How many elements does a modern effective dynamic society have? The answer is – many, including high level of education, access to the latest information technologies, computerization… The latter also requires the mentioned elements – knowledge for the users and technological literacy of the population. Only then the public becomes the society of users, which is the basis for the modern society that has these two elements.
What is the situation in Kazakhstan? It appears that assessing this condition is very difficult. On one hand we see a significant computerization growth. The computers are no longer something special in our society; at least, we could arrive at this conclusion judging by the amount of different information technology exhibitions, actions and specialized publications… However, obviously that in the combination of all development of wide computerization Kazakhstan is far from any average success…
The first characteristic of the situation is quantitative. When the computerization is discussed in our country, the share of 5% is usually mentioned. This figure was officially announced by the government, in the Agency for Information and Communication… It is believed that this share of Kazakhstan’s population has access to a computer. The state policy on decreasing the digital inequality is based on this small figure (for example, in Russia the indicator is approximately twice larger, and it is considered to be a serious problem there). Anyway, let’s consider this 5%. What are the criteria to assess the situation of the deeper layers of this big problem?
For example, at some point computerization of schools was discussed very much. It seems, that there even were statements that Kazakhstan was the first of the post-Soviet countries to complete computerization of all schools. Of course, it would be a very positive factor for the development of the computer science and general knowledge in the country. However, it should be considered more closely. A school is considered to be computerized in it has at least one computer! And how is assessed the access of schools to the Internet? If it has a line of Kazakhtelekom, it means that it has an access to the Internet. However, this methdology doesn’t answer to the questions, whether pupils really have an opportunity to work with the Internet.
The situation is similar on the other layers. Below is a story told by one of the information technology experts, who had worked on introduction of electronic system to state purchases. Clearly, for the system to operate all administrators of state purchases in the state bodies, making the purchases, need to have an access to the Internet. “The Agency of State Purchases has made a research; it called to state bodies and companies and asked if they had an access to the Internet. Often the reply was “No”. The next question was if they had a modem and a line of Kazakhtelekom. The answer was “Yes”. Thus, it appears that having a technological access to the Internet, people weren’t ready to use it. Our state bodies are often ready for working with the Internet technologically, but the personnel is not taught how to do it, or vice versa.”
In general, assessing the satiation with technological literacy and provision of Kazakhstan’s society in the sphere of information technologies is very difficult. All these characteristics only started to be recorded two years ago. Before that they were recording just the number of telephone lines. Thus, the picture is unclear and the specialists say there are no serious researches on the situation with computerization in the country. Although, the official statistics is becoming better, it still has problems… For example, let’s look at the 5% share of the population, who has access to computers. It is unclear if 5% refers to all of the population or only adults, or maybe some other base. Another question is how to count the level of Internet access. One can have an access to the Internet at home, at work or one can visit Internet-cafes; or all of these together. How should this be reflected in the statistics? Clearly, the statisticians cannot count a person, who uses all three of the access points, as three citizens of Kazakhstan, who have access to the Internet!
- According to the assessments of the government, the level of computer literacy is also low in the country. It is also approximately 5%. This problem is recognized by the government and is given significant attention. The government program on decreasing the information inequality is the result of this attention. No doubt, it is a positive sign. Partially it is the result of the activities of international organizations, first of all, the World Bank, which has been working with the Agency of Information and Communication on the project of e-government for several years. That’s when the question raised: how the population will benefit from e-government if it doesn’t have enough computers, and access to the Internet and computer literacy are at low levels? As a result the program on decreasing the digital inequality was created; the goal of the program is to achieve the computerization and Internet access levels of 20% of Kazakhstan’s population. – said Andrey Beklemishev, consultant on development of information and communication technologies, to our journal.
Experts consider this program to be realistic. However, there are many problems to solve. The first of them is the access of the population to a computer.
Although number of PCs is increasing, we should remember that most of the population doesn’t have a computer on their tables. Computers are still expensive in Kazakhstan. Its price shouldn’t just be compared to the prices in other countries, the purchasing power of average people should be taken into account; then it becomes clear that computers are expensive. This is one of the reasons why the computerization has only reached 5%, rather than 10% or 25%... “The initiative “affordable computers” is worth considering, but we should remember that it would be implemented in the form of subsidising the program. In this case it wouldn’t lead to creation of a competitive computer industry. It is well-known, that everything that is subsidised soon becomes uncompetitive. This program would temporarily make computers affordable on the market, but it may also lead to the scenario when the models built within the framework of this program would quickly obsolete” – says Mr. Beklemishev.
There is also another way to go. Leave the market alone, and let the government provide banks with financial reserves for low interest consumer lending dedicated for purchase of computers (there is an opinion that there are few opportunities to invest large amounts of money in the country). There are precedents like this, and they seem to be successful.
Improvement of computer literacy level and computerization of the population could significantly stimulate introduction of e-government: when people see that it is convenient and efficient, they will be more motivated to learn using the computers. Clearly, this would work when an average person sees the choice of queuing for a day in a state body or arrange all documents within minutes through the Internet.
The same applies to distant learning. For Kazakhstan with its huge distances, it could become a positive factor from any point of view, including stimulating computerization in provinces. However, distant learning is being introduced slowly and generally only in private universities. Thus, there are yet no big benefits for the growth of computer literacy from it.
Now let’s leave the computers alone and go deeper. What is the situation with the software market in Kazakhstan? All of the products are foreign made. Our companies mainly only adapt them for large local companies. Software is usually universal, but it should be adjusted for the needs of particular companies, that’s why our programmers, who are familiar with the local needs, become partners with huge software producing companies. The value added in this case is small, largest share of the final product is the price of the initial software.
There are locally made software programs, but they are mainly made for state bodies. Maybe for the reasons of national security, the companies that usually make software from scratch are selected. Is it good or bad? On one hand, the factor of information security should be recognised. On the other hand, such approach is not always efficient, because sometimes it’s best to use a system that was checked many times in other countries, rather than to start from scratch and go through all problematic points ourselves. Often the system of state purchases, which was created in Kazakhstan, is used as an example. “Of course, it is great that our programmers could achieve so much, however, it has been several years and we still cannot introduce it” – said one of our respondents.
Other respondents mentioned the problems of electronic taxation reports. Since 2000 companies submit the taxation reports in electronic form. According to many comments, the system is inconvenient to use, many programs with a lot of nuances are required at the same time. Plus, there is one separate program that sends the messages! “Honestly, it is a nightmare!” – said one of the businessmen about the domestic “know-how”. “Certainly, it was not created to make everything fast and convenient. It was better and easier in paper form” – said another businessman.
- Wouldn’t it have been more efficient to use a system that already had been running somewhere else, or compare several systems and choose the best one? Moreover, there are many international organizations that are ready to finance it. What we have not doesn’t stimulate development of small or middle business and doesn’t motivate people to “computerize”. It is easier for people to queue for a day in the tax inspectorate. – said Mr. Beklemishev.
What are reasons for so many difficulties, how many of them come from objective mistakes and how many from conscious mistakes?
Nevertheless, according to the experts, Kazakhstan has a perspective of exporting the services of software design. Obviously, we couldn’t compete in such technological industries as production of LCD monitors; and it would be bad if someone tried to influence the national policy regarding these issues. However, it is possible to compete in the area of software design.
According to Andrey Beklemishev, our programmers are, in general, good, and their skills could be used in production of a specialized software or in adaptation of foreign products to suite the needs of the markets in Central Asia. Of course, we couldn’t provide the service somewhere like China, but it could be done in other neighbouring countries. Currently the markets of these countries come closer to the point of accepting this possibility. Potentially it is a large market and it is worth fighting for the dominance over the market.
At the same time we have to fight the low level of computer literacy in our country.