Typical Information and Communications Technology (ICT) projects in developing areas of the world focus simply on delivering computers for educational and community use. This basic and simplistic approach has often been tried and the results are varied. Organizations have been committed to sending “refurbished” computers to schools while others have helped start Internet cafes in towns like Gulu, where access to the Internet had only recently been available for the last few years.
An environment like Gulu, however, presents a few basic obstacles to the traditional and tried approaches for bridging the “digital divide” with ICT and computer solutions. For example, one organization we’ve come across is refurbishing old computers in the United States and then shipping them to schools here in northern Uganda. These desktop personal computers (PCs) were built for the 1990’s and consume large amounts of power. Unfortunately, most Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camp schools in northern Uganda don’t have access to a power grid. Consequently, these PCs require use of expensive generators (fuel costs over $8 per gallon in Gulu, Uganda)—most schools can’t afford this and thus can’t use their “refurbished” PCs.
Other locations across northern Uganda do have access to grid power and are at a distinct economic and social advantage. But what good is a PC in these locations if the infrastructure for accessing the Internet is not there and the cost of other solutions like satellite service is prohibitive? In today’s world, providing computers to groups without access to the Internet is like providing a car without wheels—the computer provided is not going to take its users anywhere.
However, BOSCO overcomes these difficulties by providing low-power PCs that can run on a 12 volt battery charged by a small solar panel. On top of this we leap over the gaping infrastructure holes by transmitting our Internet signal over a radio wave that can reach sites as far as 60 miles away from our hub in Gulu. The expensive cost of high-speed Internet service is then shared over the whole network because all of our sites are connected with one modem located at our Gulu office. Each rural or IDP site ends up paying only about $15 per month for access to the Internet.
But besides the technical side of BOSCO, what makes it truly innovative is the philosophy behind what we are trying to do. BOSCO, while delivering ICT resources that leap over the holes in the infrastructure, operates on the premise that the local community has the power to articulate and communicate their own needs better than any outside actor. So, with the help of the Internet we are diving in to a training program at each of our sites that throws the traditional curriculum—heavy on theory and light on practical experience—out the window.
We, instead, begin with small groups of local users, led by volunteers who have prior computer and Internet experience. These groups train together, helping each other learn by biting right into the meat of ICT in today’s world—the Internet. The first thing we do is get them on email, then we let them navigate our simple Intranet site which connects all BOSCO sites to a high speed internal network, useful for posting photos, blogs, and other educational content. After these groups gain competence navigating the web, we point them in the direction of our BOSCO Wikispace so that they can begin collaborating immediately. Collaboration between previously isolated communities can help them reconcile with each other, share information, and articulate local solutions to community problems. Check out the chart below which gives a visual of how this kind of Web 2.0 collaboration can work.
Step 2: Local user groups sign up and begin posting their own content on BOSCO Wikispace from their respective school, community center, or IDP camp. (Solid blue lines between blue boxes represent user collaboration on Intranet between BOSCO sites; Dotted black line represents posting of material on BOSCO Wikispace for rest of world to view)
Step 3: Collaborators from within other parts of Uganda and across the rest of the world log onto the BOSCO Wikispace and view user content directly from IDP camps and schools in northern Uganda: Stories are shared, war-ravaged cultural practices documented, community development project proposals are posted.
Step 4: Collaborator input is returned from across the globe as people develop a vested interest in the plight and recovery of the people of northern Uganda. For example, one collaborator funded a small community proposal for $100 dollars to help a youth group of former abductees carry out traditional reconciliation practices. This proposal was posted by the youth group in one of our IDP camp sites.
See image below of what the Pagak camp Wiki site looks like. Notice that various users at this site have links for educational proposals, farming proposals, journal sharing, and a community notice calling for sign ups to partake in computer training at the site.
Please visit our Wikispace site at bosco-uganda.wikispaces.com to begin exploring what is happening on the ground and begin learning how BOSCO is turning the keyboard over to the people who know best what the needs are on the ground: the Ugandan’s themselves.
If you would like to begin responding directly to users at each site by adding your own content to the pages (a wikispace site is by definition a community site where anyone who is a member can edit and add content to the pages) please send your email address to me at firstname.lastname@example.org .