In my last post I listed the argument for using Excel as a development platform in developing countries and the many arguments against it. Then, a couple of nights ago, I was discussing how to deploy a solution in a low-bandwidth, low-capacity environment and everyone kept circling around to Excel. The consensus was that it wasn’t the best solution – or even a good one – but Excel and its cousin Access were the ideas that came fastest to everyone’s mind.

Consider this an open appeal for better options. I’m looking for COTS solutions that can store information and support common government functions such as Human Resources and Financial Management. There are zillions of COTS solutions that satisfy those generic needs, but I’m looking for tools with the following characteristics:

  • Incorporate common desktop software. Installing remote clients on desktops and laptops that are scattered throughout rural environments dramatically increases the complexity of any deployment. Beyond the initial installation, it results in reoccurring maintenance requirements and additional license fees. While the proliferation of Microsoft Office promises one solution to this problem, modern browsers such as Google Chrome that store data locally and employ fast JavaScript engines offer another, intriguing, approach.
  • Works offline and online. Low-Bandwidth does not mean zero-bandwidth. Solutions should connect to a centralized server or cloud-based data store whenever possible and gracefully devolve capabilities to a local store when necessary. In the US, developers think of offline capabilities as solving the airplane-scenario when the user doesn’t have any internet connection. In South Sudan, it’s more common to have a connection that fades in and out depending on the weather, the electricity, and the number of users. The solution should not break – and users should not lose their work – when the connection disappears. The Gmail flaky-connection mode and Outlook Send/Receive are models of how this could work.
  • Consumes and conveys data in standard formats. EGovernment solutions must be interoperable. Just as the actions of one ministry impact the rest of the government, data that resides in one ministry’s solution supports the policy objectives of other agencies. Out of the box, the solution must be able to output data in standard formats that can be uploaded to adjacent systems. Likewise, it should be able to accept files that are shared via CDSs and flash-drives as a backup scenario when remote systems are not able to synchronize with the central database

In short, I want a solution architecture that is more nuanced. I want something that finds the sweet spot between desktop-centric Office customizations and client-server structured solutions. Can someone point me in the right direction?

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