World's poor to get own search engine
Source: BBC News - 15 July, 2003, 07:42 GMT 08:42 UK
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor
People in poor countries could soon have a new and cheap way to get hold of the
wealth of information on the internet.
The search engine is being developed at MIT labs in Boston. Researchers at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing a search engine de-
signed for people with a slow net connection.
Someone using the software would e-mail a query to a central server in Boston.
The program would search the net, choose the most suitable webpages, compress
them and e-mail the results a day later.
"More and more we are creating an information divide in the world and this can
help narrow that divide and have a huge benefit in that sense," said Professor
Saman Amarasinghe of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science in Boston.
The thinking behind the TEK search engine is that people in poor countries are
short of money but have time on their hands, whereas people in the West are
cash-rich but time-poor.
"The idea is that developing countries are willing to pay in time for knowl-
edge," explained Prof Amarasinghe.
"In the West when we surf we want the information in the next two seconds. We
are not willing to wait."
The researchers say current web technology such as search engines is focused on
the needs of the West.
By contrast, people in poor countries face problems such as the speed and cost
of an internet connection, let alone the huge amount of webpages thrown up by
"Let us assume you are in Malawi," explained Prof Amarasinghe, "and the
lab does not have access to the telephone line all the time."
"If you want to find some new information about malaria, you are prompted with
message that says 'we are going to send a query through e-mail, it is OK?'.
"At night, when the phone line is available, the teacher can dial out and send
The request is sent to computers at MIT in Boston, which then search the inter-
net and gather webpages.
To avoid a glut of information, the software then filters the results and
chooses the most relevant. These are then sent back to the computer in Malawi
that they can be stored in the machine's internet cache.
"Next morning the teacher can connect, download that e-mail and when the stu-
dents arrive, they can browse through those pages the way they would if they
full internet connectivity," said Prof Amarasinghe.
The program keeps a record of all the information sent to avoid wasting band-
width by re-sending the same webpages.
CDs in libraries
So far the program is in its early stages, with a small number of people trying
But the researchers aim to have a beta version ready to be tested in the next
three to four months.
Once they have sorted out any bugs, they intend to make it freely available to
However, the team realise the program is too big to download over a slow and
poor net connection.
Instead they are thinking of sending CDs to libraries so that people can borrow
and install the software on their machines.
They are also considering trying to persuade computer sellers in developing
countries to install the program on machines.
"Searching the World Wide Web in Low-Connectivity Communities"
Proceedings of The 11th International World Wide Web Conference
Global Community Track, May, 2002.
Adobe PDF file (20 pp. 350 kB):
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