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Geeks to the Corps

Preaching the message of open source to the Third World, the Geekcorps is promoting libertarian sustainability for the digital age.
February 16, 2005

While the Peace Corps builds houses, lays pipes and teaches chemistry, the International Executive Service Corps/Geekcorps has a more high-tech raison d’ etre.

Since early 2000, the charitable organization has been sending programmers, network designers and technical support to cities in some of the most impoverished nations in the world.

Geekcorps was conceived after Tripod co-founder Ethan Zuckerman visited Ghana in 1993. Inspired to narrow the digital divide, Zuckerman set up the initial program with six volunteers who were sent to Ghanaian city of Accra to develop Web applications and banking software with local companies.

Since then, the organization has grown to 1,600 volunteers strong, and pulls its members from companies such as Netscape Communications and the United Kingdom’s Department of Trade. Those who make it through the rigorous selection process then take part in a three-to-four month tour aimed at transferring their computing knowledge into sustainable systems that can be used in impoverished regions in eleven countries across the globe.

Geekcorps volunteers are assigned to a partner business based upon their experience and the local needs of places where information technology already plays an important part in the development of the economy. With their technical know-how and specialties, the geeks bring high-tech solutions to the local business challenges, which included everything from developing e-business infrastructures to establishing communication models.

“One preconceived notion of which I had to disabuse myself was that the so-called Information Revolution has completely passed Malians by,” explains Mali-based Geek Peter Baldwin. “This is simply not true. IT just looks a little different here.”

One major difference for these areas, if the Geek Corps has its way, will be that IT will look much freer with the help of open source software. The emphasis on libertarian software tools is a recent addition to the IESC/Geekcorps armory.

In the past, and usually at the behest of on-site companies, the army of geeks relied upon proprietary languages and packages like Java and Photoshop to help set up localized solutions that were quick to implement and easy to use. In the short term and for organizations which were able to meet the expense, this was an ideal way to connect with the rest of the world.

Legally, however, this was a hot potato. The IESC/Geekcorps is supported by private and corporate bodies and government grants, and their use licensed systems – which were sometimes hacked – led to unintentional support for thriving markets in pirated applications.

That meant, for practical purposes, finding Linux-based solutions became a necessity for the Geekcorps.

“As a U.S. Government funded program, we cannot condone the theft of intellectual property,” says program manager Wayan Vota. “We’ve found that open source software has reached a level of maturity where it can offer the functionality that rivals the proprietary systems. In addition, the total cost of ownership profile is perfect for developing countries”.

Open software also relieved the burden that some volunteers faced when they would be implementing solutions from rival companies. The message of Geekcorps is community solutions, not global competition. That means volunteers who enjoy their tours with the support of home businesses leave their brand loyalty at the airport. The projects they take on are designed for, created by and maintained by the locals, which arguably keeps local qualified technicians in work and in their homes.

“One of the main reasons that we chose open source tools is that we wanted the product of our work to be replicable,” says Ian Howard, program coordinator for IESC/Geekcorps in Mali. “We are spending a lot of time adapting technologies for Mali, and we want others who don’t have the luxury of US funding to be able to pick the fruits of our labour.”

Community outreach programs are essential in the success of local business applications to the program. The resulting unique digital solutions are made available to the whole district by trained employees after the Geekcorps leaves. Demand is indeed great, and the development of sustainable, unlicensed systems means that technologically-imposed needs can be met within the self-generated constructs of the community.

The move to open source projects, though, is still in its infancy. Of the ten countries IESC/Geekcorps volunteers are assigned, Mali is the only one that is “almost completely” open source.

Other countries remain reliant upon cross-language and operating system fertilisation. However, the current emphasis on open source demonstrates a confidence in the tools and the realisation of the digital libertarian message. While internationally the digital divide threatens to engulf developing nations, on a local scale Geekcorps aims to narrow gaps between rich and poor in respect to information, health and education.

“We are explicitly attempting to close knowledge gaps through out work,” explains Baldwin. “I can’t think of anyone who would argue that there is a downside to broader access to information.”

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