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Thursday, July 17, 2003  

Geekcorps: Capitalism and caring

Most people if asked what Third World countries need most would not put Internet technology near the top of their lists. That may be an error. An argument can be made that poor countries need functional computer networks as much as they need better nutrition or improved medical care. Among the persons who have convinced me countries like Senegal and Mongolia need improved IT is Ethan Zuckerman, open source software supporter and co-founder of Tripod. He is also the founder of Geekcorps, an organizaton that tranfers IT skills from the United States to poor countries. The group achieves that goal by sending American volunteers to those nations to teach interested persons their skills. We discussed some of the work Geekcorps has done earlier this month. Zuckerman expanded on his vision for his initiative during the national O'Reilly Open Source Convention in Portland, which he attended.

He first points out that he is not saying reading email or browsing Yahoo is more important than clean water to a citizen of Ghana or Jordan. "It is not a matter of either/or," he says. "We can work on a few things at the same time."

Zuckerman (pictured) believes adequate Internet services can help improve some of those other things. For example, a computerized system of land records can make it much easier to establish ownership without the costs of trips to governmental offices or paying intermediaries to search for information. Or, a computerized system of business licensing can help people evade the stage to stage bribery common in many Third World countries. Zuckerman says that the having such data available to anyone with computer access can provide the transparency currently lacking.

However, of most significance is the potential role of the Internet in business. Without computer expertise would-be Third World entrepreneurs are cut out of the supply chain because they cannot follow the procedures required by those in the First World who would purchase their products. With adequate Internet services, such businesses at least get the opportunity to compete.

Some of the goals Zuckerman hopes Geekcorps and similar organizations will achieve are:

•Digital independence for people in the Third World so they no longer need to import talent.

•Enabling of "global commerce on a more equal footing."

•Helping Third World countries become laboratories for innovation -- because solving hard problems can provide insights into how to solve easier ones.

Geekcorps sends its personnel to countries where there are already threshold Internet businesses and where it is is invited. So far, most of its funding has come from USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development). Currently, the group is administering the Digital Freedom Initiative, a $7 million program to help Senegal upgrade its IT infrastructure. The support will come in the form of some capital plus 'loaned' Americans with the needed skills, which will be provided by Geekcorps. It also has current projects in Ghana and Mongolia.

Zuckerman says he has found working with the Bush administration easy, despite holding liberal political views. He says common ground can be found when it comes to encouraging business and development in the Third World. According to him, a similar process occurs when it comes to attracting the computer geek volunteers Geekcorps relies on. Key to convincing them to travel to another country gratis and provide people there with valuable information is discovering some commonality between them and the people they will be assisting. Often, that common interest is the belief in freedom of information, both here and abroad. By helping develop Internet resources in poor countries, First Worlders help make information freely available throughout the world.

According to Zuckerman, volunteers with the needed expertise have been easy to recruit, despite the image I have of most high tech professionals being uninterested in social issues. He says the interest is there if one frames the issues in ways computer geeks can relate to.

Geekcorps veterans agree.

Our volunteers are international and all over the political map as well. What they have in common is that they all come from technology companies and have had for-profit experience. That's the appeal of our organization; it focuses on for-profit businesses. We also get a huge number of volunteers for only a few slots.

In addition to bodies, Geekcorps uses educational materials, including computer books and programs, and accepts donations from foundations and individuals. Learn more about the organization by visiting its site.

11:09 PM