Rafi can now read on his own

Saifuddin Rafi reading at home using the digital talking books
Saifuddin Rafi reading at home using the digital talking books

Saifuddin Rafi, one of the four million visually impaired people in Bangladesh, is studying in class XI at Patiya Government College in Chittagong. His study started in a specialized school (Government Muradpur School for the Blind) in Chittagong. But, after completing primary level, he got admitted into ‘Union Krishi School and College’ in Patiya nearby his home town. During his secondary education level, in this mainstream school, he did not get textbooks in Braille or accessible audio format. He had to traverse jumpy situations due to absence of accessible study materials.

These difficulties required support from his sister, also a student with her own burden, who assisted him by recording all the books and class notes. The sufferings of his parents were also countless. A child with visual impairment needs extra privileges for continuing education; but the access to study materials required and their affordability is perplexing. Therefore, parents wishing their children to continue their studies face physical, mental and financial stresses.

For Rafi, difficulties to get accessible study materials needed for visually impaired students was a major challenge, and it troubled him and his family till class VIII. While studying in class IX, he received textbooks in audio format. Later he came to know that these were called DAISY-standard digital talking books.

The digital talking books are accessible materials which provide the text in an audio version for all including students with print and learning disabilities. Digital talking books are for everyone who needs accessible information; readers can play the audio and simultaneously display and highlight the corresponding text. It eases the education for the number of visually impaired students in Bangladesh like Rafi.

A team of persons with disabilities developed DAISY standard digital multimedia books, e-books and digital braille books for the primary and secondary levels using open source technology which are freely available for the end user. The project received technical support from DAISY Consortium, Accessible Books Consortium and WIPO, while receiving implementation support from Young Power in Social (YPSA) and overall support from the Service Innovation Fund of the Access to Information (a2i) programme under the Prime Minister’s Office in Bangladesh. The project has converted all primary and secondary education textbooks (grades I through X) into cost effective DAISY digital multimedia format; made it easier to produce braille, text, audio book or e-book as suitable.

These accessible and affordable reading materials brought a momentous shift in Rafi’s learning curve. Through receiving Grade Point Average (GPA) 5, the highest grade obtainable for secondary and higher secondary education system in Bangladesh, in his Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examination, Rafi has created an example for other visually impaired students who are struggling for their study fighting against their disabilities.

This project has won multiple awards for developing these multimedia talking books, for the expansion of the accessibility of digital publications with innovative models and practices. The most remarkable awards include the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Prize, 2017; the Zero Projects Award on Inclusive Education (2016); the Accessible Books Consortium Award for Accessible Publishing Initiative at the International Excellence Award 2015 held in London Book Fair; etc.

 

 

 

 

Among them the Information Society Innovation Fund (ISIF Asia) Award, 2014 was the first prestigious international recognition for the digital talking book project and greatly inspired the team behind the project. These funds and awards actually made the ground more secure for further efforts and development in creating accessibility for all in
education.

Surely, these appreciations are significant as both stimulus and outcome of the project. Yet, the main purpose of the project was to enable the students and people with various disabilities. So, the outcome should be measured by the aid, reduction of hassle and indicators of success of the beneficiaries. More than 100,000 students with visual disability, print disability and learning disability can now read and listen to their textbooks that significantly improve their learning now.

The Access to Information (a2i) programme is continuously working on accessible education for the visually impaired. Low-cost digital braille display and low-cost DAISY multimedia book players are being developed locally to read these DAISY digital talking books. Bangladesh wants to make people with disabilities resilient rather than ‘assumed liability’ of the society. Ensuring inclusion of all including people with disabilities, especially in education, will aid human-centric and sustainable development of Bangladesh.

The education and life as a whole for Rafi and his family, representative of thousands of beneficiary households, has become much easier these days. Rafi can use either smartphone or computer to access his reading materials.

National Portal Delivers eServices for Bangladesh Citizens

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The Government of Bangladesh has made substantial strides towards achieving its long-term Perspective Plan (2010-2021) by introducing the National Portal, or NP, which is primarily intended to serve as an information dissemination mechanism for the population, especially the underserved.

The National Portal’s journey started in 2007 when the government introduced a central portal by way of a preliminary endeavour. In 2010, a countrywide initiative was undertaken to introduce portals for all of the country’s 64 districts. Based on the lessons learned from these experiences, the ‘Guidelines on Content Preparation’ and ‘Training Guidelines’ on the same subject were prepared to widen the portals’ scope and reach.

Subsequently, some 22,000 government officials were trained on developing and maintaining the Portal, which created an enabling environment to further advance the effort. Finally, in 2013 and 2014, some 25,000+ websites, adhering to a common architecture, design, and structure in terms of their contents, were integrated within the National Portal and introduced in all tiers of public offices (Union Parishad, the lowest tier of local government, Upazila or Sub-district, district, division, directorate and ministries).

In the new National Portal, citizens are finding a convenient channel for obtaining information from public offices at lower cost and with less hassle. The Portal is also mobile-friendly, thereby ensuring greater access to information since the country enjoys over 70 per cent mobile penetration, with over 80 per cent of Internet access happening over mobile phones. Citizens who are unable to access the websites directly can go to the nearest digital centre, of which there are some 5000+ countrywide.

It is worth noting here that there are complementary initiatives in progress to upgrade the Portal further so that it can host all electronic versions of government services. Mobile applications are also being developed to make it easily accessible to persons with disabilities.

At present, some 100+ services (selected on the basis of importance and public demand), including online passport applications and electricity bill payments, have already been incorporated, and more services will soon be fully automated and provided via the Portal further to a mandatory government directive that will shortly be coming into effect.

Complied from WSIS Stocktaking: Success Stories 2015

An Integrated ICT Approach to Solve Agriculture Challenges in Bangladesh

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In last two and a half years mPower Social Enterprises Ltd has been working with Dhaka Ahsania Mission and Care Bangladesh to implement an USAID awarded five years ‘Ag Extension Project’ which aims to strengthen the agriculture extension system of Bangladesh.

Being a technical partner of this project, mPower is focusing on some of the key challenges in the present agricultural eco-system and trying to develop some integrated ICT based solution to cater these challenges.

Challenges in present Ag Ecosystem of Bangladesh

  1. Limited access to extension agent: One of the primary challenges of the agricultural ecosystem in Bangladesh is the absence or limited presence of expert consultation in rural vicinities. Although there are almost 14 000 government field extension officers, each extension agent has to assist more than 2 000 farm families in his area. Given the working hours, the logistical constrains, the geographical context and the available resources, it’s a mammoth task for each extension agent to provide adequate support to all the assigned farmers. As a result, farmers are forced to take advice from people who are not experts and are prone to be misled or exploited, which hampers the overall productivity of the country and negatively affects farmers’ livelihoods. In addition, female farmers are often left out of the traditional extension system: because of gender barriers, many times female farmers do not interact with male extension agent.
  2. The challenge of keeping up-to-date the Knowledge base of extension agents: Like many other domains, agricultural knowledge becomes outdated quite qulckly and it is often hard to regularly train extension agents working in the field with up-to-date information. Moreover, currently there is no specific mechanism in place to regularly train extension agents after a certain interval in a proper learning environment. In addition, in the field extension agents are not equipped with any sort of tool or materials that can be used to improve their service delivery.
  3. Decision-makers have limited tools to collect real time information from the field when taking timely decisions: Extension agents in the field collect and prepare a massive amount of ground level data, such as crop statistics and visit log, which is vital for managers and decision makers in order to plan future activities. Currently data collection is done through a traditional paper-based system, and therefore aggregating all the data collected requires a big amount of staff time. Hence, when it comes to management level, which is far from the ground, it often takes more than fifteen days to elaborate data from the fields, and this means that decision makers have very little time to send out meaningful and effective instructions in emergency situations such as floods and other natural hazards.

To solve these three specific issue, mPower has developed in integrated ICT approach which includes a big amount of mobile and web apps, multimedia content for mobile phones, and even community radio programs.

To solve the very first issue, the lack of extension agents, mPower has developed a community based, infomediary driven approach.

In each of the farmer group, the community selects an ‘ICT Leader’, a member of their community who owns a smartphone. These ICT leaders are trained by the project and they are provided with a mobile application named ‘Farmer Query System’.

When farmers in the community face a particular agriculture challenge, through this app the ICT Leaders send the details of this problem to a call center where expert agriculturists respond to the query through a phone call, becoming a virtual extension agent. Currently the infomediary are not paid by the project and not given any phones. The social incentive of using this system to solve other farmer’s problem actually motivates them to do this work.

Though, we are also trying out various revenue models so to give as well a financial incentive to the infomediary. Moreover, female farmers are also more prone to get reliable and certified agricultural information as the person who is sending the query on her behalf is community member himself.

Agriculture Knowledge Bank, an online repository of agricultural content which can also be accessed through mobile app, has been developed in collaboration with various government research institutes and extension department of Bangladesh in order to solve the challenge of updating the extension agent with most recent knowledge.

Many research agencies in Bangladesh produce a lot of content which is stored in their own website. Existing rural telecenters, innovative farmers or extension agent who tries to use ICT or mobile web to extract information from web, often face a hard time because for a single piece of information they often have to roam through multiple government websites. Hence this knowledge portal, which is also linked with learning tools and powers the various diagnostic tool, aids extension agents to learn more about each of the topics with updated information.

To automate the reporting and data collection process of extension department which is challenge three, mPower, in collaboration with extension department of Bangladesh, has developed three mobile application which automate their scheduling process, statistics collection and problem tracking, with the positive result of eliminating a lot of paperwork.

This data are being automatically aggregated in real time, and managers sitting remotely can see the view in a web dashboard and can give timely and meaningful forward instructions.

Results and Learning

  • Up to these point, so far 93 users are using these applications and so far 4 970 agro advisory service are being provided.
  • Farmers are in general very receptive to the recommendations they have been getting from this ICT based system. So far 96.4% of farmers responded that they are happy with the recommendations received, and they have applied practices . To find out adoption and impact more, mPower is working with a team of researchers from iCHASS,
  • So far 10.04% female farmers got agro recommendation through this systems which is a vast number, considering in traditional system the number is very poor
  • Some of the e-Administrative application which are targeted to government extension agent are yet to show significant impact as it’s tough to train field extension officers with a new ICT based tool and replace the old paper based method
  • Finding out female infomediary seems to be a challenge due to gender barrier and project is working with INGENAES to develop a strategy to tackle this issue
  • Involving community people increases ‘trust’ of the recommendation
  • Apart from social value, to find out sustainability some revenue based model is required for the infomediary

Thank you for taking some time to read through this blog post. Please feel free to share and circulate this message. We look forward to hear your feedback and comments!

Sadman Sadek currently working with mPower Social Enterprises Ltd. as Technical Coordinator in Bangladesh

Apply Now for 2015 eNGO Challenge

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The 2015 eNGO Challenge Award aspires to create an ecosystem by recognizing and honouring NGOs which are using Information Communication Technology (ICT) and digital media tools for good governance and practices that are benefiting societies and communities at large. It is a joint initiative of Public Interest Registry (PIR) and Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF).

The eNGO Challenge is open in six categories for best use of ICT, mobile, digital media & new or social media by an NGO for:

    • Best Use of Website & Internal Tools (Website):website
      This category focuses on NGOs that are using website to showcase their activities, projects and local content to get networking and support from funding agencies. This category also welcomes NGOs that create awareness on certain issues through campaigning.

 

  • Best Use of Mobile content & Apps (Mobile):mobile
    This category focuses on NGOs that have used mobile tools/Apps for their internal &external communication to drive social change. For example,an NGOis eligible to apply under this category that uses connectivity through mobile phones, sms, video calling or any other means to engage and empower communities at large.

 

 

  • Best Use of e-Commerce (e-Commerce):ecommerce
    This category focuses on NGOs who have used ICT and digital media tools such as e-Commerce, mobile phones, online shopping and social media networkssuch as Facebook & Twitter to promote their business meant for the benefit of a community. For example, an NGO is eligible to apply under this category that usesa website or social media networks for the promotion and trading of products for the benefit of a community.

 

 

  • Best Use of Software Automation & Networking (Tools):tools
    This category focuses on NGOs that use digital media tools for improving and enhancing their organizational efficiency by using networking and software tools such as Wi-Fi, Skype, Tally etc. For example,an NGO is eligible to apply under this category thatuses video-conferencing technology to connect with their regional partners or does staff capacity building program with various ICT tools.

 

 

  • Best Use of social Media (Social Media): Slocial Media
    The category focuses on NGOs that use social media as a tool to get solutions for and from the communities. For example, an NGOis eligible to apply under this category that uses Facebook and twitter to engage communities or inform them about issues.

 

 

  • Best use of e-Content (incl. Audio / Visual / Radio): econtent
    The category focuses on NGOs that empower people to use video or radio to help communities raise their voice for their problems. For example,an NGO is eligible to apply under this category that facilitates people to record video or participate through community radio to share messages or register complains or highlight social issues.

 

The eNGO Challenge Award is open to any registered NGO from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. There are no charges applicable for the eNGO Challenge Award Nomination process.

Your NGO should fulfill the conditions of being an active & ICT based organization. Interested entities can take part in eNGO Challenge by either applying online or contacting expert panel for the nomination process through engochallenge@gmail.com

Amader Daktar: Improving Rural Health Care via Telemedicine

mHealth-telemedicine

There is one doctor per 5,000 people in Bangladesh, but doctors are not evenly distributed within the population, which means that for the majority of rural Bangladeshi, doctors are a rarity. So how can rural people have access to quality medical care?

Doctor in a Tab

Enter mPower Social Enterprises and their Amader Daktar “doctor in a tab” solution that aims to improve rural health care and reduce the number of people whose illnesses are aggravated by a lack of, or delay in, proper diagnosis and treatment. The service currently has 200 locations in Bangladesh and has served over 1,200 clients to date.

Amader Daktar is a tablet PCs and a custom-made app that allows rural healthcare practitioners to act as a telemedicine assistant. The tablet allows an rural medical professional to register patients and pass on vital medical information over mobile internet, which can then be viewed on a web portal by a remote doctor.

The doctor can then initiate a video call to talk to the frontline healthcare worker and the patient sitting in any village bazaar (with access to mobile internet). In the best case scenario, the doctor can then create and send a prescription over the internet to the healthcare worker who can then print it out at his end and hand it over to the patient.

In cases where remote consultations are insufficient, the doctor can advise the patient on the next course of action and recommend nearby facilities that can provide the necessary services.

Expansion into Myanmar

mPower Social Enterprises recently won the $10,000 USAID Mobiles for Development Award and will  expand its Amader Daktar service into Myanmar in partnership with mobile network operator, Telenor, in order to reach rural populations where health care services are difficult to access.

The Telecentre Movement in Bangladesh: Ups and Downs From 1987 to Present

bangladesh-telecentre

Telecentres are known to ICT4D professional as a popular ICT4D initiative to bridge digital divides and build an information society, one aspect of the WISIS 2003/2005 agenda. Being influenced by the WISIS Geneva and Tunisia summit, International donors prioritised telecentre projects in South Asian and African countries. As a result, the telecentre movement was at its peak during last decade in Bangladesh, however telecentres started in Bangladesh in 1987.

Because of my involvement with the telecentre movement in South Asian and African countries during that period, I am in a position to reflect their history and impact. In this post, I am describing the ups and downs of the telecentre movement in Bangladesh from my own experience.

Inception of telecentres in Bangladesh

In 1987, Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM) launched Gonokendra (people’s centres), which is considered as the first generation telecentre in Bangladesh. The services of Gonokendra includes facilities to read newspapers, exchange experiences, learn from success stories, get information about innovations to improve livelihoods, etc. using mainly hard copy materials as only 5% of them had computers, none of which had internet connectivity.

After several years, in 2001, organisations like Amader Gram and Relief International started their telecentre projects. With other factors, availability of GSM based internet connectivity (GPRS, EDGE), played a significant role in boosting telecentres during 2005. After 2005 several organisations including corporate organisations like Grameen Phone started telecentres for their commitments to society.

Telecentre as a movement in Bangladesh

Telecentre.org supported the inception of the telecentre movement in Bangladesh which was started with ‘Building Telecentre Family in Bangladesh: A Workshop for the Social Entrepreneurs and Practitioners’ held in Rangpur Bangladesh during August 27-29, 2006.

I am fortunate to have first-hand experience of the workshop where participating organisations in Bangladesh decided to consider telecentre as a movement to fight against poverty and carry it forward. Telecentre.org provided support to learn from the experience in India, Sri Lanka and Uganda to ensure sustainability of the movement.

Birth of Bangladesh Telecentre Network (BTN)

After much though about the modalities to make the initiative sustainable, the momentum created in Rangpur continued with the financial support of telecentre.org to develop a network organisation for telecentre activist in Bangladesh. As an ICT4D professional, I was proud to lead the development of the website, mission2011.net.bd and tools like GIS Based National Telecentre Database and Telecentre Reference Desk which was aiming to help BTN members.

Unfortunately, the member organisations were not encouraged enough to take over those tools after the network start-up funding from telectetre.org ended.

Mission 2011: Pledge to establish 40000 telecentre by 2011

Inspired by the ‘Mission 2007’ of India, BTN declared an ambitious ‘Mission 2011’ to establish 40,000 telecentres in Bangladesh by the 40th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh adding up the commitments for new telecentres of the members. Gradually, BTN started to realise that it is impossible to reach the target. Despite of efforts to convince people BTN could not stop some of the critics. Unfortunately, like many other development projects BTN’s influence becomes weaker with the phase out of donor funds.

I had access to the complete list of telecentres in Bangladesh as the Bangladesh country manager of the Global Impact Studies. According to my analysis Mission 2011 was able to achieve less than 10% of its target, however my colleagues claim that it played an important role to include telecentre as an agenda in the Digital Bangladesh declaration of the Government of Bangladesh.

Government take over telecentres and scale them up

The Access to Information (A2I) Programme housed in the Prime Minister’s office of the Government of Bangladesh took over the idea. As a result, on November 2010, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh inaugurated one Union Information and Service Centres (UISC) in each Union Parisad (4,501 telecentres in total). However, all of them were not operational at the beginning.

Recently, Bengali newspapers published several articles criticising the quality of UISC services. During my visit to Rangpur and Barisal region in November 2013, I found that among 60 farmers I talked to, only three know about the centres and one used their services. The farmer seems not so happy, but he mentioned it is better to have something than nothing.

Sustainability of Bangladeshi Telecentre

As we know, the sustainability of telecentre is a widely debated issue. A significant number of ICT4D professional and academics claims telecentres are not sustainable. However, there is another group who claims some of the telecentres are sustainable. The case of Bangladesh is not an exception.

As the Bangladesh country manager of the Global Impact Studies, Survey my observation is, on an average only 5 people visits a telecentre each day which is not enough to earn enough revenue for sustainability. However, there may be some exceptional cases.

Will Wikipedia Zero Inspire Local Language Content?

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The Wikimedia Foundation has launched Wikipedia Zero in Bangladesh, India Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand over the last two years. Wikipedia Zero is a “zero-rate” program that allows users to browse Wikipedia entries on their mobile phones for free thanks to a partnership between Wikimedia and the mobile carrier.

Wikimedia’s goal is to enable access to free knowledge for every single person on the planet, leveraging the ubiquity of the mobile phone. However, that information currently exists mainly in English. There are just 109,404 posts in Hindi for the 295 million native Hindi speakers, while the 365 million English speakers get 4,413,036 Wikipedia articles (and counting) to learn from.

And while I enjoy the benefits of English language domination on the public Internet, I feel we should pause a moment and think a bit about the pros and cons of yet another bastion of English being offered as a gift to the world.

Might it be better if Wikipedia Zero came with social cues and gamification that inspired more Hindi posts? Its not like the Indian government’s Vikaspedia will succeed by itself.

We need to recognize and empower all languages equally, so that the Internet can truly reflect the diversity that is our reality. We need a Wikipedia Plus that adds local knowledge, not just disseminates others’ distant information.

3 Tangible Outcomes from Digital Bangladesh: An Inspiration for South Asia

digital-bangladesh

In 2008, the government of Bangladesh announced a ‘Vision 2021’ pledge is to improve the quality of life and quality of governance, and achieve mid-income country status by the year 2021, on the golden jubilee of the nation.

The vision was widely appreciated because of its intention to ensure inclusive innovation. The government of Bangladesh is in a process of developing a ‘Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2010-2021’ to operationalize the vision throughout the country.

Digital Bangladesh

One aspect of Vision 2021 is Digital Bangladesh, a pledge to use modern technology to impact every aspect of public and private life by 2021. Digital Bangladesh is being implemented by the Access to Information (A2I) Programme housed in the Prime Minister’s office of the government of Bangladesh, and they have developed ‘the Strategic Priorities of Digital Bangladesh’ in January 2011, three years after the Vision 2021 declaration.

The strategic priorities of Digital Bangladesh are:

  1. Human resource development
  2. Connecting citizens
  3. Digital government for pro-poor service delivery
  4. ICT in business

Now considering where the Bangladesh government is starting from, and potential impeding factors like lack of skills, infrastructure, integration among interventions and political unrest in the country, the Digital Bangladesh goal of a discrimination, corruption, poverty and hunger free happy, prosperous and educated mid-income country driven by ICTs by 2021, is quite ambitious.

There is no quick solution to these issues, and doing anything on a national scale is very complex and depends on many factors, however, we are hopeful because Bangladesh has achieved most of the targets under MDG goals well before the deadline, and Digital Bangladesh has already achieved three major impacts:

New Technologies

To create enabling environment the government has formed several policies like

  1. National ICT policy 2009
  2. Right to Information Act 2009
  3. Information and Communication Technology (Amendment) Act, 2009
  4. Bangladesh Hi-tech Park Authority Act, 2010
  5. International Long Distance Telecommunications Services Policy (ILDTS)
  6. Telecommunications Act, 2010
  7. Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board Act, 2009
  8. Broadband Policy, 2009
  9. Pornography Act, 2011
  10. Rural Connectivity Policy 2010
  11. Format of the Public Private Partnership Policy

The enabling policies made it possible for corporate sector to reach the bottom of the pyramid and as a result mobile subscription, Internet subscription, and use of ICTs in every step of life had a tremendous increase.

In addition, we’ve seen a welcomed increase in new technologies. Previously, WiMAX, VOIP, 3G and Community Radio were illegal in Bangladesh. As a result of Digital Bangladesh, WiMax technology was legalised in 2009. VOIP was legalised in early 2010, and the Government has issued licenses for community radio starting in December 2010.  The 3G technology providers have received licence to start operation from October 2013.

New Programs

To reach the last mile the government has established 4,501 Information Service Centres at each Union Parishad, the smallest rural administrative and local government units in Bangladesh, and e-Service Centres in each office of the 64 Deputy Commissioners, the District level administrative units in Bangladesh.

The e-Service centres provide access to agriculture, health, education, social safety net, legal aid, disaster management and enforcement of law related services. InfoKosh has-been introduced at the national level to make available livelihood content. As many as 220 organisations and about 50,000 information articles have been uploaded on this website by May, 2011.

Digital Bangladesh has resulted the e-services including:

In addition, actions are underway to prepare a National E-Governance Architecture (NEA) to implement ICT projects in public offices.

The government has introduced e-GP (Electronic Government Procurement) system in public procurement to introduce digital system. The digital land management system has been introduced in order to make land administration and management transparent and accountable.

The government is in a process of establishment of multimedia classroom in all educational institutions to sensitise the teachers for developing digital content. To date, 3,172 Computer Labs and 80 Smart Class Rooms have been set up in different educational institutions across the country. As many as 325 textbooks of Primary, Secondary, Madrasa and Technical Education Board have adopted e-Book versions, which can be accessed from www.ebook.gov.bd.

New Mind-set

As you can see, the hype around Digital Bangladesh has already caused several changes in Bangladesh. Most significantly, I would say, is the mind-set of government officials.

As an ICT4D professional, I used to experience difficulties explaining how technology could be used for social and economic development, but now almost everyone have an understanding about ICTs and their impact. Maybe the understanding is not 100% accurate, but the important thing is now the government and social sectors welcome ICTs.

We may have a long way to go, but the process of digital government has started in Bangladesh.