October 30, 2006

Geekcorps: A Peace Corps for the rest of us

Author: Lisa Hoover

Freelance software consultant Renaud Gaudin longed to parlay his passion for free and open source software into something that would help developing countries access and use technology. In March, he joined Geekcorps. Now he brings information and communication technology (ICT) into communities, helps them get hardware and software up and running, and then teaches local users the technical skills they need to sustain their new equipment for the long-term.

Gaudin is one of more than 3,000 volunteers with Geekcorps, a Washington, DC-based non-profit organization whose mission is to draw on the knowledge of IT experts around the world to help developing countries improve their access to technology.

Since joining Geekcorps, Gaudin has been stationed in the arid West African desert of Mali, working as a Linux system administrator and developer. He is involved in a wide variety of Linux-centric projects Geekcorps is overseeing there. "[One] project I'm currently working on is customizing Ubuntu Linux to fit on a 1.8GB flash hard drive with a 200KB/day network usage limit," he says. "This means stripping down the size of the system, grain-selecting the packages, limiting disk writes, optimizing, monitoring, and blocking network traffic, etc."

Prior to Geekcorps' arrival in Mali, the country's technology needs were extensive. "Our mission in Mali was to improve both the access to and quality of information to Malian communities," says Matt Berg, Geekcorps Mali's program coordinator. "As a result, we initially worked heavily with USAID-sponsored community radio stations and institutions like the University of Bamako. More recently, we have been trying to bring basic ICT services to villages (via USB keys) in an economically sustainable manner."

Helping communities, not just children

Geekcorps shares some of the goals of the One Laptop Per Child initiative, which aims to provide computers to thousands of school children in third-world countries. Though the two groups are both focused on putting technology into the hands of people who are otherwise lacking, the OLPC project is geared toward children and education, while Geekcorps' work encompasses communities at large.

Geekcorps also takes its mission a step further by teaching communities how to sustain the ICT equipment they acquire. According to Vota, Geekcorps and the organizers of OLPC are not currently working together on any projects, but "I love that Nick Negroponte [the project's chairman] has moved information technology to the front of the conversation and that it can be used in education."

Responding to the needs of the environment, the Geekcorps Mali team developed the Desert PC, a self-contained, sealed, fanless system designed to withstand desert elements. The innovative Linux-based unit uses less power than a 60-watt light bulb and has garnered a nomination for a Tech Museum award that recognizes "innovative technology solutions to address the most urgent critical issues facing our planet."

The harsh desert environment and its remote location present numerous challenges to the team of volunteers as they help members of the Mali community find solutions to their technology needs. "Access to basic IT equipment is one of our greatest challenges," says Berg. "We need to import almost everything we use. We do not have the luxury of running down to Best Buy or Fry's anytime we need to pick up RAM or a power supply. However, as they say, necessity is the mother of innovation. Lack of materials has forced us to focus on the developing technological solutions using locally available materials, such as our water-bottle Wi-Fi antenna.

"[It's been gratifying] working with our volunteers and local team to take an idea from inception to a working product that will hopefully make someone's life better. Another very gratifying aspect is to see the growth in capacity or local staff and Malian partners as a result of working hand in hand with our Geeks. This tech transfer is probably the most significant, lasting impact our program will have toward Mali's development."

Gaudin agrees. "Working out the solution is the first satisfaction, but then seeing the people it was intended for use it, enjoy it, and appreciate it is the really amazing part."

Evangelical, yet agnostic

As enthused as the volunteers at Geekcorps are about helping other countries assimilate technology into their cultures, they are decidedly agnostic about which platforms will best serve the needs of the community. While Mali has been receptive to the philosophy and usefulness of open source solutions, the organization's director, Wayan Vota, says that isn't the case in every country in which they work. Although 90% of the operating systems Geekcorps sets up are Linux-based, volunteers find they sometimes need to fight the perception that seems to equate Microsoft with inherently superior products.

Geekcorps volunteers have discovered that equipping community members solely with open source skills sometimes makes it difficult for them to obtain jobs in countries such as Ghana, Lebanon, and Brazil, where Microsoft certifications are held in high regard. "In those countries, if you say you've learned Linux, an employer will pass you by. But tell them you know Microsoft and they grab you right away," says Vota. "There's a brand recognition there and a marketing machine behind Microsoft that says, 'This is how you show you're a first-world company.' Some countries get blinded by the Microsoft marketing machine."

Gaudin says he hasn't encountered that kind of resistance in Mali. "Honestly, the vast majority of people who use the stuff I work on aren't very familiar with computers, and are effectively discovering them for the first time through Linux. The others, who sometimes have some limited computing experience, are usually happy to use OSS because it meets their needs and is packaged into the solutions we provide."

In the end, Vota says, Geekcorps' mission is to help communities reach their destination, no matter which road they travel. "We're focused on the best solution for the situation. Geekcorps is platform-agnostic and solution-agnostic. We want what works the best, and that's the operating system we use."

Getting involved

Geekcorps is largely funded by the US government program USAID, which helps match teams of Geekcorps volunteers with communities all across the world that need assistance in setting up information and communication technology. Geekcorps also partners with Hewlett-Packard for funding on a project-by-project basis and with VIA Technologies for hardware, such as a CPU that can run on a car battery for 26 hours.

In addition to finding funding for projects, Vota has also been tasked with locating and organizing the volunteer base on which Geekcorps relies. Historically, Geekcorps volunteers have found the work so rewarding, more than 70% opt to stay on longer than the initial four months their agreement calls for. In fact, Gaudin was so inspired by his first tour in Mali that after a two-month respite he signed up for a second stint. "I rejoined the team for a second tour because four months is short when you like what you are doing, and because there are always worthy projects to work on here."

Vota says right now he is particularly looking for people with a strong Linux and open source development background. He is also looking for people with strong sales skills who can help explain the benefits of open source to vendors and technology professionals. A background in technology, while helpful, is not essential. There are a myriad of other ways people can volunteer to get involved with the organization.

Geekcorps is sensitive to the fact that people have bills to pay and that a four-month jaunt overseas may seem out of reach for some people, no matter how appealing the idea. Through donations and funding arrangements with various partners, Geekcorps pays all expenses for its volunteers for the duration of their tours. "They have no out-of-pocket expenses at all," says Vota. "We pay for airfare, lodging, and meals; everything from the minute they leave the front door of their house to the minute they return.

"Of course, if they want to buy African masks for 500 of their closest friends back home, they have to bring their own money for that," Vota adds with a laugh.

Despite all that the dedicated teams of Geekcorps volunteers have already accomplished, there is still more work to be done. "Unfortunately, there will continue to be lots of work for an organization like Geekcorps in countries like Mali," says Matt Berg. "The good news is the private sector, fueled by massive profits in cell phones, is aggressively moving to improve Internet access across the country (one of the tasks we had been engaged in). Our major focus thus has been to help develop the capacities of the local Geeks we work with -- the hope being they will be the ones to continue to push technological innovation in their country long after we leave."

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