Technology Office and Fiscal Services Ltd with the capability to consolidate isolated pockets of creative competence among fragmented groups of ICT application developers into a national force.

4. Provide scholarships for a larger number of students to participate in ACM-prescribed IS undergraduate curriculum to develop a critical mass of software developers with knowledge and skills of a wide range of contemporary application development tools, techniques and methodologies.

5. Build on our awareness of, and comfort with, the use of novel and emerging ICTs to create a vibrant IS sector, specifically targeting the reversal of our inordinately high ICT consumption-to-production ratio and accelerated positioning as net producers of ICT innovations, with the capacity to satisfy local demand and supply the global market.

When we do, we can enthral the world in the ICT arena almost as convincingly as our athletes have in theirs.

Professor Evan Duggan is dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of the West Indies, Mona campus.