Organisation: Institute of Social Informatics and Technological Innovations (ISITI-CoERI), Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS).
Main Country of Operation: Malaysia
Contact: Associate Professor Dr. Alvin Yeo Wee
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In December 2010, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak approved the formation of the Institute of Social Informatics and Technological Innovation (ISITI). The Centre of Excellence for Rural Informatics (CoERI) which was previously anchored at the Faculty of Computer Science and IT, is now anchored at ISITI. In 1999 UNIMAS launched eBario project in remote community of Bario, Sarawak. By applying a people-centered/ participatory approach, the project aims to deploy the Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), empower and train the Bario community to apply ICTs in improving their livelihood. After the successful experiment of eBario the institute developed expertise in many niche areas including but not limited to Rural Informatics, Green Technologies, ICTD and ICT4D. One of the most important impacts of the eBario and eBario replication projects has been providing the basis for the creation of ISITI-CoERI at UNIMAS.

The ISITI-CoERI projects are in Malaysia with a very large and diverse indigenous population both urban and rural and in some instances extremely remote. What the ISITI-CoERI approach did was to provide the faculty members involved and the broader university community with a means and methodology for effectively engaging with the rural indigenous population not only from a research perspective but also through the introduction of ICTs and the leveraging of the ICTs into enhanced services and locally driven economic activity – making a significant and highly visible developmental contribution as well. All of this while interesting is hardly surprising in the broad context of the institutionalization of successful research in a university environment. What is novel however, is the way in which having realized such a successful symbiosis with bottom-up participatory approach. ISITI-CoERI is now in the process of making what seems to be a very substantial contribution to remote communities’ development with advanced technologies’ research (and not incidentally theory) but also is beginning a reframing of the manner in which community informatics and Rural ICT becomes institutionalized in a university setting. The whole procedure of implementing the projects in remote communities is identical where the deployment of technologies takes very short time in comparison to engagement and relationship building with communities. In planning and executing the program ISITI-CoERI has become highly conscious of the practical processes of community engagement and community development which underlay the eBario initiative.

The ISITI-CoERI team from different faculties and diverse research groups provides a holistic approach to community development projects where each group of researchers contribute it’s part to the project in a professional approach.

The research project of the institute got recognition from all over the world by winning Gold Medal from CAPAM in 2006, eAsia Award 2004, IT Premier Award, presented by Prime Minister of Malaysia 2003 and Industry Innovators Award for Systems Development & Applications by SSPI Washington DC in 2002. Further to the recognition the institute also got funding under Demonstrator’s Application Grant Scheme (DAGS) to replicate the eBario Model to five other sites in Malaysia. In addition currently ISITI-CoERI is working on diverse and innovative projects i.e. PANGAEA for bridging digital and cultural gaps among children, projects for green technology and alternative energy sources, impact studies to evaluate the service providers’ effectiveness and the efficacy of the technologies deployed, Long range WiFi internet, research into use of technologies in preserving indigenous languages, and research project on Technology enhanced solutions for remote rural communities in Malaysia to facilitate development of learning and preservation of Local Knowledge and to create health awareness and practices for healthy living (Asia-Pacific Telecommunity J3 funding). One another interested project is the feasibility study of telecentre as means to bridge the digital divide in Malaysia. Under this project the institute will conduct preliminary assessment of actual ICT needs and uses in the communities to be served by these facilities as well as provide training to all stakeholders (specifically community mobilizers attached to government and non-governmental agencies) on how to carry out community engagement activities when setting up telecentres for community development. Both activities are considered crucial stepping stones for telecentre as an important means to attain Malaysia’s national IT policy and strategy, which expects that IT will have impact on every Malaysian citizen’s life and livelihood.

Professor Micheal Gurstein (Father of community Informatics) has written in his blog about CoERI that “I am not aware of any CI [Community Informatics] project of a similar scale to this one and certainly none that is proceeding as carefully and consciously from a research perspective…”.