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Digital inclusion

FAPESP and Microsoft Research create a Virtual Instituteto develop new technologies

JAIME PRADESInformation Technology (IT) and Communication Technology (CT) are strategic tools for the economic and social development of a country. In Brazil, they are available to 36 million people over ten years of age, according to the latest survey from the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute (IBGE) which took as its base the year 2005. This number, in absolute terms, places the country in first place in the ranking of web access in Latin America and in fifth place, in relation to the rest of the world. But the total of internet users represents only 21% of the population and, evaluated by this criteria, the country drops down to fourth place in Latin America and to 62nd among the other nations of the world. This inconsistent picture, which reiterates the abysmal socio-economic differences, is not very different from that of the mobile phone: in spite of 56 million Brazilians already communicating by way of cell phones, this does not go beyond a population percentage of 36%.

The universal dispersion of these technologies represents an enormous challenge whose solution is not only in the policies of income distribution, education and employment, but also in the development of research, which, at the same time that it expands the applications of IT and CT, would extend their social benefits. This is the main goal of the agreement signed between FAPESP and Microsoft Research, last 10th of March. “Let’s identify research projects in information and communication technologies that contribute to advancing fundamental knowledge and that, at the same time, can point towards applications of economic and social interest”, explains Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, the Foundation’s scientific director. “The Microsoft Research/FAPESP Institute is unique in Brazil and is centered on the objective of developing technology in IT and in strategic areas for socio-economic development”, says Henrique Malvar, vice-president of Microsoft Research.

The agreement founded the Virtual Microsoft Research/FAPESP Research Institute with resources of US$ 400,000 to develop basic research in IT and CT directed towards the areas of health science, psychology, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, geography and design for a period of 36 months. The first tender for   the selection of projects – within a total of US$ 250,000 – is already available at FAPESP’s site.

The proposals must be submitted by university or research institute researchers, both public and private, in the state of São Paulo. They should, at the same time, be fundamental towards the advance of knowledge and relevant for immediate applications. They will have as their focus research related to the man-machine interface directed towards a heterogeneous public; electronic government; continuous educational system; e-learning platforms; the constitution of community networks in poorly attended areas; design and development of new hardware and communication infrastructure; modeling of content guided by social dynamics, among others.

Creative solutions
The expectation of FAPESP and Microsoft is that the projects offer creative solutions, develop new technology components, guarantee  connectivity and at low cost, facilitate surfing by new users of poor schooling and even bring about solutions of wireless network for environments without a network infrastructure.

In the area of infrastructure and mobile service applications the research projects must, for example, contemplate the use of cell phones as a platform for health services, connecting doctors and specialists to communities with difficulties of access to quality attention. In this research category, indeed, the proposals for the implementation of a wireless network would be particularly relevant.

JAIME PRADESThe proposals must generate new knowledge starting from the definition of specific, measurable objectives and of strong economic impact. All of the projects must be sensitive to dissemination and replication.

The proposals will be analyzed by ad hoc assessors, by coordinators in each area and FAPESP’s associate coordinators, according to the same selection criteria used in the Foundation’s research assistance regulations. Also they will be analyzed by a director analysis committee, constituted within the environment of the FAPESP/Microsoft Research agreement.

“Our collaboration with FAPESP reflects Microsoft’s commitment of developing activities in partnership with an academic community for the development of advanced innovative technologies”, explains vice-president Malvar. The Microsoft Research/FAPESP Institute will integrate into a grouping of eight similar centers sponsored by the company in partnership with academic institutions in various parts of the world, where they will develop research in areas of scientific computing, robotics in education, computing with pen interface – like the Tablet PC – and new visualizing interfaces.

Long term links
Microsoft Research, underlined vice-president Malvar, is interested in the creation of long term collaboration links with Brazilian researchers and all of Latin America. “The institute formed in partnership with FAPESP is an example of commitment”, he affirmed. The company’s expectation, he continued, is to expand knowledge, particularly in the areas of specialization of the state of São Paulo’s researchers. “These projects, most certainly, will bring many positive results, such as the publication of scientific articles, the development of intellectual property, the incubation of small companies and new opportunities for students to  participate in research projects.”

The company, according to Malvar, still does not have plans to create in the country, a Microsoft research center similar to that in Redmond and in Silicon Valley, in the United States; Cambridge, in the United Kingdom; Bangalore, in India; and Peking in China. “The Microsoft Research/FAPESP Institute is looking towards collaboration with researchers in top academic institutions, in specific areas. Presently in the Microsoft Research centers we’ve more than 700 researchers working in more than 50 different areas related to computer science and engineering, such as data banks, multimedia, machine learning, information search and recovery, voice processing, among others”, clarifies vice-president Malvar.

In the vision of Brito Cruz, the proposal of the creation of the institute has a mediate objective: “To demonstrate internationally that São Paulo has a competitive academic community in these research areas and is an important research and development polo”, underlines FAPESP’s scientific director.