I think I’ve finally reached the point where I can write about Geekcorps without long disclaimers explaining that I’m no longer involved with the project or supportive of all the programming choices made by the current administrators. But I’m also reaching the point where I can’t claim any credit at all for the successes the project continues to have. While I had a hand in the creation of the Geekcorps Mali program – the arm of Geekcorps that’s gone on to do some of the most exciting and creative work in the technology and development world – I couldn’t have even imagined some of the projects they’ve taken on and the amazing innovations that have resulted from their work in that nation.
(I wonder if parenting is like this – if you reach a point where you realize your actions have very little direct impact on what your children achieve, but you feel even more proud as a result…?)
Geekcorps was recently honored with one of the Accenture Economic Development Award Laureates at the annual Tech Museum Awards in San Jose, California. The award recognized the work of Geekcorps on the Desert PC, a PC designed specifically for the high heat, high dust and scarce power environment of Mali. The machine uses compact flash for storage instead of a disc – like the One Laptop Per Child project – and includes a specialized Linux release – Kunnafonix – adapted for the diskless environment.
But that’s not the only cool tech coming out of the Mali project. CanTV is a truly remarkable little tool – a Wifi cantenna that includes an inexpensive AV receiver which allows people in an extremely remote Malian village to get video programming over the internet. The local radio station has a net connection and can download programming – it rents CanTV units to local people who’ve already purchased TVs (which they power with 12 volt car batteries). The TVs are useless for anything other than videowatching in this corner of Mali as there’s no broadcasting – with this new system, a local radio station is able to become a TV station without adding hardware more complicated than these little antennas. (For a sense of how simple they are, watch the lovely little CanTV construction video included on the page…)
Projects like this fascinate me because they take on the question of how information makes it to people who are unlikely to connect to the Internet any time soon. Even if you accept my frequently-offered contention that we’ll see another billion people connect to the net in the next five to seven years, there’s still over four billion people who won’t be reading email or RSS feeds any time soon. Some aren’t literate, which makes it hard to access the text-based resources of the net; others are so far off electric and communications grids that it will be a long time before mobile phones become a regular feature in their lives, never mind cybercafes.
Figuring out how to get information available online this “last mile” – often a last hundred miles – is one of the key problems for anyone thinking seriously about IT and development. Dropping satellite dishes and inexpensive PCs in every village isn’t the answer – figuring out what infrastructure already exists and how to leverage it probably is. Discovering that a village has TVs, but no programming, and that a solution like CanTV can work is an amazing new channel for all sorts of information. Congrats to the Geekcorps Mali folks for looking closely at the situation in Bourem Inaly and putting some very creative new solutions together.