By Frederick Noronha KALANGALA, Uganda, 20 January 2006
You’ve probably heard of speed-dating: after a two minute chat with a stranger, you decide if you wish to give him or her your phone number for continued contact. Likewise, speed-geeking is a tech introduction-in-a-hurry. Some 11 interesting projects — including APC members — got a chance to introduce themselves to participants of Africa Source II, in January 2006 in Kalangala, a picturesque but really-remote island in Lake Victoria, Uganda.
And this is what speed-geeking: You have four minutes to hear all about them, before having to rush on to the next group, telling you about the wonders technology can play in the lives of the poor and marginalised. By the end of it all, the ‘talkers’ get quite breathless, on having to repeat their story to every group that comes their way.
Dorcas Muthoni of Kenya represented LinuxChix. Despite its light-hearted sounding name, the group is working on the serious job of improving women’s participation levels in free/libre and open source software (FOSS).
"We’re a pan-African organisation, very focussed on African women. We are creating a programme to mentor young women to get into computing. We encourage chapters being formed for local activity [in various parts of Africa] and share best practices across our mailing lists," she said. See africalinuxchix.org for more details. LinuxChix Africa plans roadshows soon.
There are also other initiatives across the globe. Sulamita Garcia from Brazil visited Bangalore, India and inspired women there to make their voice heard in the world of FOSS.
Africa’s group was launched in February 2005, and currently has some 90 members. "We do work mainly online, and want to see how we can work on the ground. We’re looking for funding partners too," Dorcas adds. They have lists discussing their issue in both English and French, in a continent where the language of the colonial ruler is still, well, the lingua franca.
ArabDev.org’s Manaal of Egypt introduces us to how their group installed — and, more importantly, supported — FOSS in schools in Upper Egypt, in a location some three-and-half hours from Cairo. This APC member group has a computer lab that offers FOSS, and a telecentre. Each child gets 4-6 hours of computer time a week. And there are five children per PC, on average.
Given their background, the geeks supporting the project, including this young Arab lady who is threatening to teach belly-dancing to members of the Africa Source II camp, find no problems in supporting the project. But they faced unexpected issues. In schools, Arabic was in demand. "As techies, we’re not as used to the Arabic interface [for computing]," she adds on an honest tone.
David comes from APC-member Fantsaum Foundation, a group in Nigeria that focuses on ICT (information and communication technologies) and micro-finance. They’re working on the ‘solo’ computer, which will consume just 85 watts of power in a resource-poor continent laden with untapped-talent. In addition, it will have no moving parts, and use flash-memory.
Fantsuam acts as an "infomediary" and shares useful agri-based information available from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. Computer Aid International, a UK-based APC-member, meanwhile ships in once-used PCs for schools and
non-profits, and re-uses a vital resource in a tech field where obsolescence (and planned obsolescence!) can otherwise result in a huge waste of computers and mountains of perfectly-working but discarded computers.
Kubatana.net is a Zimbabwean network that helps civil society to communicate with the rest of the world. It has an online directory of 270 online organisations currently, and works hard to keep its information updated and useful. A critical job in continents like Africa and Asia, where people tend to be enthusiastic verbal communicators, but reluctant to deploy the written word to share their ideas.
Kubatana finds that human rights defenders tend to be the most articulate contributors. Those in the development community appear the worst. They get about 2500 visitors a day. "FOSS has not really played a part [in our activities] to date. But our organisations are undermined all the time by viruses," says Kubatana’s representative.
Rudy from South Africa gives a speedy intro to eRiding. He’s from Ungana-afrika.org, another APC member, and points out that other non-profits badly need tech help that comes from an NGO background. One that understands them.
"What we do is not tech support — or attending calls to deal with, for example, a broken printer — but technology planning. This is very important," says he. Live support is very important. So is help to migrate to FOSS. When an eRider finds something that works well with one organisation, (s)he cross-pollinates with other organisations.
"eRiders [tech support personnel for NGOs who] are motivated by work they’re doing. They often don’t get salaries at commercial levels. But the networks of eRiders are very supportive of each other. They’re almost like a [GNU]Linux users’ group." That was all soft-spoken Rudi had time to narrate, quite out-of-breath, before the alarm sounded for each group to move on and hear of another experiment.
Bukeni from the resource-rich, poverty-striken Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) told us about work being done to build awareness about child soldiers. Video is used here as a tool for both advocacy and outreach. They take the videos, together with a generator and a with bed-sheet [which doubles up as the screen]. Films are then shown in villages which have probably never even seen a television set before. Now, they’ve got local youth to use the cellphone as a tool for reporting cases of children being inducted as ‘soldiers’.
Hilton, a burly South African, warns you that he’s got some "toast for breakfast". And how! He’s part of the Shuttleworth Foundation, set up by geek-cosmonaut-billionaire Mark Shuttleworth to spread FOSS and education across South Africa.
So, they’ve come out with a ‘vending machine’ that ‘sells’ — you guessed it! — free software. Put in a CD, and take out a ‘distro’ or distribution of your choice. And while you’re waiting for the CDs to be copied, keep reading about the world of free software and what it really means.
Each CD vending machine costs approximately US$5000. But the plans are available online and you’re free to be replicated. And don’t forget to claim your free Ubuntu CDs at http://shipit.ubuntu.com.
In India adopt a low-tech solution for encouraging FOSS supporters to start up low-cost, low-margins CD stores. They ‘sell’ distros at about a dollar per CD, and this gives them enough of an incentive to stay ‘in business’, and share the free software while earning a little extra money. That works too.
Goretti Zavuga Amuriat of Uganda introduces us to the women network WOUGNET’s programmes. These focus on information sharing and networking, tech support, and rural access. They also provide a platform for women to start make their voices heard through mailing lists, a monthly electronic newsletter, a website and an online discussion forum. They offer an unusual link to the internet, using WorldSpace’s satellite radio receiver to download data in remote village communities.
Baldati.org meanwhile is a network of villagers in the tiny country of Lebanon. It currently links some 1468 villages. For a country which has a lot of out-migration, it builds links between emigrants and their villages.
Baldati — which means simply "my village" — helps to put up maps, GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and population statistics online. Then, it leaves all the content-creation to the local people. It takes a smart bus packed with computers, to different locations, and invites people to put their information online. If villagers have issues around solid waste or other environmental issues, they try to put the people in touch with experts.
Finally, our group ended up with a rather exhausted Mark from the San Francisco-based Inveneo. It has a solution which attempts to take communication to rural areas — thin clients, using just six watts of power, VOIP (voice over internet protocol) for two phones, and a rugged wireless unit that connects to a hub. From remote village to cyberspace.
Possible? Check inveneo.org where you can find details on how to build the system, including its software. Price? US$1800, including the solar panel.
Food for thought, ideas for inspiration. The big question: can such projects be scaled up sustainably, to ensure that real change occurs and makes the lives of the people on the planet that little bit less of an uphill struggle?
The Association for Progressive Communications’ regional members such as Fantsuam Foundation (Nigeria) and WOUGNET (Uganda), in collaboration with Schoolnet Africa (regional network), Translate.org.za (South Africa), Creative Commons South Africa, Aspiration (US) and The Tactical Technology Collective (the Netherlands) collaborated to organise the content of the workshop and to build strong relationships between the participants.