eServices platform for rural marginalized communities

This is the over-arching project of the Telkom Centre of Excellence for the 2010 to 2012 cycle. This is a built-up on the following previous two THRIP cycles :

  • 2007 - 2009 (Multi-function communication platform) : This project was a logical built-up of the eCommerce platform project. The aim of the this project was to extend the offering of eServices in Dwesa to include other relevant services. This therefore saw the development of eJudiciary and eGoverment services. At the same time the eCommerce portal was augmented with further functionality to increase its effectiveness (i.t.o. marketing and customer loyalty) and efficiency. The other component of the project focused on the supporting distributed network (WiMAX backbone with VSAT connection to the Internet), to provide mechanisms to ensure network reliability, to apportion network usage costs in a context-sensitive manner, and extend the reach of the network to the individuals (through wireless hotspots).
  • 2004 - 2006 (eCommerce platform for rural marginalized communities) : This project developed a proto-type of an eCommerce platform to be deployed in rural marginalized communities (with an initial focus on the Dwesa community in the Transkei). These communities form the bulk of the population in South Africa (and other developing countries) and are usually not actively integrated into the economy of the nation. The project sought to tap into the economic potential that is in these communities (for example in the case of Dwesa : micro-tourism, cultural tourism, arts and craft) by utilizing current technology solutions. An eCommerce platform therefore provides the mechanism of these communities to access the international markets which they would otherwise not have access to. Part of providing the eCommerce service was to investigate the environmental factors that need to be integrated into the development of the platform (for example : appropriate interaction metaphors, relevant user-interface components, context-sensitive services).This project re-engineers and extends the currently deployed multi-functional communication platform on the following key fronts:

    A --> Enhancement of the platform through specially developed middleware and core services
    The development of the platform will take into consideration the insights from Service Oriented Architectures (SOAs). The platform will therefore provide hooks and interfaces for the different service components (developed in the project or third-party). This measure will increase the extensibility, interoperability with other standards-based components (for example - web services standards: SOAP, WSDL, REST ) and provide added flexibility to the platform. A middleware component for the different services (i.e. a service platform engine) will be deployed based either on existing components (e.g. Mobicents) or specially developed within
    this project.

    B --> Integration of mobility (fixed-mobile convergence - FMC) on the network infrastructure
    The objective of this component is to increase the reach of the services (some already developed and others to be developed) and to make them easily accessible to the users by leveraging the current mobile technologies. The network infrastructure in Dwesa consists of a point-to-point wireless (WiMAX) backbone, with a VSAT back-haul link to the Internet. The network is currently connecting four points of presence (Digital Access Nodes - DANs) which are the localities of network services for the community. In line with the original objective of the project, further distribution (e.g. into the households) will be pursued, in order to establish more DANs around the community. To this end, mobile WiMAX (IEEE 802.16e) and WiFi nodes will be added to the already deployed fixed WiMAX (IEEE 802.16d) network, increasing the mobility and accessibility to the eServices that are being provided in the community. This will encourage the development of eServices that leverage the mobility factor (e.g. community location-based services).
     

    C --> Contextualized user-driven eServices development and extensions

    T o continue developing ICT eServices for the Dwesa community for the specific needs that have been identified in the previous project, and to extend the currently deployed eServices by implementing increased contextualization features. These new services and extensions will exploit the mobility increasingly available in the network, alternative interaction modalities on the network (e.g. audio-based), social networking technologies, and semantic web (Web 3.0) tec hnologies.

    Creation of servic es via the c omposition of simpler ones will be the preferred method of operation. T his has been observed in Web 2.0 mashups that leverage open APIs to c ombine func tionality from numerous other sourc es to create a service. The initial effort in this task will be towards the creation of the individual service blocks (e.g. authentication modules, user interaction components, data access components). These components will expose a web services (WSDL, SOAP) interface, through which they will be integrated in the platform re-engineered in A.

    This component will also focus on creating explicit mechanisms and implementing environments for the development and deployment of user driven services. This emphasizes the role of the rural communities as the co-creators of the eServices solutions for their needs. His will be done via the provision of contextualized interfaces for the users to compose complex services out of simple and intuitive operations on service building blocks.

    As the previous one, the new prototype will still be built on hardware components that are easily available at low cost (but without sacrificing quality). It will still be using open source software and open standards in all its software components. These decisions guarantee cost-effectiveness and robustness from the start. Simplicity will be the guiding principle in overall design (which will still be strongly based on direct user involvement and user input). This will also apply to building essential user interfaces. The platform will be designed to integrate new modules that enrich its functionality quickly and easily, in order to make it as adaptable as possible. It is important to emphasize that, in a largely unexplored context such as deployment of ICT in rural settings, adaptability equates to cost effectiveness.
     

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