November 15, 2006

Geekcorps wins tech award for innovative PC

Author: Lisa Hoover

When the Geekcorps Mali team set out to design a computer that could withstand the harsh elements of the Malian desert, their only goal was to help create a better economy in the small community through the use of technology. They never expected it would lead to an award.

IESC Geekcorps has been named a Tech Laureate by the Tech Museum in San Jose, Calif., for its innovative work in developing the Desert PC. The gala at which the group will receive its award will be shown live via webcast today.

Geekcorps Mali is a division of IESC 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. The team has been working with the Malian community in Africa's Sahara desert since 2004 to find ways to help them overcome one of their greatest challenges: how remote villages in Mali like Bourem Inaly can communicate with other parts of the country and ultimately the world at large.

Geekcorps Mali isn't interested in undertaking a feel-good mission with no real purpose. There are tremendous benefits to be had by establishing communication links with other parts of Africa. Internet access allows farmers to establish commercial contacts with buyers along the Niger River and traders who want to do business with the community. It also lets the local radio station communicate with the country's capital and bring a range of services, including entertainment, to the community.

In addition to helping establish stable and low-cost Internet connectivity, the Geekcorps Mali team also devised the rugged Desert PC, designed to withstand an environment that is generally inhospitable to electronics. The Desert PC is a self-contained, sealed, fanless unit that runs on only 60 watts of electricity, about the same as a standard light bulb.

The Desert PC runs a live Linux CD that has been specially customized to minimize the number of disk writes. The suite, Kunnafonix (which means "information" in Bambra, the local language), includes a generous compilation of software including OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Thunderbird, and Audacity.

Building the Desert PC to withstand harsh heat, sun, and sand required a creative design approach. Geekcorp Director Wayan Vota says the team first debated modifying a normal computer but soon realized it was likely to overheat. They considered different cooling methods, including water, fans, and even burying it in the sand, but decided in the end to find a more efficient approach.

"We looked at the marketplace for what already existed," says Vota. "VIA Technologies has an energy-efficient PC designed for use in cars, so we called the vendor, Logic Supply, and worked with them to build our PC from off-the-shelf parts in new and interesting ways."

The Desert PC costs around $600, double the price of standard desktop computers available in Africa, however the team feels the initial investment is worth it in the long run. "Sure, you can buy a $300 PC in Mali, but it needs electricity, and solar panels [the community's main source of power] cost between $1,000 and $3,000," says Vota. "Then you need air conditioning. After that, you need to worry about dust in the air, even if it's in a closed room. Oh, and if you run Windows, you have to figure how to download all those updates and patches over a dial-up connection. So when you factor in the maintenance costs of a standard PC, the extra $300 is worth it."

The positive impact of the Desert PC was felt almost immediately when the first one was set up for a small radio station in the village. Since the staff no longer has to travel long distances to cybercaf├ęs to send email and perform other Internet-dependent tasks, the station's operating expenses dropped to a point where they were able to hire another staff member. They are able to independently maintain the system and also buy and download content that they can sell to raise additional funds.

Perhaps the most unexpected result of the Desert PC's arrival was the reaction from the villagers. According to Vota, marriage and death announcements are now one of the top sources of income generated by the radio station. Since a large part of the community is unable to read or write, villagers buy radio air time to share information about important family events, and Vota says large blocks of time are spent by radio staffers each day simply reporting which chief's daughter is getting married and other paid news of local interest.

Geekcorps is receiving its award from the Tech Museum for its "innovative technology solutions to address the most urgent critical issues facing our planet." One of 25 winners spanning several categories, Geekcorps is also in the running for a special honor to be designated the night of the awards ceremony. One winner in each of the categories will be selected to receive $50,000 as a nod to their outstanding contribution to the technology field.

Vota says if Geekcorps is awarded the money, it would most likely go right back into the community they are serving, but he isn't particularly concerned with winning. "Just being nominated lets us verify that we are worth something," he says. "It's been a wonderful validation for the people working in the field and a great pat on the back for all of us. A lot of people focus on the technology, but we're most proud that we're creating prosperity and economic development. We're changing their lives for the better.

"Of course, if we do win you'll hear cheers from San Jose all the way to Bourem Inaly."

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