Asians have become the largest group of Internet users in the world, with an estimated 173 million people accessing the Internet, according to Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). But surprisingly, this only makes up 4.5 per cent of the total Asian population. Which means a

heck of a lot of people aren’t accessing the Net — and that doesn’t bode well for local e-government.

For the developed world, getting this large untapped user base online not only represents business opportunities — Asia is the largest group of customers for ICT goods and services in the world — it also means helping to bridge that ever-present digital divide between developed and developing nations.

Within Asia are high-tech hubs such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan side-by-side with some of the most technologically deprived nations in the world. What sets these high-tech hubs apart from their neighbours? For one thing, they have access to content on the Internet — including e-government information and services — in their own language.

While there has been a heavy focus on developing communications infrastructure in Asia, even the fastest, most reliable network won’t benefit citizens if they can’t read the words on their computer screens.

Myriad languages are spoken in Asia. In rural, remote parts of Asia, most locals aren’t exposed to other languages, or even other dialects of their own language. Without knowledge of English — or another prominent language on the Internet — these users are left out in the cold.

One of the greatest obstacles to bridging the digital divide between developed and developing nations is the language barrier. And when it comes to e-government, what initiative can truly be successful if a majority of citizens are not e-enabled?

The Pan Asia Networking (PAN) Local Language Project, an initiative of the IDRC, is designed to get more Asian users on the Net by developing a framework for local language computing. The IDRC, a public corporation created by Canadian Parliament to help communities in developing countries, is spending $1 million over three years on this project, in partnership with the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences (NUCES) in Lahore, Pakistan. The Centre for Research in Urdu Language Processing at NUCES was established in 2001 to conduct linguistic research, helping to develop computing standards and promote content development for the Pakistani language.

Participating countries include Bangladesh (Bangla), Bhutan (Dzongkha), Cambodia (Khmer), Laos (Lao), Nepal (Nepali) and Sri Lanka (Sinhala and Tamil). These countries will be able to customize research for local language computing, such as character set, collation and other language standards. Another problem with local language computing is developing a standardized script — an issue Tibet is currently grappling with. PAN Tibet has two official languages: Tibetan and Chinese. While standardized Chinese characters are well established on the Internet, there is no standard for the Tibetan language, which is also used in various provinces of China, such as Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan. Tibet University is working on a standard font specification for use with PCs and Internet content.

However, bridging the digital divide extends beyond local language computing: a huge number of people will not be able to access content on the Internet — even if it’s made available in their own language. It’s estimated that one-fifth of the Asian-Pacific population — or about 614 million people — are illiterate.

For truly ubiquitous Internet access, content needs to be developed that uses voice or touch-screen technologies for illiterate users.

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance journalist and former TIG editor. You can contact her at himmelsbach@itbusiness.ca

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