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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 July, 2003, 07:42 GMT 08:42 UK
World's poor to get own search engine
Alfred Hermida
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

People in poor countries could soon have a new and cheap way to get hold of the wealth of information on the internet.

The TEK software being tested
The search engine is being developed at MIT labs in Boston
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing a search engine designed for people with a slow net connection.

Someone using the software would e-mail a query to a central server in Boston. The program would search the net, choose the most suitable webpages, compress them and e-mail the results a day later.

"More and more we are creating an information divide in the world and this can help narrow that divide and have a huge benefit in that sense, " said Professor Saman Amarasinghe of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science in Boston.

The thinking behind the TEK search engine is that people in poor countries are short of money but have time on their hands, whereas people in the West are cash-rich but time-poor.

"The idea is that developing countries are willing to pay in time for knowledge," explained Prof Amarasinghe.

"In the West when we surf we want the information in the next two seconds. We are not willing to wait."

Filtered results

The researchers say current web technology such as search engines is focused on the needs of the West.

When the students arrive, they can browse through those pages the way they would if they had full internet connectivity
Prof Saman Amarasinghe, MIT
By contrast, people in poor countries face problems such as the speed and cost of an internet connection, let alone the huge amount of webpages thrown up by search engines.

"Let us assume you are in Malawi," explained Prof Amarasinghe, "and the computer lab does not have access to the telephone line all the time."

"If you want to find some new information about malaria, you are prompted with a message that says 'we are going to send a query through e-mail, it is OK?'.

"At night, when the phone line is available, the teacher can dial out and send the queries."

The request is sent to computers at MIT in Boston, which then search the internet and gather webpages.

To avoid a glut of information, the software then filters the results and chooses the most relevant. These are then sent back to the computer in Malawi so that they can be stored in the machine's internet cache.

"Next morning the teacher can connect, download that e-mail and when the students arrive, they can browse through those pages the way they would if they had full internet connectivity," said Prof Amarasinghe.

The program keeps a record of all the information sent to avoid wasting bandwidth by re-sending the same webpages.

CDs in libraries

So far the program is in its early stages, with a small number of people trying it out.

Woman browsing the web in Bangladesh
The team believe people would wait for search results
But the researchers aim to have a beta version ready to be tested in the next three to four months.

Once they have sorted out any bugs, they intend to make it freely available to anyone.

However, the team realise the program is too big to download over a slow and poor net connection.

Instead they are thinking of sending CDs to libraries so that people can borrow and install the software on their machines.

They are also considering trying to persuade computer sellers in developing countries to install the program on machines.

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