The Internet is so seamlessly integrated into modern life that it can be easily taken for granted. But when Jay Chen — now an assistant professor of Computer Science at NYU Abu Dhabi — stepped outside of the "bubble" of his US upbringing and got on a plane to Kerala, India, to participate in a Microsoft research internship while working toward his PhD, he experienced "a series of culture shocks" about network connectivity in the country that made a lasting impression.
"I went to this university and nothing worked," Chen, who is a researcher at NYUAD's Center for Technology and Economic Development (CTED), said. "The network was down for four hours in the afternoon — why? No idea. I went to a school and they had no Internet for a week — why? Because somebody was digging somewhere, building a road. I went to another school and they had Internet access in the form of one of those USB modems that the teacher was paying out of pocket for to get one day of access a week — why? Because they couldn’t afford it and there was no infrastructure, so that was his only option."
Improved access to technology and information will go a long way in accelerating economic productivity in rural and developing areas and will play an important role in educating the workforce so that it can compete on the international stage. But bridging the technology gap is no simple feat. While computer hardware donations distributed in rural areas are well intentioned, a critical gap remains: "The technology that exists is typically built for the developed world where everything works," Chen explains. "You have reliable power, you have reliable Internet access, maintenance is easy, and everyone knows how to use technology — there are numerous problems with those assumptions when you're taking your laptop to a place that has nothing."
This is why Chen is using his computer science expertise to research real issues on the ground in developing countries, with the aim of developing unified system architecture solutions that have the potential to be reapplied across different geographic locations that face similar challenges.
One of his first projects at CTED involved providing valuable electronic information services to educational organizations within the constraints of an extremely limited and slow network connection. In certain rural areas at the frontier of Internet service provider (ISP) locations, where connectivity may be limited to one USB modem shared across a classroom, offline Internet access has proven to be an effective solution. By using a teacher's course syllabus as a guide, Chen and his research team developed a focused web crawler to search relevant topics and automatically download pertinent web pages relating to those subjects. After being stored on an external hard drive, the information within the system architecture is then integrated as a cache for the web browser and can be accessed and produced through search, removing the need to go through a congested local area network link. The offline webpage solution has been well received at schools in India and Kenya, and is being more widely deployed.