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UN food agency teams up with US university to help close digital divide

UN food agency teams up with US university to help close digital divide

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today launched a new initiative aimed at closing the digital divide between rich farmers in developed countries and poor rural communities in developing countries through the use of technologies that can increase food production.

The agreement signed today by the FAO and the Media Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT Media Lab) provides for the UN agency's World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT) to serve as a platform for disseminating and supporting programmes initiated by the MIT Media Lab, such as "Digital Life," "Digital Nations," and "Things-that-Think."

The main objectives of the cooperation between the UN food agency and the MIT Media Lab are to work on field programmes together, to explore possible funding resources and to support joint development of tools, workshops and training courses. For the first time, farmers and rural communities in least developed areas will be able to use advanced information technologies for accessing email and the Web using pocket-sized, battery or solar energy-powered wireless communicators at a very low cost. They will have unlimited access, through Internet and other innovative technologies, to information of all kinds including educational material, agricultural advice, as well as information on food security, food safety, economic issues, nutrition, public health, among others.

Even illiterate farmers in remote and isolated areas will be able to collect and share information relevant to their day-to-day work: information and even training will be conveyed through voice and images provided by wireless communicating devices. For example, in Asia, women farmers are currently using wireless devices to exchange information on levels of irrigation water to improve food production, WAICENT manager Francisco Perez Trejo said.

Wireless technology developed by MIT Media Lab tends to level differences between rich and poor, because it works as well in remote regions as in modern cities, and is cheap enough to be spread everywhere, according to experts. One of the most distinctive features of the MIT Media Lab is that more than 90 per cent of its funding comes from private industry: it currently receives support from 170 corporations worldwide.