COMPUTER INFORMATION RESOURCES FOR LATIN AMERICA Lorrie Ackerman December 1991 _Introduction_ Computers are currently being used as information resources for a wide variety of fields in many developed countries. Computers can give users information on library holdings and journals; climatic, geological, agricultural and other data; medical research; transportation schedules; banking information; news; and numerous other topics. In addition, computer users can quickly obtain information by contacting and communicating with experts from around the world through the international computer networks. Many of these information resources are available not only to scientists and computer professionals, but also to the general public. Computer information resources are not as wide-spread in Latin American countries as they are in developed countries such as the United States. In fact, only about 2 percent of the world's informatics equipment is in Latin America. In addition, the number of installed computer systems per capita was more than 16 times higher in the United States than it was in Latin America in 1984. The value of these computer systems as a percent of GNP was five times higher in the United States than in Latin America. However, Latin America ranked first in computer technology among developing regions (Correa 1989, 11-13). In Latin America, computers are used mostly for administrative purposes such as banking systems (Correa 1989, 15). Computers are also used extensively in the university environment. However, Munasinghe (1987, 306) stresses the importance of making computers accessible to the public: Unless the benefits of computer technology are brought to the people (especially the rural masses), skepticism and disillusionment might hamper further progress...as the scientific and technocratic leadership loses credibility. Computers need not be confined to the elite--they should be accessible to everyone. In order for computer information resources to be accessible to everyone, the following conditions are necessary: - Every country must have easy access to international computer networks. - Personal computers or computer terminals with which people can access international computer networks must be numerous and easily accessible. - People must learn how to access computer information resources. This paper will examine the barriers that exist to wide- spread use of computer information resources in Latin America. It will also describe some of the computer information resources that are currently being used and efforts underway to improve the accessibility of these resources for Latin Americans. _International Computer Networks_ The worldwide diffusion of computer communications technologies has enabled computer networks all over the world to be tied together into an international metanetwork. Information exchanges which used to take up to several weeks can now occur within minutes or seconds when carried out over this international electronic communications infrastructure. As Larry Press put it, "Computer-mediated communication networks are... helping to shrink the world" (Press 1991, 23). An article by Quarterman and Hoskins (1986, 932) defines computer networks: A computer network is a set of computers using common protocols to communicate over connecting transmission media....Among these networks are long-haul (or wide- area) networks that can encompass continents. There are also internets of smaller networks communicating with one another through the same protocols....The computers connected can be small microcomputers, supercomputers, or anything in between. Multiple interconnection media can be used, including coaxial cable, optical fibers, satellite links, twisted pair, or telephone lines. The protocols can vary widely in speed, reliability, and general functionality. The services provided can range from the most basic mail service to distributed file systems and remote procedure call capability. A similar diversity applies to ownership, funding, administration, addressing, and other characteristics. Representative descriptions of some of the more widely-used international computer networks that are accessible from Latin America follow. Some of these descriptions include information from Lawrence Landweber's "International Connectivity" table. Landweber uses the term "widespread" when a network has five or more sites in a country; he uses the term "minimal" when a network has fewer than five sites in a country. A network connectivity table for Latin American countries is included in the appendix. _BITNET._ The most widely used international network in Latin America is BITNET (Because It's Time NETwork). Connecting over 3,000 host computers (nodes) in 46 countries through a network of leased phone lines, BITNET is accessible from over 1400 universities and research centers worldwide. BITNET boasts practically unrestricted access and no membership fees, and provides a variety of services including electronic mail, file transfer and interactive messages. The mail delivery delay ranges from minutes to hours, while the delay for interactive communications is usually less than 8 seconds (Quarterman and Hoskins 1986, 953-955; BITNIC 1991). Interactive communications are quite limited, however, due to the relatively slow speed of data transfer in the network. BITNET was not accessible to most of Latin America until 1988 (Hsieh and Gamboa 1991, 3). There are currently over 60 Latin American BITNET nodes located in nine countries. As shown in the appendix, there are BITNET nodes in Costa Rica, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay (BITNIC 1991). However, BITNET is only widespread in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico (Landweber 1991). In some countries BITNET access is facilitated through cooperative agreements with U.S. agencies. In 1987 the Mataveti Bilateral Agreement initiated a program in which the University of Chile was given free use of the NASA telecommunication system to connect to the University of Maryland BITNET node by way of the Goddard Space Flight Center between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. (Hsieh and Gamboa 1991, 6). A computer at the University of Chile stores all outgoing messages until 8 p.m., at which time it begins transmitting them to a NASA satellite link. Thus the University of Chile was able to gain BITNET access at a cost of about $10,000 (Ruth, Uteras, and Brescia 1990, 260). Some Argentinean universities have also benefitted from the Chilean agreement with NASA. At the National University of Cuyo in western Argentina, "faculty members of the university's academic departments give floppy disks to Professor Guillermo Cuadrado of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters for transmission to colleagues around the world through the Chilean node." It costs about 70 cents for a microwave transition of a an electronic message from Medoza to Santiago. This cost is about the same as the cost of postal service, which takes about three weeks to deliver a letter (Ruth, Uteras, and Brescia 1990, 262). _Internet._ Internet is a rapidly growing network of over 100,000 host computers in 33 countries, including the Latin American countries Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico. (Landweber 1991). Internet provides services similar to BITNET. However, Internet is a much faster network, with mail delivery times ranging from seconds to minutes (Quarterman and Hoskins 1986, 942-943). In addition, Internet offers a vide variety of interactive services that allow users to run programs on computers across the network. _UUCP._ The UUCP mail network provides only one service: electronic mail. However, its low cost and ease of connection have made it popular around the world (Quarterman and Hoskins 1986, 957-958). In Latin America, UUCP is widespread in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. It is minimal in 14 other Latin American countries (Landweber 1991). _FidoNet._ Unlike the other networks described here, FidoNet runs only on personal computers. It is not a commercial or academic network; it is a network of personal-computer users. It provides mail service between FidoNet users as well as users of other networks. The software is distributed for free, but users must pay phone costs when they send mail messages. However, the costs are minimal as FidoNet operates in the late evening when phone rates are lowest (Quarterman and Hoskins 1986, 955-956). In Latin America, FidoNet is widespread in Argentina and Brazil. It is minimal in Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay. _Commercial Networks._ Commercial networks sell electronic mail, news, home shopping, remote login, and other services to users for a profit. Commercial networks are usually accessed via modem using a local phone number. Most commercial networks have local phone numbers in cities throughout the United States and in many foreign countries, but most do not have local numbers in Latin America. For example, SprintNet, a commercial network that has local phone numbers in the United States, Europe, and Asia, does not have any local numbers in Latin America. In many Latin American countries, commercial networks are most easily accessed with a long distance phone call to the United States. While calling late at night can significantly reduce phone fees, the cost of accessing commercial networks outside the United States can be prohibitive. _IGC Networks._ The San Francisco-based Institute for Global Communications (IGC), a division of the non-profit Tides Foundation, runs three international computer networks: PeaceNet, EcoNet, and ConflictNet. These networks are "dedicated solely to environmental preservation, peace, and human rights." They serve individuals and organizations working for environmental preservation and sustainability, peace, social justice, human rights, disarmament, and conflict resolution. The networks are supported through private grants, monthly subscription fees and hourly connect charges (IGC 1991). Subscribers can access IGC through the Internet, SprintNet, or telephone. IGC provides subscribers with electronic mail, electronic "conference" forums, and information services. Subscribers can exchange electronic mail with users of the Internet, BITNET, and over 50 other computer networks. In addition, IGC has organized the Association of Progressive Communications (APC), "a major program to develop low-cost access to computer networking from outside the United States, especially from non-industrialized and Southern hemisphere countries." The APC partner networks, run by independent local organizations, include Alternex in Brazil and Nicarao in Nicaragua (IGC 1991). _National and regional networks._ In some Latin American countries and regions, national or regional networks facilitate communication and information exchange between researchers, non- governmental organizations (NGOs), and others. These networks include Huracan in Central America, Ecuanex in Ecuador, and Unbol in Bolivia. The most recently established national network is Red Cientifica Peruana (RCP), Peru's scientific network. John Bonine (1991b) explains how the network was built: RCP was put together with the enthusiasm and hard work of Peruvian computer scientists and engineers, advised and assisted by counterparts in Argentina, Brazil, and elsewhere in Latin America. The crucial final funding link for a main network server, other equipment, and travel expenses for a low-cost networking expert from Costa Rica and one from Oregon, US, was provided by Enzo Puliatti of the U.N. development Program.... In the early stages of RCP, the international gateway is a computer that has been programmed to periodically dial Peru from Oregon. Scientists, academics, and NGO workers can access the network from five locations in Peru (Bonine 1991b). _Computer Information Resources_ "Information now ranks with other major development resources: human, natural, and financial," writes Hanna (1991, 1). Computers can be valuable tools for storing and disseminating information. There are a wide variety of information resources available through the international computer networks. These resources help researchers quickly access information that they otherwise might not have access to. In Colombia, for example, it is common for university researchers to use the Dialog service to find bibliographic references (Ferreira 1991). This commercial service allows users to access hundreds of databases which catalog articles from journals covering a large range of fields. Services like Dialog allow anyone with a personal computer, modem, and phone line to have the world's libraries essentially at their fingertips. Without such services, Hanna (1991, 8) writes: Researchers, scientists, engineers, and other knowledge workers in developing countries are often isolated from current developments in their professions.... result[ing] in needlessly repeated research, poor- quality research, and ignorance of relevant development elsewhere....Developing-country professionals waste their valuable time and scarce skills on inefficient information searches and routine information-handling activities. Following are brief descriptions of two other computer information resources currently being used in Latin America. _Healthcare applications._ The National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland maintains MEDLARS (MEDical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System), a computerized system of over 40 online databases containing a total of about 14 million references. The databases contain information on AIDS, cancer, biomedical ethics, chemicals, dental research, family planning, toxic substances, medical terminology, and a variety of other topics (NLM 1991b). International access to MEDLARS is available online through a telephone connection as well as by leasing database tapes and software from NLM (NLM 1991a). However, international online connections are expensive, and leased tapes are not always up-to- date and can only be accessed from one site. In order to make international access more feasible, NLM and the University of Chile developed "BITNIS"--a software package which allows a MEDLARS search to be prepared on a personal computer (PC) at a remote site. BITNIS creates a file that contains all the necessary search statements, puts the file in an electronic mail envelope, and sends the file to NLM through BITNET. A PC at NLM receives the file and sends the search statements to the NLM mainframe computer. When the search is finished, the mainframe sends the results to the PC, which puts them in an E-mail envelope and sends them back to the sender (Hsieh and Gamboa 1991, 2-5). BITNIS was beta tested in ten Latin American countries over a five month period beginning in September 1990. Turn around time was usually less than half an hour, except for searches requested from Argentina. The Argentinean network's "dial-up as needed" connection method (as opposed to being continuously connected to BITNET) lengthened turn around time in that country to about an hour and a half (Hsieh and Gamboa 1991, 8-9). Hsieh and Gamboa reported (1991, 8): "Results of the BETA test indicated that the system worked well and most users found it important to their professional activities." _Communications network._ The ability to communicate is "one of the most significant issues in the empowerment of scientists, businessmen and women, doctors, teachers and many other specialists in developing nations" (Ruth, Uteras, and Brescia 1990, 259). Computer networks can help facilitate communication between organizations and individuals around the world. Through these networks, people from around the world can exchange ideas quickly and converse almost as if they were in the same room. Miguel Korzeniewicz (1991) described his experiences on a network of Argentine scientists at home and abroad: What seemed really remarkable to me at the time I was a member of that network, was the extent to which the network replicated the type of Argentine "coffeeshop" interaction, with fiery, endless and witty discussion on politics, sports, science, etc. In addition to providing a means for conversational communication as described above, computer networks allow professionals to quickly survey their peers for more information on a specific topic. For example, a doctor who is treating a patient with unusual symptoms could post a description of the symptoms to an electronic bulletin board with the hope that another doctor somewhere in the world had treated a similar condition. Computer networks can also be useful for quickly distributing an announcement to a large group of people. John Bonine reported that the Eugene, Oregon-based Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (E-LAW) used international computer networks in a successful campaign to prevent Conoco Oil Company from putting an oil field in Ecuador's Yasuni National Park (Bonine 1991a). "Largely as a result of electronic communications people all over the world were opposing this project," Bonine explained. _Barriers to the Diffusion of Information Technology_ Although computer information resources are being used successfully by individuals in some Latin American countries, most Latin Americans have no way of accessing these resources. While computers are common at universities and throughout urban areas, the diffusion of the technology has hardly penetrated the rural areas of Latin America. In Costa Rica, for example, most universities are already linked to BITNET and soon will be linked to Internet (Lang Sanou 1991). But in Belize, El Salvador, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, and Suriname, no international computer links currently exist (Landweber 1991). Most Latin Americans are unable to access computer information resources because they lack: easy access to the international networks, personal computers or computer terminals with which to access computer networks, and information on how to access computer networks. Several barriers cause these deficiencies. _Economic._ Computer prices are often prohibitive to people in Latin America. "Most prices we get are targeted for developed nations' markets. We often get a 10-20% increment over U.S. prices," explained Carlos Lang Sanou of Costa Rica (1991). _Information._ Reiter (1987, 3) explains that developing countries often lack information on how computers can be used: The shortage of books, trade journals, and consultants means that people wishing to computerize do not know what is available in the market, and indeed what it is possible to do with computers. This is a very important problem, because no one is going to computerize an application if he doesn't know that computerization is possible in the first place -- or, conversely, someone who computerizes with inappropriate equipment and unrealistic expectations is likely to be disappointed and perhaps subsequently ignore computers for the rest of his career. This lack of information is often a major obstacle to computerization. _Language._ Language can also be a barrier to the diffusion of computers in Latin America. "Only about 10% of our population has a good understanding of written English. This is a serious impediment for those who need to use programs that only communicate in English," explains Lang Sanou (1991). Not only is much software written to communicate only in English, but the manuals that accompany it are also in English. As a result, understanding English is often a requirement for computer-related jobs (Reiter 1987, 5). In addition, most computer information resources are in English. _Local repair and support._ Reiter (1987, 3) explains that many developing countries lack local computer repair and support services, especially in rural areas. These countries do not have enough skilled personnel to operate, support and repair computer systems. In addition, replacement parts, which must often be ordered from other countries, take a long time to be shipped and clear customs. _Network links._ Many services which are easily accessible over Internet are inaccessible over BITNET, or can only be accessed through a slow or clumsy procedure. However, as already explained, the Internet is not accessible from most of Latin America. _Political._ Informatics policies which severely restrict or tax computer imports often result in high computer prices and technology lags. Brazil's protectionist informatics policy has helped to build a large information technology industry, but not without negative side effects. Roche found that the policy, "which reserves the Brazilian market for Brazilian-produced goods," has inflated the price of computer equipment to three to five times its price on the open market and made advanced computer applications difficult to implement. The policy prohibits the import of any good that is also produced in Brazil unless that good is classified as critical. Those goods which can be imported are often subject to high tariffs. As a result, Brazilian computer professionals often cannot purchase state-of- the-art technology and must frequently rely on outdated equipment much longer than their U.S. counterparts do (Roche 1990, 1-22). This may change when many of the restrictions are lifted in October 1992. _Technology lag._ Most of the other barriers join together to cause the availability of computer technology in Latin America to lag behind developed countries. However, Larry Press (1991, 24) notes that the computer technology lag in Chile is much shorter now than it was ten years ago: There is still some lag in the movement of personal computer technology to South America, but it is much less than in 1982, when I was last in Chile. That visit was nearly a year after IBM had announced the PC, and it was still six months away from introduction in South America....In less than 10 years the time gap has closed somewhat from an initial year or two to a month or two. _Telecommunications infrastructure._ Reiter (1987, 3) explains that developing countries' poor telecommunications infrastructures often provide only a limited number of high- quality leased lines for data transfer. In Paraguay, for example, the public phone service is better than in many Third World countries, but far below U.S. standards. There is roughly one phone line for every 16 people and it takes a month or two to get a new line installed; there is roughly one line per person in the United States (Goodman 1991, 26). A poor telecommunication system makes electronic communications and access to remote databases difficult to achieve. _Appropriate Technology?_ Computers are highly demanding of capital, foreign exchange, and skilled personnel for their effective use. Not only do they not create jobs for unskilled workers, but computers can displace such workers. However, Gupta (1987, 44-47) argues that despite these problems, the appropriate use of computer technology can be quite beneficial to developing countries. He evaluates computer technology by considering its relative cost, technical reliability, and range of applications; environmental and safety aspects; and the change agents and learning problems involved. After discussing each of these aspects, he concludes that computer technology is not only appropriate for developing countries, but that: "It seems that computer technology will prove to be the most important new technology of this century comparable only to the development of such basic technologies as electric power, steam power or the printing press." Munasinghe (1987, 306) agrees and states that computer technologies are essential to be competitive in the world market: Whether they like it or not, third world societies and economies will be compelled to live with these new technological advances, and all their widespread implications. Either the developing countries adapt and use the knowledge to enhance their drive for socio- economic development, or they fall back even further-- this is the harsh rule of survival in an increasingly competitive world marketplace. However, in order for developing countries to take advantage of this important technology, they must rely on the developed countries. As a result, Correa (1989, 11) writes, "Informatics is regarded, at the same time, as a promise and as a threat." According to Correa, Latin American computer personnel are often trained by hardware suppliers as part of the companies' marketing strategies. These personnel often purchase equipment recommended by the companies that trained them, which is not necessarily the equipment that would best meet the needs of their business or organization. Gupta (1987, 46) states that although there are many inappropriate uses of computer technology, appropriate uses have resulted in "more efficient use of scarce resources, increased productivity, and improved quality of decisions made by government and business." He lists as appropriate applications of the technology: transportation management, accounting, inventory management, education, healthcare, financial services, and processing agricultural information. Using computers to access electronic information resources is certainly an appropriate use of the technology as well. If the network links are available, computers purchased for other purposes can also be used to access information resources. _Recommendations_ There are a variety of projects proposed and underway to increase the accessibility of information technology in Latin America. While these projects do not have the same kind of direct impact as do many food and medical assistance programs, they do, none the less, provide many important benefits that can impact large numbers of people. The international computer science community should support these efforts through cooperative programs that share developed countries' computer and information resources with the less developed countries of Latin America. One such project, recently begun by Kevin D. Kells of Zurich, Switzerland, will provide Latin American countries with telecommunications, engineering, and computer science consultants from around the world. Kells (1991) explained his rationale for beginning the project: Why do I want to set up computer networks when there are people dying of hunger?...[G]iven my specific abilities and training....I felt I could help more people effectively by applying myself toward the improvement of the communications infrastructure. I saw benefits ranging from higher accessibility of physicians to those in need, to the attraction of "high-tech" business and the improvement of university programs. Other projects, such as the cooperative agreement between NASA and the University of Chile, make use of existing computer and network resources owned by developed countries. These programs can be implemented at low costs because they take advantage of resources that would otherwise be under utilized at certain times of day. In addition, it is important for Latin American computer professionals to exchange ideas and coordinate their computer networking efforts. The First Interamerican Networking Workshop, held in October in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, brought together groups and individuals interested in Latin American research networking. The meeting was designed to increase awareness and understanding of various ongoing networking projects in Latin America, in order to stimulate integration of current efforts leading to eventual region-wide coordination....The meeting contributed to the creation of a Latin American networking identity among the participants (Galindo-Legaria 1991). The meeting included a hands-on network training seminar, presentations on the status of national and supra-national networking projects, and presentations on the applications of computer networks. As a result of the meeting, a permanent forum for the coordination of the activities in electronic communication networks in Latin America and the Caribbean was formed (Galindo-Legaria 1991). Finally, new uses of computer information resources, particularly those that can directly impact the masses, should be pursued. In particular, efforts should be made to make computer information resources accessible to NGOs. Through their development workers, NGOs can bring these information resources to the people. Hanna (1991, 8) explains: There is a need to capture and record local knowledge and experience and to make them readily available to a larger audience within countries and regions....For example, local research on agriculture, health, and environment often is not adapted and made accessible to policy makers, administrators, extension workers, or farmers....Putting indigenous information as well as outside knowledge within reach of the people would allow them to fit the information into their own problem-solving processes. Computer networks, if properly implemented, would be an appropriate means of sharing information with the people of Latin America. _Conclusions_ Computer information resources are being used for a wide variety of applications in developed countries. However, in the less developed countries of Latin America, the use of these resources is quite limited. In most Latin American countries, access to the international computer networks through which these information resources are available is limited or non-existent. In the absence of international network links, Latin Americans wishing to access computer information resources must rely on telephone connections which may be scarce or costly. There are a number of computer information resources from which the Latin American people could benefit. Electronic communication networks, library databases, and medical databases are already being used by researchers in some Latin American countries. However, few information resources are accessible by the masses, particularly in rural areas, far from the large universities. Before the use of information resources will become widespread there must be easy access to international computer networks, personal computers and computer terminals with which to access these networks, and information on how to access computer networks. A variety of barriers to these conditions have been discussed. Several projects proposed and underway to increase the accessibility of information technology in Latin America have been discussed. The international computer science community should support these efforts through cooperative programs that share developed countries' computer and information resources with the less developed countries of Latin America. Latin American computer professionals should also be encouraged to exchange ideas with each other and coordinate their computer networking efforts. In addition, it is important that new uses of computer information resources, particularly those that can directly impact the masses, be pursued. Computers can provide the people of Latin America with the important resource of information. Cooperation will be necessary to insure that this resource is accessible to all people.APPENDIX NETWORK CONNECTIVITY IN LATIN AMERICA Country BITNET Internet UUCP FidoNet ----------------------------------------------------------------- Argentina Y (w) Y Y (w) Y (w) Belize N N N N Bolivia N N Y (m) N Brazil Y (w) Y Y (w) Y (w) Chile Y (w) Y Y (w) Y (m) Colombia Y (m) N Y (m) N Costa Rica Y (m) N Y (m) N Cuba N N Y (m) N Dominican Rep. N N Y (m) N Ecuador Y (m) N Y (m) N El Salvador N N N N French Guiana N N Y (m) N Guatemala N N Y (m) N Guyana N N N N Haiti N N N N Honduras N N N N Mexico Y (w) Y Y (m) Y (m) Nicaragua N N Y (m) N Panama N N N N Paraguay N N Y (m) N Peru * N Y (m) N Puerto Rico** Y (w) Y Y (w) Y (w) Suriname N N N N Uruguay * N Y (m) Y (m) Venezuela N N Y (m) N Y -- country has international network links N -- country does not have international network links (w) -- network is widespread, with five or more domestic sites (m) -- network is minimal, with less than five domestic sites * -- Landweber listed country as "uncertain" However, BITNIC listed these countries on its list of countries participating in BITNET. ** Puerto Rico is included because of its location. It is not a Latin American country. Compiled from International Connectivity: Version 3 - December 2, 1991, copyright 1991 by Lawrence H. 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