BarCamp Yangon signals burgeoning tech scene in Burma
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BarCamp Yangon signals burgeoning tech scene in Burma

If last weekend’s BarCamp Yangon event is any indicator of things to come in Burma’s tech scene, expect quite a bit of development and activity to be happening in the emerging country in the near future. More than 5,000 people came out for the country’s fifth such meet-up to tackle a wide range of topics related to technology, entrepreneurship, and creativity, according to The Irrawaddy.

David Madden, co-founder of Yangon-based Paramiroad marketing agency and a BarCamp speaker, attributed the massive turnout out to a real hunger for education.

“After not having many opportunities to learn and improve their skills throughout the last 30 years, they’re really grabbing with two hands,” he said. While many schools lack adequate resources to provide quality education, tech meet-ups allow people to learn from one another, sharing skills and ideas in a way that has not been possible before.

“If you’re a young person in Myanmar [Burma], these are a tremendous place to meet people and to get ideas,” Madden said.

During the two-day event, a number of presentations were held and participants could sit in on as many as they liked, or come and go to hear different speakers. There were essentially four tracks of presentations happening throughout the weekend, categorized as programming and development languages (such as Ruby on Rails), creative (design, photography, video), entrepreneurial interests, and more general topics.

Madden noted that the nature of the event set it apart from other high-profile conferences that have been held in Burma in recent years. Whereas many of those involved high-level professionals and corporate types shelling out big bucks to sit through a stiff conference, BarCamp fosters an atmosphere of easier conversation and exchange.

The Irrawaddy quoted Min Oo, a BarCamp organizer and joint secretary of Myanmar Computer Professionals Association, as saying that the group trained 22 participants through the BarCamp Fellowship Program, preparing them to organize similar meet-ups in their hometowns.

This isn’t the first time people have come out in droves for a BarCamp event. Large crowds have shown up every year since 2010, when the first BarCamp Yangon was held. In 2013, 6,400 people showed up, making it the largest BarCamp in the world. That’s not bad for a nation that has the lowest Internet penetration rate in the region, according to Asia One News. The U.S. State Department held a TechCamp in Yangon in January, and covered travel costs for participants from outside the city, in order to engage people from different communities and emphasize civic engagement through technology.

Those involved in the tech scene in Burma face serious challenges, not the least of which is the lack of reliable, fast internet. The International Business Times reported in September 2013 that less than one percent of the population of 60 million people could afford regular access to the Internet. This is largely because having a landline installed is incredibly expensive and tedious, and all telecommunications companies fall under the state-owned Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications. But many hope the telecoms landscape will change for the better now that foreign companies Telenor from Norway and Ooredoo from Qatar have finally been granted the licenses they won in an extensive bid-submission process in 2013.

But while the infrastructure desperately needs to be built in order to further bring the country onto the international stage, those already utilizing development skills and taking advantage of what tech opportunities already exist will be ahead of the curve as the foreign telecoms come in and help advance the industry. Some, like Madden, believe the mobile market will be the place to watch as the telecom and tech sectors develop. Though phones are still expensive by local standards, they are far more accessible for most people than purchasing a computer and than paying high fees to have a landline installed and connected to the Internet.

The more tech-savvy, or at least tech-enthusiastic, the population becomes, the more opportunities that may open up for people who have lived decades in an impoverished nation. Online jobs, education resources, and communication tools could tremendously improve life in Burma. Hopefully this will be a situation in which international investment and development will serve rather than exploit the people.