Many dot-com workers may be worrying about their own job prospects, but there's a group of geeks who are focusing on the less fortunate.
GeekCorps, a year-old volunteer effort that sends tech workers to build up the Internet sector in poor countries, has just sent its second batch of eight volunteers to Ghana, where they're settling in to help small businesses such as a radio station, a design firm and an ISP ramp up their Net presence.
The organization, fledged during the boom times of the Net bubble, are hoping it can still attract volunteers and donors now that the bubble has burst. The non-profit group is now taking applications for its next third three-month tour, and looking at moving into a second country — if it can find the funding.
"It turns out to be a really easy and efficient way to do private sector economic development," said 27-year-old co-founder Ethan Zuckerman, who made his millions when he sold off free Web page provider Tripod to Lycos in 1998. An Internet industry requires some basic infrastructure, such as power, phones and an ISP, but it doesn't require huge industrial machinery and can be supported by small companies, he said.
Going to Ghana
Ghana's a third-world country, with an average monthly income of $160, a dodgy electricity supply, and farm animals running in the streets of its capital Accra. But the country is a leader in West Africa. It's peaceful, democratic, and has a strong educational tradition and a deregulated telecommunications sector, according to Charles Kenny, an economist for the World Bank. (See sidebar for more on the Internet in Africa.)
"It's a poor African country, yet it's one which already has a number of good ISPs," he said.
Promoting the Net may not be the obvious development step in countries where essentials like water and electricity are often scant. But building up the tech sector facilitates all kinds of economic development, Zuckerman said.
GeekCorps isn't the only group jumping into the African Internet arena. Both the Peace Corps and the British Volunteer Service Organization have information technology development efforts. In the for-profit sector, a South African firm called M-Web Africa is pushing content portals across the continent.
"Farmers are using [the Internet] to get commodity prices, ... financial information is under huge demand, ... [and] people love to get on to discussion forums and log on as a sort of anonymous nom de plume and have their say," said Tanya Accone, executive producer for M-Web's efforts. The discussion forums provide a safe, anonymous place for people to criticize dictatorial regimes, she said.
But where the Peace Corps and M-Web are devoting at least some efforts to setting up infrastructure, Geekcorps' founders said laying down phone lines is beyond them — they're taking already-online companies to the next level.
GeekCorps deals exclusively with the private sector rather than with government bureaucracies.
Frank Arthur runs one of the companies helped by GeekCorps' first wave. As CEO of Spectrum3, an industrial design firm, he got a geek to help train his employees in how to do Web and multimedia design.
Ghanian firms with Web skills can become offshore data-processing or design centers for First World clients as well as serving the budding Ghanian demand for services, Zuckerman said.
Arthur said he can do Web work himself, but that GeekCorps helped improve the skills of his staff.
"I certainly hope that they have more guys out here helping Ghanian small firms like us, who can't really afford to bring in an ex-pat ... or send out our staff for training," he said.
In the current wave, radio station Joy Online is developing a Web presence to connect with the influential Ghanian-American community, and business directory Company Data is moving their paper files to a database, among other projects.
The companies pay GeekCorps back by investing in their local communities. Nuku Cafe, a Net cafe helped by the first wave, trained poor local kids in computer skills; Spectrum3 has helped a local junior high school edit and print a school magazine.
"We're continuing as far as we can go so that we can get the school to become totally knowledgeable about using the Internet," Arthur said.
The geeks' effort in Ghana can also spill over into the rest of West Africa, said co-founder Elisa Korentayer, 26, who has a degree in development from the London School of Economics.
"When you improve Ghana, what you've actually done is seeded improvement in the entire region. [Neighboring] Cote D'Ivoire goes to Ghana to do IT training," she said.
The crew of eight volunteers currently on the ground is an international bunch. They're three Americans, a Dane, a Canadian, a Brit, a Frenchman and a Dutch guy. By and large they're in their late 20s, with plenty of travel experience.
Geekcorps looks at applicants first for skills that match with partner companies' needs, and then for the general flexibility to deal with third-world conditions, Zuckerman said.
Tomas Krag and Timothy Harris, two of the current bunch in Ghana, said they were attracted to Geekcorps by the chance of helping the private sector in Africa and the short time frame. Both are jet-setters; Harris, for instance, splits his time between New York and Amsterdam.
Though their exhibitionistic Web site at www.geekhalla.org tells tales of the difficulty of adapting to third-world life, they're getting into the swing of things, they wrote to ABCNEWS.com in e-mails.
"We've gone two days practically without running water. There is a tank out back where you can get a bucket of water to wash with, but my luxurious Western corpus really enjoys the amenity of a quick shower, morning and evening," Krag wrote on the Geekhalla site.
They may not have reliable water supplies, but Krag's been surprised by the technology at Africa Express, an ISP he's working with that's trying to deliver service to remote communities.
"I was expecting to just come down here and teach them things I learnt two years ago, but here I am actually working with wireless technology that isn't even widely deployed back home," he wrote to ABCNEWS.com.
Surviving the Downturn
The tech downturn hasn't affected GeekCorps' application rate yet, Zuckerman said. The group gets 80 applications a month and accepts less than five percent.
And although their current group of techies seems to be motivated more by incurable wanderlust than anything else, one applicant for the organization's third class says that down times can be good times for the altruistic.
"It's really a time to sit things out and wait for the market to improve ... it's a perfect opportunity for someone like myself to do something selfless for six, nine, 12 months," said William Hood, an Internet consultant recently laid off from his Silicon Alley job.
But the crash could imperil the fragile funding for GeekCorps. For the group's first two tours, they were able to get $350,000 in foundation and corporate funding.
"We had hope of calling friends of ours in the venture capital community and saying, hey, your company increased in value $5 billion, why not share a couple hundred with us?" Zuckerman said.
But now they're looking for more modest forms of corporate sponsorship. Lycos, for instance, has offered to give one of their employees a sabbatical to send them on the next tour.
"Now we're saying, your company just lost 95 percent of its value, you can still give us a few hundred dollars, right?" Korentayer said.