TECHNOLOGY

Haiti’s prime minister tours Silicon Valley

 

Associated Press

From Google to Facebook to Apple, Haiti’s Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe took a whirlwind tour through Silicon Valley’s most elite tech firms, persuading some of the world’s wealthiest and most successful corporate executives to share support and innovation with the poorest country in the Americas.

“Oh, cool!” he said Wednesday, slipping on Google Glass — Internet-connected eyeglasses — at Google Inc.’s headquarters before a ride in the company’s driverless car.

Lamothe joins a growing stream of politicians, celebrities and CEOs taking these popular roadshows where they do a little business, a little schmoozing and quite a bit of questioning about how innovation happens in this booming tech region.

If there was an opposite of the affluent Silicon Valley, where entire municipalities have free Wi-Fi, it could be impoverished Haiti, where fewer than 1 percent of Haitians are regularly online.

But there are Internet cafes throughout Port au Prince, and cellphone use is leapfrogging landlines. Some of the millions of dollars of earthquake relief and recovery aid has been spent on trying to get the country wired, including a $3.9 million program launched this fall to deploy 65 miles of optical fiber in the country’s southern region.

On Wednesday, Lamothe was sharing his vision for an even more wired Haiti, which begins with gathering data, from mapping all of the health clinics to conducting a census-like count of the population. The country has no ZIP codes and would like to replace its mail address system, which includes mentioning proximity to mango trees or intersections, with geolocation.

At Facebook Inc., Lamothe met with Sheryl Sandberg, the social networking company’s chief operating officer, and then spent half an hour answering questions as they streamed in to his Facebook page, prompting an electric moment when a Haitian man said he needed a job and included his telephone number.

Lamothe shocked the job seeker by calling him directly. The man told him he’s a teacher and an accountant, and speaks English. Lamothe told an aide to set up an interview.

“Do you hear the cheers?” Lamothe asked.

At Google, executives agreed to Lamothe’s request to get updated satellite images for Google Earth. Last updated after the earthquake, hundreds of thousands of tents are no longer there, and many new buildings have gone up.

Google also committed to sending servers to Haitian Internet providers that will cache information, and the tech giant re-upped its donation of a package of online services that provide email and other services for more than 3,000 government employees, a benefit that usually costs $50 per person.

Sheryl Montour, a Google document reviewer whose parents are Haitian, met Lamothe at the company’s campus and was enthusiastic about his initiatives known as eHaiti.

“My cousins and friends in Haiti are all looking to be more wired,” she said. “They want computers, they want cellphones.”

Before heading out to the tech titans, Lamothe spoke to engineers, developers and marketing experts at a tech conference Tuesday in San Francisco.

“The Haitian government, we’re trying our best to fight against extreme poverty, lift people out of poverty,” Lamothe said. “The best way to do it is through technology.”

For example, Lamothe said, storing government data in digital clouds would prevent it from being lost in natural disasters. He said the country is trying to build an information and communication system, an online architecture that could involve business and government.

A spokesman said Lamothe also hoped to speak with officials at Apple Inc. about new, educational initiatives.

While this was Lamothe’s first visit to the tech titans, the Prince of Asturias made the rounds just last week and South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, Ahn Ho-young, swung through in August. The campuses are varied and impressive, with unusual features from Google’s bowling alley to a small Wizard of Oz mock-up of Dorothy’s house at Facebook, complete with smashed witch legs.

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