By Thin Lei Win
YANGON (Myanmar Now) - It was a dreary Saturday morning in July. Downtown Yangon was in the grip of its notorious monsoon season, yet in a white, spacious room on the 11th floor of a high-rise building, some three dozen young men sat huddled in groups, oblivious to the unrelenting rain and wind outside.
They have been in this room for more than 12 hours. Some had slept in it. A few had just returned from home, refreshed by a shower and a change of clothes.
Surveying this motley crew of software developers, graphic designers, cartoonists and voter education groups from a nearby table is David Madden, founder of Phandeeyar and the guy who made this event possible. To Madden, who boasts a long list of accomplishments linking technology with social causes, this is what technology is all about.
“Technology is not just just about coding. It’s everything from hardware to design to creative arts like video and animation. We actually think some of the most exciting things happen when these groups come together,” Madden, an Australian who has lived in Myanmar for three years, said.
“Right now we have this 48-hour event where groups that are working on voter education are collaborating with creatives,” he said, proudly pointing to the groups across the room.
The event, organised with an eye to the country’s landmark elections in November, is the just the latest effort by Phandeeyar to bring technology, civil society and independent media together.
Such an event would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. Under half a century of military rule that devastated a once-prosperous Southeast Asian nation, technology was viewed with suspicion. An election that was held in 1990 had its results ignored, and voter education was non-existent.
A 2010 poll was boycotted by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and widely condemned as rigged.
But the new semi-civilian government embarked on a series of economic and political reforms, and the country’s tech-hungry youths have been trying to catch up ever since Myanmar ended its self-imposed exile in 2011. The explosion of mobile Internet is facilitating this. According to latest figures from Ericsson, Myanmar’s mobile subscriptions growth in the first quarter of 2015 is second only to India and China.
“It’s an incredibly important time in Myanmar’s history. It is finally opening up after being closed for a very long time. It is also finally getting connected and it’s doing so at an incredibly rapid rate,” Madden told Myanmar Now during a break from overseeing the event.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to use technology to try to improve the country.”
MOBILE INTERNET NOT ENOUGH
Just a little over 12 months ago, state-run Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications was the only telecoms operator in Myanmar and it was prohibitively expensive to get a SIM card. There are now at least 18.1 million SIM cards in active use, according to data compiled by Reuters.
For all the excitement over cheap SIM cards and affordable mobile Internet, however, Myanmar’s tech entrepreneurs continue to face numerous challenges, Madden said, with access to affordable and reliable Internet being one of the biggest.
The lack of a market used to be a big issue but that challenge is disappearing due to the emergence of a consumer class that came with the opening up of the mobile market, he said.
Yet problems with Internet access remain, he added. “Having access to fast, reliable Internet is incredibly important for productivity particularly in the world of tech. Good Internet access is probably one of the best tools a developer can have,” Madden said.
“If you’re operating a business, getting a good, fixed-line broadband Internet connection is really expensive and getting a good one is virtually impossible. It will be very difficult for Myanmar to harness the full potential of technology without high-speed broadband Internet,” he added.
“Mobile broadband is not enough. We’ve seen other places in the region, like the Philippines where they’ve been able to develop huge sectors of the economy around things like business-process outsourcing, and you cannot do that tethered to your mobile device. You have to have a vast network of fibre that is accessible and affordable to all.”
A serial entrepreneur who co-founded the global campaigning website Avaaz.org and U.S.-based digial strategy agency Purpose, among others, the Harvard-educated Madden believes technology is essential for Myanmar’s development.
“Across almost all different sectors, technology has the ability to accelerate growth. Imagine if educational institutions in Myanmar had access to fast, affordable, reliable broadband. This whole world of online learning would suddenly be opened up to Myanmar students. If you look at what’s happening in health and medicines, the impact of technology on those sectors is huge.
“Myanmar has a lot of catching up to do and technology can help it catch up faster,” he enthused.
Madden first visited Myanmar shortly after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country in 2008. “I immediately fell in love with it,” he remembered.
He came back three years ago and founded Code for Change Myanmar, an initiative to mobilise the country's tech talent just as Myanmar’s telecommunications market was opening up. It organised Myanmar’s first-ever hackathons in March and September 2014 where, over a 48-hour period, coders attempt to find solutions to pressing problems faced by businesses and civil society groups.
These led to the formation of tech start-ups including Mylann, an online restaurant directory.
Phandeeyar, meaning “creative space” in Myanmar language, was set up in early 2015 to offer a permanent space for such events to be held on a regular basis. The aim is for the tech community to come together with other parts of society – non-governmental organisations, businesses, and media – to build the tools and platforms to accelerate change and development in Myanmar. With a team of 10 locals and two expatriates, it is now looking for an executive director.
As Myanmar’s technology sector continues to grow, start-ups would have to face other pressures, Madden said.
“There’s many aspects of tech culture and particularly tech entrepreneurism that are disruptive. Failure and learning through failure is an integral part of tech and tech businesses. Over the next few years as the number of tech start-ups in Myanmar increase and many will inevitably fail, it will be interesting to see how the community responds. I really hope they will embrace it with open arms,” he said.
“In the next few years when the rest of the country comes online, the pace of change will be even greater. What’s important is that we take advantage of that. Technology is much more than just Facebook and Viber. We’ve seen in other parts of the world that when people develop products and apps that really help people you can see dramatic improvements in people’s lives.”