The concept of a 'Digital Bangladesh' revolves around the creation of a knowledge-based society, in which creation and exchange of knowledge is an increasingly key factor of production alongside other factors of production like land, labour and capital. In response to this need and demand, the government declared in 2009 the vision of becoming a middle-income country through a 'Digital Bangladesh' by 2021.
The underlying idea behind the vision is to ensure the country's development by increasing the use of IT-enabled services for e-governance and e-businesses. This is possible through digitalised devices and tools like computers, smart-phones, internet etc. A 'Digital Bangladesh' requires interface among Governance, Education, Health, Commerce and Industries, Software and hardware industry and Communication infrastructure. A communications infrastructure will allow ICT-based services to be deployed equitably throughout the nation. But with only two years remaining, there are some important questions that require answers. These are: how far has digitalisation progressed in the country? What is the quantity of manpower that has been trained with skills to access digital facilities in the country?
It has to be acknowledged that, over the last couple of years, significant progress has been ensured in this regard. People from all walks of life including peasants, small businessmen, employees and expatriates have access to digitalised services now. Multimedia classrooms have already been installed in thousands of primary schools and madrasahs by the government. About 62,000 model contents have been designed to aid the education of children. According to official information, computer labs have been set up in 3,722 schools and madrasahs. But the concern is that the ICT facilities are not being used extensively by the masses. Still, there is a shortage of uninterrupted power facilities and lack of quality training centres in the towns and remote areas of the country. Due to lack of proper maintenance, qualified teachers, and skilled trainers, these ICT resources are being damaged in many schools, colleges and madrasahs in remote areas.
Additionally, there are instances of ICT resources being abused. It needs to be ascertained whether the development of ICT sector will be done on the basis of demand or supply. It is believed by most ICT experts that digitalisation in Bangladesh should be done step-by-step on the basis of demand as the third world countries like Bangladesh have mostly been the users of ICT resources till now. Bangladesh has to import these resources from other developed countries. While aiming for digitalisation, ICT Ministry of the country has taken many projects. But it is also true that over the past decade, many such projects have failed for different reasons.
The ICT Ministry has initiated several projects to strengthen the freelancing sector as it earns a significant amount of foreign currency for the country. From all the projects for the growth of the sector, the cost of the learning and earning project is worth Tk 1.80 billion. The media has reported on various occasions that the training sessions and seminars organised under such projects are mostly a front to swindle money. It is alleged that the training sessions are conducted by unskilled trainers.
The quality of apps being developed by professionals trained at such workshops can be understood if one reads the article titled '500 apps are not working' that was published on September 29, 2017 in the Bengali daily Prothom Alo. In the article, it was reported that around 500 apps made in Bangladesh were removed from the Google Play Store nine months after they were placed there. [Google Play Store gets rid of apps that have accessibility services, malware, contain inappropriate content or impersonate other apps. In absence of marketing and promotion, most people were unaware of the existence of these apps. But, these apps were developed as part of a project worth Tk 9.50 million, which ultimately went to waste.]
Earlier, in September 2014, the government had developed 100 mobile apps which are still available in the Google Play Store. These apps were developed in a bid to provide free information to users regarding health, education and agriculture.
But why were the 500 apps after this removed? A study was conducted to understand the reasons. For that, data on duration in Play Store, size, updates, download and rating were collected from 100 government and 294 non-government (individually and privately developed) apps on Google Play Store and appbrain.com. Though the government apps have been in the Play Store for a longer period of time, the non-government apps have higher user ratings. Where the average rating of non-government apps is 4.38 out of 5, the average rating of government apps is only 3.85. The average rating of ministry-related apps is 3.93, which is less than that of other app categories. The highest average rating is 4.42, which is for educational related apps. The healthcare and agriculture information providing apps have average ratings of 4.35 and 4.01.
It should be noted that, from the education-related apps, only 11 were developed under government initiative. The remaining 67 were made by individual developers. The total number of ministry-related apps is 44. From them, only seven apps were developed by individual developers. The remaining 37 were developed under government initiative.
It has been observed that the government apps are not rated enough due to the fact that they are smaller in size and rarely updated. The average size of these government apps is 2.8 megabytes only. On average, they are only updated 2 times in 36 weeks on an average. On the other hand, the average size of the 294 non-government apps is 6.79 megabytes and the average number of updates is more than 3 within their averaged 15 weeks on the Google Play Store.
ANCOVA model suggests that the more the size and the number of updates, the more the ratings of apps for all the sectors except healthcare-related services. For example, educational apps are around 8.76 megabytes on average. They are updated more than four times and thus have higher ratings than the other two categories.
There is another reason: a single developer has developed the 100 and the latter 500 apps under government initiative. Wang et al. (2017) had presented a paper at the World Wide Web conference in Australia in April of 2017. After analysing more than one million apps and 320,000 developer's information, the team proved that if a single company or a person creates more than 50 apps, they are called aggressive app developers. Such app developers use the same programming code to design similar apps by incorporating different information. As such, these apps have poor quality. Google had warned app developers in 2017 that all apps containing malware, accessibility services, inappropriate content and with impersonating tendencies will be removed. It is speculated that the last factor had possibly led to the removal of the 500 apps.
Though all the government apps were developed by one aggressive developer, the individual developers of the 294 apps have on average developed far less than 50 apps. The lesson from this particular project should be learnt and applied in future projects by the government.
Instead of approving huge funds for various projects that can yield little results for development of the ICT sector, the government should develop more skilled manpower through better trainers. If the developers of tomorrow can be trained and their skills can be honed on a regular basis through trainings and workshops, they can help the country reap the benefits of digitalisation.
Faroque Ahmed is a Research Associate at the Bangladesh Institute of Governance and Management. firstname.lastname@example.org
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