As the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) continued in Tunis last night, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan unveiled a prototype of a cheap and rugged $100 laptop for children, as part of the Summit's goal of giving poor communities access to the benefits of information technologies and networks.
"When they start reaching the hands of the world's children, these robust and versatile machines will enable kids to become more active in their own learning," Mr. Annan said. "Children will be able to learn by doing, not just through instruction or rote memorization. And they will be able to open a new front in their education: peer-to-peer learning."
The low-energy green laptops, powered by a windup crank, are the key to the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative introduced by Mr. Annan and Professor Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab.
The laptops are to be financed through domestic resources, donors and possibly other arrangements, at no cost to the recipients themselves. They are to be distributed through education ministries using established textbook channels, Mr. Annan said.
Calling the laptops an "impressive technical achievement," the Secretary-General said that they were able to do almost everything that larger, more expensive computers could do, unlocking the "magic with each child, within each scientist, scholar or plain citizen-in-the-making." He urged governments at WSIS to incorporate the initiative into their efforts to build an Information Society.
The OLPC is a partner project in the Connect the World initiative of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which held a roundtable yesterday in which political, business, and development leaders pledged their commitment to expand the benefit of information and communications technologies (ICT) to people all over the world by 2015.
Also today, at various other forums at WSIS, other UN specialized agencies addressed their areas of expertise today. Among them, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Michel Jarraud, underlined the key role played by Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in meteorology and early warning for natural disasters. He offered to expand the use of WMO's Global Telecommunication System.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Microsoft Corporation, in cooperation with the Youth Observatory of the Tunisian Ministry of Youth, today inaugurated the InfoYouth Centre, a regional community technology centre for North Africa, designed to provide as many as 50,000 youth with access to, and skills training in, information technologies.
Also organized by UNESCO, in collaboration with a diverse range of partners, a workshop on ICT and Persons with Disabilities was attended by Tunisia's first lady, Leïla Ben Ali.
At another event, called Communication for All, Ericsson and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) spoke of the importance of increasing mobile phone access into isolated areas. Two billion people still live in areas with no mobile phone coverage, which is easier to expand than hard-wired connections, they said.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Association for Progressive Communication jointly held a meeting to introduce the Multimedia Training Kit that assists community media trainers in rural areas.
Other programmes discussed the importance of ICT for health systems, small business, postal services and many other areas.
One two-day event, the World Electronic Media Forum, concerning the role of electronic media in the digital age, closed last night. Addressing the final session, Secretary-General Annan urged media practitioners to use their influence to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals, a set of targets for greatly reducing poverty and other world ills by 2015.
"Day in, day out, where do we find timely alarms about injustice, opportunities to forge connections across great distances, or simple entertainment after a long day's work in factory, field or office tower? On television, on the radio and, increasingly, on the Internet," Mr. Annan said.
"Today, the world needs you to use that influence, even more than you do already, to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals," he said, noting that media had already found creative ways to address the scourge of HIV/AIDS.
In his statement, Mr. Annan also addressed the issue of freedom of expression in electronic media, which had become a major concern of WSIS.
"I will continue to press Governments to uphold their responsibility both to create conditions in which journalists can do their job safely, and to bring to justice those who commit crimes against them," he said.