LAHORE, Pakistan – While many young tech wizards strive to invent the next iPad, Umar Saif is working to bring Internet-style networking to millions of Pakistanis who don’t have access to the Web. He could shake up the country’s politics in the process.
Saif’s efforts recently earned him recognition by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as one of the world’s top young technology innovators, a significant feat in a country better known as a home to Islamist militants than to cutting-edge researchers.
Technological progress faces immense hurdles in Pakistan, with its pervasive insecurity, shoddy public education system, struggling economy and chronic electricity shortages. The country has fallen far behind neighboring India, which has a flourishing tech industry.
Given that many Pakistanis still struggle to get enough food and clean water — much less a computer or smart phone — much of Saif’s research in Pakistan centers around giving ordinary citizens new ways to use one thing that many do have: a basic cell phone.
The trigger for his research was a 2005 earthquake in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir that killed 80,000 people and caused widespread destruction. The disaster coincided with his return to Pakistan after getting a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Cambridge.
Realizing that rescue workers were having trouble coordinating, Saif, 32, devised a computer program that allowed people to send a text message — or SMS — to thousands of people at once. Users send a text to a specific phone number to sign up for the program, and then can message all the subscribers, allowing users to engage in the kind of social networking possible on the Internet.
It has since blossomed into a commercial enterprise called SMS-all that is used by at least 2.5 million people who have sent nearly 4 billion text messages.
“You can do the sorts of things that we do on Facebook and Twitter,” said Saif, now an associate professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
The company generates revenue by charging a small amount for each message. Saif has expanded the service to Iraq and Nigeria by working with telecommunication companies there.
Roughly 20 million Pakistanis use the Internet, about 11 percent of the country’s total population of 187 million. But there are more than 108 million Pakistani cell phone subscribers.
That was Saif’s inspiration.
“The thing to do is to bring whatever you have on the Internet on the phone lines, because that is what gets used the most,” said Saif, a fast-talking fountain of ideas.
People in other developing countries, especially in Africa, have worked to bring a variety of services to cell phones, such as banking and market prices for crops.
In Pakistan, SMS-all has a natural outlet in the tumult of Pakistani politics.
The networking power of Facebook and Twitter was seen as a driver of the revolutions that swept across the Arab world this year, especially in Egypt. But Internet penetration in many of those countries is much higher than in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, thousands of lawyers used SMS-all to help organize 2008 protests against the rule of then-President Pervez Musharraf, a U.S.-backed leader who seized power in 1999.
Now, political parties are using the service, a move that could shake up the political system by allowing smaller groups to compete against the two dominant parties, which have extensive networks throughout Pakistan.
An early user is the Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice party, which was started by Imran Khan, a Pakistani cricket star who is popular across much of Pakistan but has had difficulty translating that support into votes.
“If we don’t have offices in every small city in Pakistan, at least through this technology our message can go to every small city in Pakistan,” said the party’s general secretary, Arif Alvi.
The party set up a group on SMS-all about a month ago and has already attracted over 300,000 members, said Alvi.
“Pakistan is going through a crossroads, and I hope this technology and what we are doing will play a major role in changing the destiny of the country,” said Alvi.
One of the two dominant parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, has also set up a group on SMS-all and has taken out advertisements in local papers asking people to join.
Saif is working on several other projects that harness the networking power of the Internet through cell phones.
One program, being developed in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S., would create the mobile phone equivalent of an Internet chat room, allowing people to ask questions that could be answered by others. He is coordinating with a local hospital to create such a service for cancer patients.
“If you go to these Internet forums for various diseases they are very heavily used, but there is nothing like that in this part of this world because there is very little Internet,” said Saif.
He has also worked on higher-tech programs, including one called BitMate that targets slow Internet connections in developing regions and lets users pool their bandwidth for faster downloads. Technology Review, a magazine published by MIT, cited both SMS-all and BitMate as reasons that Saif was chosen in August as one of the world’s top 35 technology innovators under the age of 35.
Saif has set up a business incubator for start-up companies in Lahore, hoping to help other tech-savvy Pakistanis turn their visions into businesses. But the hurdles to success in Pakistan remain dauntingly high, especially in attracting investors from outside the country.
“They don’t care if you are the next best thing since sliced bread,” said Saif. “They just don’t want to do anything in a country where the CEO could be blown away tomorrow in a bomb blast or there is no electricity for six hours a day.”