Cultivating Charitable Computing

The One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC) has highlighted the need to provide computing to kids in the developing world, but headlines surrounding the group's $100 laptop PC have attracted a growing number of companies and organizations trying to figure out how the digital world can help those most in need.

The rush to climb aboard this trend has gotten downright nasty in some cases. While there is no doubt altruism plays a role in decisions to help out, there are other reasons, such as profit and market share.

Some OLPC leaders, for example, have been accused of academic egotism, as well as using their project to expand the use of the Linux OS. Microsoft's donation of time, software and cash to the cause has been characterized as a way to counter Linux and spread Windows. Intel has been accused of building a rival laptop, the ClassMate PC, as a way to ensure its microprocessors are at the heart of computers for kids in poor countries. The OLPC laptop uses chips from rival AMD.

Reading the hubbub surrounding the issue almost makes one forget the main purpose: the kids

Some groups also take issue with the educational philosophy behind OLPC, and there is even disagreement on whether developing nations should invest in computers over say, classrooms and textbooks. Some nations are too poor to buy computers for their schools, much less lay new power lines and Internet connections to actually make them useful.

For example, Fair International, an aid organization from Norway that is also trying to bridge the digital divide with computer labs in schools, has accused OLPC of "misleading poor countries into taking a high investment risk for a new type of technology, the success of which is very uncertain. With uncertain definitions of target groups and heavy international marketing, OLPC appears to be trying to create a need which has not existed before and which does not exist at all in the world's richer regions."

The group upgrades second-hand computers with the latest software to equip computer labs for schools in countries including Eritrea, Gambia, Kenya, Romania and Tanzania.

Other aid organizations focus more on building classrooms and filling them with books.

Room to Read, a nonprofit from the U.S., focuses on some of the poorest areas in the world, including rural Nepal and Vietnam.

Founded by a former Microsoft executive, Room to Read works with local communities to build libraries for as little as US$4,000, and schools with several classrooms for around $20,000 to $35,000. The group also builds computer labs at a cost of about $30,000 in some schools, but uneven development within countries means only some areas are suitable for such labs, like big cities with reliable power grids.

Everything the group does is funded by donations.

That an increasing number of companies and organizations are working with developing countries on computing issues is good news for people in poor areas, especially where they have little or no access to electronic devices or the Internet.

But most of these giving efforts are young and must continually refine and improve their efforts, and in some cases, their motivation. They are working in extreme conditions, deserts, jungles and mountains, as well as in villages so poor they can barely afford classrooms, much less electricity or Internet connections.

Obvious Need, But Answers?

There are 4 billion people in the world living in poverty today, according to a recent report by the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Their income levels range from US$3.35 a day in Brazil to US$2.11 in China and US$1.56 in India, the report said.

School systems in such nations have as little as $20 per year per student to spend. Other issues, such as a lack of school buildings in some communities and difficulty in finding qualified teachers, are even a bigger headache.

The central African country of Rwanda, for example, is promoting computer use in schools in order to create a more technology-oriented economy, and the nation's technology minister says computers can cut certain costs if they last a long time.

"The cost of a computer is lower than five to six textbooks over five to six years," said Romain Murenzi, Rwanda's Minister of Science, Technology and Scientific Research, in an interview. Textbooks don't last so long in his country because of the dampness in many areas, and wear and tear, he said.

And it's important to have Rwandan kids using the computers. "If you give a child a laptop, you have put that kid on par with a kid in Europe," he said.

His nation bought 10,000 OLPC laptops last year, and plans to purchase 20,000 more this year, despite the huge issue of cost to his country. It's important to have kids start to learn how to use digital devices and the Internet as soon as possible to help build an information technology economy in the country, he said.

"You need access to the devices," he said. "You cannot learn to ride a bicycle without the bicycle."

But since the cost per child is such an issue, he said the company that offers the lowest cost will win in Rwanda. And there are alternatives to OLPC, even beyond rival low-cost laptops such the ClassMate PC and Asustek's Eee PC.

NComputing, a for-profit company, is taking a different approach that could end up costing far less than such laptops. The company uses virtualization to essentially turn a single PC into a mainframe serving between seven and 30 workstations.

PCs are so powerful these days that they can serve far more than one person with little impact on user experience, unless the person is using the PC for gaming, scientific calculations or multimedia, said Steve Dukker, chairman and CEO of NComputing, in a phone interview.

"You can call us the unexpected benefit of virtualization," he said.

The NComputing system cuts costs tremendously. The cost per child of each NComputing system, for seven users, is $70 each, in a system running at just 1 watt per user.

Those are the kinds of statistics, per user cost and wattage, that make a difference.

Hitting a cost of $100 per OLPC laptop is actually easier than making a system that uses less than 2-watts of power, OLPC Chairman Nicholas Negroponte said in an interview earlier this year. Power is both a cost and access issue in most developing nations.

NComputing's biggest sale so far has been to schools in Macedonia, where Dukker said the machines pay for themselves in power savings in just six months.

"Electricity in the developing world will cost five times what it costs in the U.S.," he said. Many countries don't have power grids up, and most don't buy enough oil, coal or other materials to gain bulk cost savings like the U.S. does. Other sources put electricity costs higher than his estimate, at six to 10 times what it costs in the U.S.

It Takes More than Hardware

Training teachers and students how to use computing devices is also a challenge.

OLPC has worked to empower kids by making its laptops as easy to use as possible, as well as offering training for teachers. The point over time is for the kids to find educational opportunities on the Internet and elsewhere using the laptops

"What we want is for children to keep a passion for learning," said Negroponte, in a speech earlier this year. To that end, OLPC has added a camera to its laptop as well as games, in addition to encyclopedias and other books for school.

Similar to Murenzi, he believes that getting the laptops into children's hands is the goal so they can start learn to use them, whether in class or playing games or on the Internet.

"I don't draw a sharp distinction between entertainment and education because when you're trying to capture a child's whole life, and not just the time when a student is in class with a teacher, it's seamless," said Negroponte.

Not everyone agrees with the philosophy, and some said the entertainment aspect of the Internet, including movies, music, games and even pornography, can be a distraction.

NComputing, for example, has built in ways for teachers to monitor what students are doing on the Internet through software that allows the teacher to see what every terminal is doing.

Other organizations working in developing countries argue that kids and teachers need more instruction and direction on where these new digital skills can take them, say by learning how to create spreadsheets so they can become a valuable part of the workforce.

Microsoft, which has been working with computing issues in developing nations for the past 10 years, said training is critical.

"Just giving people the computers, throwing them out there, it's not enough," said Orlando Ayala, senior vice president of Microsoft's Unlimited Potential Group, in a phone interview.

Clearly, there are many choices for governments in developing countries to make on what's best for students, not just in what kind of computers and which OS they should come with, but also the kind and level of training. The number of companies and organizations offering free or low-cost technology continues to expand, as do their reasons for helping.

And in the end, the developing world shouldn't be seen as a profit center, a brand name battle ground, or a Petri-dish for some ego-driven experiment on education. But instead as a place full of desperately poor kids seeking a brighter future.