Inveneo.org is a nonprofit that connects the most cut-off people in the world--they provide communication technology to people in developing regions or disaster zones which lack the infrastructure for normal telephone and internet connections. Their connections have helped rural villages spawn business, hurricane victims get aid, even helped the sick cure themselves by talking with doctors. We've mentioned them before, and Wired also has a good article on them. Tomorrow they will be presenting at HumaniNet's Sim Day, and last week I got the chance to speak with Inveneo's COO, Laura Mellow. Here's a summary of the interview (quotes are not word-for-word):
Your "Inveneo Communication Stations" sound similar to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, except that yours already work and already exist in the field. How long have they been out and how do they compare to OLPC?
Our Communication Stations are ultra-low-power PCs, running on Linux, requiring 12 watts of power. They can be run on solar, bicycle, wind, or other power; solar is the primary. This is important because most communities they serve are off the grid. They are very simple machines, with no moving parts, using off-the-shelf technology; they can also can be modified to add voice communication (VOIP). Each computer connects to a wifi access point which in turn connects to a real internet connection (satellite, local ISP, or cell phone provider with data capability). Each wifi access points has a high-gain directional antenna with a 12 to 20 km line-of-sight range, and the access points can daisy-chain up to 5 hops, so they can take their range out to 70-100 km to the internet connection. We work with local entrepreneurs to maintain the deployments we have.
[Thus, the main design difference appears to be that Inveneo's computers don't contain a power source inside them, but rely on external sources; the lack of moving parts is also a significant difference, which should make them very robust--she doesn't just mean no external parts, she means no internal fan, which will be helpful in dusty/dirty environments. The use of off-the-shelf parts may be the main reason they're already on the ground, and it should help with repairs & maintenance.]
We did our first installment in June 2005 in Uganda; since then we've had another dozen installments, with over 150 units in use today in Ghana, Rwanda, and Uganda, as well as some components in Haiti, and we have projects coming up in half a dozen other countries. [They also did an installation on America's gulf coast for hurricane relief; see below.] Our intention is to become global. We're getting most of our traction in Africa, because word of mouth spreads quickly.
How do you ensure long-term existence of the network you create? Many high-tech development projects have great intentions but end up with equipment broken and abandoned a few years later, without having made lasting change.
A huge part of our program is that when we do a first project in a country, we look for local IT partners. It's amazing the breadth of knowledge that exists locally if you can find the right people. But these people are not connected to each other, so we're creating an ecosystem of existing IT professionals, and they become the support arm. We do complete knowledge transfer on our systems and its technologies (like wifi skills) so it's a great economic opportunity for the local IT person, and at the same time it ensures support for our systems. This support network is just as important to success as the devices themselves. It's also an economic boost to the area--not only is the communication itself useful, the jobs supporting the communication are also good for the area.
Do your networks improve rural villagers' economic lives enough that villages could pay to install & run them? Or does it still need to be a charity?
The project in Uganda is the longest-lived one, and at this point I don't know if they're in that position yet. Their main use for the communication technology is to save them a couple hours walk to talk to someone in the next village [which adds up, but is hard to measure in money]. A town that makes baskets has connected to a storefront in Portland and online, and they now sell so many baskets that they can't keep up with demand. They are starting to get organized and grow, but are not yet at a point where they could buy another system. But some of our installations are businesses that provide internet and/or telephone access (telecenters). [These would presumably pay for themselves if some microcredit were available for the initial capital investment.]
How have your communication networks affected women's lives and economic status in developing countries?
The basket story is all women. They've been so successful they're trying to recruit women from surrounding villages to provide more production. Also, the worldwide press coverage on the project in their village causes more visitors to come; not so much that they have a tourism industry, but it boosts the local economy. (And causes even more basket sales.)
I've also noticed that much of Inveneo's staff, including senior leadership, is women. This is unusual for a technology company. Was this done intentionally?
No, it wasn't. We started with four people who'd all crossed paths in the past and kept wanting to do something meaningful for people who needed help, and we all had technology backgrounds which we didn't want to leave behind. We started Inveneo to be something technology-based for a social mission. Nowadays we get huge numbers of applications from all sorts of people, and we just pull in whoever's best for the job that needs getting done.
How have your tools helped in emergency response / relief?
After hurricane Katrina, we went down to Bay St. Louis and helped set up a network there. It wasn't entirely our system, but it was our strategy and wifi components. Originally we were asked to build a communications network for an aid organization, but it quickly spread to requests for communications in the shelters so people could contact loved ones, fill out FEMA forms to get aid, and the like. Then local police and fire wanted it as well. By the end of three weeks, most of the city was covered by wireless. Then once things were more stable, we transitioned administration of the network to volunteers who were staying longer.
How did you get involved in Sim Day?
We first participated in Sim Day in Portland, also sponsored by HumaniNet. We worked with them for a year to get their technology involved in a rapid-response for disaster areas. They have ability to package a system in a hardened case and get it set up within minutes, as long as there's a satellite uplink to connect to. We also work with Green-WiFi, which does daisy-chained wireless networks.
Any final thoughts?
We're thrilled to be doing what we're doing.
Ethan Zuckerman reported that the most recent (June) OLPC machine prototype he saw no longer has an internal generator powered by a hand crank. The power supply is an add on for the latest machine.
There is also the work of the Jhai Foundation http://www.jhai.org/technology.htm