September 25, 2000

Open Source powers Peace Corps of the Internet Age

Author: JT Smith

By Tony Granata
News Editor

The number of Internet connections in countries such as the United States has expanded at a rapid pace, but the majority of the population in developing countries do not have access or cannot afford to pay for it. But an international group, powered by Open Source software, has been trying to change the numbers.Recent estimates indicate that the global number of Internet users is about 180 million of which only 14 percent are in developing countries. The Sustainable Development Networking Programme has been trying to address this lack of connectivity, as well as an information gap between industrialized countries and developing ones. The group is also working on
some countries' inability to effectively use Internet applications such as electronic commerce to compete globally.

The Sustainable Development Networking Programme (SDNP), which provides access/connectivity and networks, national and international content and training to DCs using Open Source technologies, might be called the Peace Corps of the Internet Age.

What is SDNP?

SDNP is an initiative to kick-start networking in developing countries and help people share information and expertise relevant to sustainable
development. Launched in 12 pilot countries in 1992 as one outgrowth of the Earth Summit, the SDNP currently offers assistance in establishing connectivity to national networks and the Internet, content aggregation and user training in 39 developing nations and 36 small island developing states.The complete list of countries is located in the SDNP country status table.

The key objective, as outlined on the SDNP Web site is, "To promote access and information exchange on sustainable development resources to key decision makers and civil society organizations from all sectors in developing countries via the use of IT tools and the Internet in particular ... "

How it works

After the requisite feasibility studies, SDNP provides seed money, typically about $150,000 to $200,000 over two to three years to get a country's basic operation running. The SDNP simultaneously promotes the value of Internet information -- and the access to it -- to a wide audience of decision makers.

"SDNP pays for equiptment, connection costs, national personnel, training workshops, and seminars from resources provided by the United Nations Development Programme," states Raul Zambrano,
SDNP project manager. "In addition, in most cases, we are able to identify local partners that provide important income or service contributions."

In essence, an SDNP is a national entity with managerial and technical skills, hardware and software, connectivity and training resources designed by nationals, "owned" and managed by nationals, to provide a "meeting place" that services the information needs of all sectors of civil society. Each national SDNP is expected to build its own user community and to have shifted from external to domestic financing before
the seed money runs out.

Why Open Source Software?

SDNP is building these user communities using Open Source software. In 1993, the porgram initially used WAFFLE UUCP, "which was easy to set up and maintain locally," says Zambrano. "As the number of users in the pilots countries grew, we needed to have a sound alternative and decided to switch to Linux." The initial rational for selecting Linux was two-fold: easy set-up, maintenance, and upgrade of technology; and no initial monetary investment required and no additional costs for upgrades.

"People usually forget, in particular in industrialized countries, that software is expensive for most developing nations," says Zambrano. "But there is yet another perhaps more important factor. Open Source is indeed global knowledge embodied in a series of applied technologies that most developing nations do not have access to (or have to purchase at high prices)."

He adds, "By transferring this knowledge, developing nations can start to incorporate and use this knowledge to help support not only national business but also governments and non-profit activities, create in this manner the human resource pool required to support the creation of new knowledge and then become participants in the process of creation and enhancement of existing global knowledge."

SDNP isn't doing it alone; some of its partners include Corel, Rebel.com, Red Hat, Hewlett Packard, O'Reilly and Associates, and Orientation.com. These companies believe in what SDNP is trying to achieve globally and have donated hardware, software, application solutions and time to help SDNP reach their goals. Contained on SDNP's Help Desk Web site is detailed information on setup, configuration and installation of all the software used by SDNP.

The results

The bottom line, SDNP backers say, is that there is significant improvement in the way people live, work and communicate if their country has a national SDNP. For example, SDNP has helped land-use planning in Bolivia;
educated lobbyists and government officials making environmental policy in Nicaragua; stimulated Internet access in Africa; and saved lives in Pakistan by locating supplies of rare blood types needed for transfusions.

What else is needed

An additional 44 countries, as well as the Small Island Developing States Network, are pressing for SDNP's help. There is neither the staff or financial resources to begin to accommodate all these requests. SDNP needs to expand the number of countries it can help, and is already building the necessary internal mechanisms to handle such an expansion.

For additional information See SDNP's Web site.

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