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NTK's Danny O'Brien is Worldchanging

The Word on Jhai
How much leverage does anyone really have to change the world? When charities ask you for money, the obligations of the rhetoric oblige them to imply your ten quid will build the world anew. Because, after all, who writes a cheque for a potentially doomed project?

And then, on the other side, we read news stories that tell us that it's all going to hell, and we feel hopeless, but we still click on those tales, because the stories that tell us its hopeless are the ones we read most closely. We read them because we think that's what shows us the way the world is changing. We like to think we're reading the signs

Last year, I did the first, upbeat, rhetorical trick on a project called the Jhai PC. It was a project to bring the Net to a part of Laos that was without electricity or telephony.

I didn't actually talk much about the project's chances of success; but there was an unspoken idea, I suppose, that such things change the world. I certainly encouraged people to send money.

The reaction was mostly enthusiastic. Net people like Net solutions, after all. Maybe a bit too enthusiastic, in that way that encourages others to point out flaws in the plan. What the hell where a bunch of villagers going to do with a Net connection, when they hadn't even got electric lighting?

It's a valid question, and it's valid no matter how many times it's answered. The answer the Jhai Foundation gave in this case was that it they were giving what the villagers had asked for. The Laos villagers wanted a way to talk to their ex-pat families in America; they wanted a way to make more money by finding out the local market prices directly instead of relying on middle-men, or risking the long trip down to the towns. They wanted communication, and information.

The Jhai people specced out a low-scale solution. Given the context,that was a ruggedised luggable, charged by a bicycle, talking down the mountain with a low-price WiFi link. Using free software, open standards, and commodity hardware made it cheap enough to consider; it also threw in the global Net as an added extra.

People at the time thought it might be a boondoggle; that the money would be wasted; that the project was futile, that it would be better to send books or build sewers. At the time, I said that all these things could be true, and I said that I would keep an eye on the project, and report as honestly as I could how it progressed.

So, eighteen months on, what's happening with the Jhai PC?

Well, first up: the villagers don't have their Net connection. As I understand it, one of the relay points for the Wi-Fi connection attracted the attention of the Army, and the government got involved. Rolling out the network became a task of negotiating that bureaucracy instead of testing the equipment. "We could never get a yes or a no answer from them", says Lee Thorn, who runs the Jhai Foundation.

In the end, the government suggested another village as a test site, in a less contentious area. Besides, they said, the Jhai PC might be on its way to obsolescence in its original site. That particular valley was due to receive electricity soon.

Lee Thorn, who runs the Jhai project, has worked with the original villagers for over seven years. He says that they understand what it is like to work with the government, and understood the difficulties. Still, he seemed disappointed to me. He continues to work with them on the other long-term projects they have requested, and which he has provided: coffee selling, education, well-drillng. The Jhai PC will be tested elsewhere later this year; the poles and cables of electricity are springing up near the villagers, although Thorn says he can't say whether they'll get their power soon or not.

The Jhai PC, meanwhile, appears to have exposed an odd little niche. There appears to be quite a few places on the earth which are tantalizingly close to Net connections and telephony, but have no electricity, no cellphone coverage, and no landlines. Think of it as the developing world's equivalent of the last-mile problem.

Parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, although unlikely to get electricity or telephony, are within ten miles of the IP network built out for the DRC's university system. Again, the villagers there want to stay in contact with the extensive ex-pat network that war-torn countries inevitably create, as well as improve their finances. A Jhai PC network seems like it may be the most affordable way to do this. There's a project, led by a Congolese graduate working out of South Carolina, using funding raised by from the Congolese themselves, to build this network.

This niche doesn't just exist in what's traditionally seen as the developing world. The Navajo Nation do not have complete telephone or electricity coverage in their sixteen million acres. They believe the Jhai PC may well fill in gaps by providing a quick and easy link to their existing computer networks to areas without power or phonelines. So the first real rollout of the equipment may well be in the continental United States.

Has the Jhai PC model changed the world? I don't know: perhaps the world will change faster than such an idea can catch on, and the economic niche it might occupy -- no power, no phone -- could vanish as grids are rolled out, solar panels or what-have-you dropped in, cellphone towers hiked up.

But it seemed to me a sign that the world had changed when the Jhai PC project was even considered - that villagers were asking for information retrieval and communication before they wanted electricity - and that the cost of computing and wireless commodity hardware had dropped so low that this was even conceivable as a low-level, privately funded project.

How can you determine whether what you do changes the world? You can't. But you can collect data. I don't think the emotion you feel when you send your ten bucks off to a charity is an accurate measurement of how the world changes, and I don't think the headlines in the news are either.

Something like the Jhai PC is so clearly on the edge of some envelope, some transitional state, that just watching it move and change shows you how the world is changing, like watching the line of breaking waves move slowly up the shore shows you the tide.

Danny O'Brien is co-editor of NTK.

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I believe that leveling the communications playing field is as important to the first world as it is to developing nations. How much money is required per seat for a project like this? I think a possible funding candidate could be

Posted by: Brad Sears on 5 Oct 04

The project is obviously a complete failure, you were unable to achieve the sole goal, internet access. You wasted the money, which could have been spent on more practical things like vitamin tablets or anti-malarial mosquito nets.

But congratulations on your incredible "discovery" of parts of the world that have no net access due to economics or political reasons. Be sure to let us know if you make any other equally obvious discoveries, i.e. the sun rises every morning.

What I hope you learn from this fiasco is that there is a big difference between what people WANT and what people NEED. What these people NEED is what their government is deliberately denying them: freedom to live their lives as they see fit. This sort of freedom is a byproduct of education and literacy. Your project would serve only the existing literate, educated population able to use computers. Your project, if it had succeeded, would have only reinforced the existing power structure in Laos. You would continue their oppression, rather than liberate them.

I suggest that you sell the equipment and give the money to UNICEF or someone who has prior experience delivering aid to underdeveloped dictatorial countries. Better yet, sell it all and buy paper, pencils, and some hand-cranked mimeograph machines and give them to the local schools.

Posted by: Charles on 5 Oct 04

Whatever point or opinion you might have is completely lost in a sea of self-serving, self-righteous Western, ashamed, nanny-state liberal guilt, which only propagates the mindset and ideologies you claim to so heatedly despise. Part of truly healing the divide between peoples of the world is respect for their wants and desires, regardless of how right or wrong you may think it is.

Posted by: Steve on 5 Oct 04

You could be right, Charles. The problem is that just as you've argued that this "complete failure" proves you need to give people what they NEED, rather than what they WANT, so I've heard more people - far more people, actually - argue exactly the other way around.

They say that this "complete failure" shows that misguided charitable people are utterly misguided in what they think people need. Cyberspace loonies, they say, see any problem, and think it needs a Net connection. Other people think the poor developing world needs arms to fight a revolution, or malaria tablets, or paper and pencils. Rather than give what we think people NEED, we should give them what they WANT. And so on. The story can be bent to support either case.

To be honest, I think the "complete failure" you've described - and the biggest lesson for a project like this - would reside in this equipment arriving, being set-up, and then nobody using it.
That would show far more vividly that it was the wrong thing, or that it was misplaced (I think it's unlikely that the scenario you paint, of established elites using this tech, occurring because the established elites don't live in villages without electricity or phones).

That's what happens to many PCs bought for education, and, from anecdotal evidence, much of any developing world aid, whether it's from government organisations, large NGOs, or smaller initiatives.

I also think it's what people who are cynical about the Jhai initiative would have expected. I'm not sure I wasn't entirely expecting it myself. You don't have to be a blinded idealist to give money. You can pragmatically estimate the odds of a project working, and still give money.

As it happens, bureacracy stopped the Jhai project from reaching that point -- again, something that frequently happens in such projects, UNICEF or not. I'm not sure it's obvious that we've reached a point where any lesson can be learnt in the area you describe - yet.

Posted by: Danny on 5 Oct 04

Steve, you're full of it. You're the armchair quarterback, while I personally have worked on 3rd world projects before (in Cambodia and Nigeria), SUCCESSFUL projects that directly and immediately improved people's lives. I've dealt with these issues before, and I know what I'm talking about. But this is not about me, this is about computer geeks that think computers can solve any problem.

There is no reason to have "respect for the..[Laotian's] wants and desires" as interpreted by computer geeks. The Laotians, according to the article, expressed a desire to be able to communicate with far away family members, and get rapid communication of market prices for their crops. Of course a computer geek immediately thinks of implementing an elaborate, unmaintainable Internet hub, that's how they think. If we sent US Post Office employees over, they'd probably try to set up Express Mail services. If we sent auto mechanics over, they'd probably try to set up highways with automobile couriers to carry news. And of course, none of these projects would deliver what the Laotians asked for. But everyone would declare they produced exactly what the Laotians asked for.

There is an old Zen koan: "There is no greater obstacle to seeing than the eyes, no greater obstacle to hearing than the ears." Stop looking through the eyes of a computer geek and start looking through the eyes of Laotians.

Posted by: Charles on 5 Oct 04

> villagers were asking for information retrieval and communication before they wanted electricity

Is that the case or is it that they either a) expected electricity soon anyway or b) they knew/suspected that the people at the Jhai foundation had expertise in communications and information but not in electricity provision.

Posted by: David Brake on 6 Oct 04

The Jhai computer communications project came out of the expressed needs of the Laotian community with which they were working, according to what I've read, and Jhai has been working with that community for a number of years on its coffee cooperative already. They continue that work.

Yesterday, I was at the IDEAS dinner at MIT, a place where students try to work on projects for local communities around the world. One of the students was working on a flood early warning system for a valley in India. She had heard of Jhai and when I reminded her of it, I think a light went off in her head. A local net might be just what she needs for her project and Jhai's work might be repurposed for India.

BTW, Jhai spent most of its time on the programming for the project, developing a Laotian language version they called Laonix. I would venture to say that this development may have much more importance than the original idea of a bicycle powered network.

Posted by: gmoke on 7 Oct 04



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