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Saturday, July 05, 2003  

Doing something about the digital divide

Talking about the digital divide is relatively easy for those of us who keep ourselves informed. Doing something about it is much more difficult. I recently learned of some people who are doing something about it. They call themselves geek activists and will be meeting in my neck of the woods the coming week.

Like many ideas in the field of computer technology, geek activism is a fluid concept. But the basic premise is pretty simple. Along with hospitals, schools and roads, emerging nations need help building up their technological infrastructure -- and that means geeks.

The summit is the brainchild of two mega-nerds: computer publisher Tim O'Reilly and hacktivism evangelist Ethan Zuckerman. "I decided to invite a group of the best minds in the field--in this case, geek activists--to a summit where we'd tackle thorny issues, look for synergies and efficiencies, and get the creative juices flowing," O'Reilly wrote in his Web log announcing the event.

If you are computer literate, you are likely familiar with O'Reilly. But, who is Ethan Zuckerman? He helped found Tripod, among other Webbish endeavors. In 2000, Zuckerman founded Geekcorps. It is an international resource for grass roots 'Net know-how. The organization sends volunteer nerds to developing countries to help locals start or improve Web ventures. So far, Geekcorps is in Ghana, Mongolia, Rwanda, Jordan, Armenia and Bulgaria.

A similar group affiliated with the University of Oregon, Network Startup Resource Center, sends specialists to the Third World to help with setting up infrastructure and intends to bring some trainees to the United States for additional instruction.

Why do I believe this issue is important? I've written about the need to spread the computer revolution to have-nots as well as haves before. In the U.S., that means bringing the 46 percent of the population that does not use the Web into the circle or at least providing them with the needed skills if they want to participate.

In the Third World, that mission expands enormously. We who follow technology news know that the cell phone has become an almost revolutionary mechanism in some poor countries by allowing much of the population to jump right over the need for wired telephones. Entrepreneurs can avoid the high cost of wiring and cabling by using the newer technology. The same kind of leap forward may be possible with WiFi and other wireless technologies. At its most idealistic, the Internet can stand in for many of the expensive resources scare to most people in poor countries, including books and magazines, educational material and newspapers. In other countries, the Net can supplement what is already available.

Zuckerman emphasizes that the help provided by Geekcorps is of the teach a man to fish variety.

We contribute to local IT projects while transferring the technical skills needed to keep projects moving after our volunteers have returned home.

Most funding has come from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Funds from foundations and individuals are also accepted. To learn more about how Geekcorp operates, read this interview with Zuckerman about his start-up efforts in Ghana.

The Geek Activism Summit is part of the national Open Source Convention which is in Portland July 7 through 11. The site is the Marriott Hotel downtown.

Vist the Network Startup Resource Center in Eugene or via their website.

1:11 PM