Information Technology: the tipping point
By: Umar Saif
Stunning developments in the fields of information and technology have had a profound impact on almost every aspect of our daily lives, affecting everything from health and agriculture, to communications, transportation, and defence.
In Pakistan, science and technology play an integral role in our national politics and practices, and even in strengthening our national identity. Since the 1960s, both science and technology have been linked to the national ideology and practical functioning of Pakistan. As a developing country, Pakistan has faced numerous challenges with regard to the development, adoption and diffusion of technology. While successive governments have made an effort for the betterment of the IT sector, a lot more needs to be done. The private and public sectors need to start taking ownership of the IT industry since science and technology have never been given the status required to effectively utilise them as harbingers of economic growth. Instead, we have tended to rely on technologies mostly transferred from developed countries.
Even in areas where progress appears imminent, the scales never seem to tip in our favour. Take the mobile and telecommunications sector. Until only recently, Pakistan was counted amongst the global leaders in the telecoms industry. We are the only country in South Asia yet to taste the wonders of 3G data services and mobile broadband. At the time of independence in 1947, the technical resources available to the nation were largely primitive. Office work was carried out manually; even electric typewriters were rare. The process of corporate computerisation was launched in Pakistan in 1957, when offices first started using computers for work.
The process of ‘computerising’ society continued at a slow but steady pace through the early 1980s and 1990s, as more and more people started using desktop PCs. However, it wasn’t until well into the later part of the previous decade that personal computers became a norm. Today, the picture is far less positive. Assessing the development of information and communication technologies in countries across the globe, the World Economic Forum recently ranked Pakistan 102nd among 144 countries in the 2012 Global Information Technology report.
The constrained funding and attention Pakistan’s IT sector has received over the years had a further impact on the quality and quantity of work produced by our research and development institutions. Left with meagre resources, they were unable to match the valuable research produced in other countries of the region. Lack of suitable facilities and a failure to encourage and foster an atmosphere conducive to research in universities and research institutes led to a further deterioration in the standard of higher education. Today, most of our universities have been relegated to the status of low-level colleges in which valuable university-economy links are totally missing.
This degradation of our higher educational institutions is one of the most critical issues facing us today. This is especially relevant in the IT industry, which is facing an acute shortage of trained manpower. To put things in perspective: the largest software house in Pakistan employs 300 people, while the largest software house in India employs 350,000 programmers – more than the total number of skilled IT workers in Pakistan. What makes this comparison all the more staggering is that we in Pakistan do not lack manpower. Rather, we have failed to provide our populace with the means through which it can achieve the requisite technological skills sets.
It is for these, and many more, reasons that investing in technology and telecom is the need of the hour. I believe that as a country we are ready for our very own telecommunications and technology revolution. According to the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (Ispak), estimated internet users in Pakistan have reached 25 million; approximately five million of these are connected to high-speed broadband. World Bank statistics further reveal that Pakistan’s Internet penetration growth rate stands at 16.8 percent; second highest within the Saarc region (the Maldives lead with a growth rate of 28.3 percent; India, in comparison, is at 7.5 percent). Pakistan is also the ninth-largest market for mobile phones; the country’s mobile phone users crossed the 118 million mark in May 2012. Keeping this in mind, the government of Punjab has allocated about Rs46 billion across various sectors, including education, IT, telecommunications, and science and technology.
We are at a technological tipping point. It was keeping this in mind that the Punjab Information Technology University was established, to create a workforce that is skilled in varied areas of telecommunications, IT, and science and technology. The university aims to replicate the cross-disciplinary, research-oriented teaching methodology employed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and will not only provide high quality education but also harness the blue-sky potential of the Pakistani youth by helping them channel their passions, hopes, and frustrations into social change.
The world today is sharply divided by a technology boundary that separates technologically advanced countries from technologically backward ones. I believe that telecommunications and information technologies are the key enablers of change in today’s rapidly evolving business and social environments.
The telecoms and IT revolution has changed the lifestyles of people in every part of the world. It has eliminated geographical distances and helped shrink the world to the size of a computer screen and a single click of a button. Yes, there can be no doubt that the IT sector in Pakistan is in its early years. However, a greater focus on information technology will expose us to many benefits, not only for a prosperous Punjab but also a more developed Pakistan.
The writer is chairman of the Punjab IT Board and associate professor at the Department of Computer Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).