Under the Hood

In this Q&A, Chief Technologist Nick Wynja takes us under the hood of the Raspberry Pi and explains how Village Science is harnessing this inexpensive computer and shared code to bring educational materials to the developing world.

Q: I love pie! But I have a feeling Village Science is working with a different sort. What is the VSPi?

Nick: We’re building on top of Raspberry Pi, which is an inexpensive and efficient Linux computer. It costs only $45 US which means distributing educational materials to kids around the world can be really cheap. It’s exciting – we’re harnessing the power of shared code and channeling it into this really inexpensive blank-slate computer.

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The idea of VSPi is to bring educational materials to developing nations by creating a platform that allows people from around the world to collaborate and contribute content, code and ideas in a simple way. In many places around the world, people don’t have the same access to information that we do. We’ve been making this little server that can be installed in schools, libraries and community centers so that people can take advantage of this new, local wealth of information.

So how will students have access to VSPis?

We’re working with partners to install VSPis in schools and libraries in developing countries like Laos. Computers and Internet access – it’s something that we take for granted but those things aren’t really available in many places. So with VSPi, kids in Luang Prabang can go to the library, connect to a VSPi and have access to a wealth of information they’ve never been able to see before. We’ve got these Pis filled up with educational videos, history and language articles, lots of science stuff too, and it’s also translated into local languages which is rare. They won’t need to wait for painfully slow dial-up to watch videos and will hopefully have fun learning with it.

VSPi not only gives the tools for these students to learn in new and exciting ways, but also gives the local community, like teachers and parents, a way to create new learning materials and content: they can pass along traditions and stories, or use these computers to help businesses and agriculture. A VSPi could be used like an interactive textbook for a student with videos walking her through a science experiment. Or it could be used for farmers to track crops through seasons.

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UNDER THE HOOD

How does it work? How is the VSPi unique? What is so special about this software?

Under the hood, VSPi takes a lot of the technical pieces that have been coming together online for over a decade — like open source code and collaboration networks — which have changed the way people run businesses and projects. These same tools can change both the way kids in Southeast Asia learn and the way that we can help. VSPi is the little server that actually shares the content, the network and systems that manage and distribute that data and the people that help create and code.

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We’ve started by setting up a simple and lightweight tool for deploying the VSPi servers. Part of it is a script that installs all of the software dependencies, configures the settings automatically and adds tools that help update and manage the device. We built this so we could easily and simply distribute the platform which is not only important for distributing the educational materials that’s on a VSPi, but also so we can get it in the hands of developers and teachers, writers and thinkers.

VSPi’s software is not that special and that’s by design. It’s using a Linux operating system and standard tools like Nginx, MySQL and WordPress.Village Science is using GitHub so that the code is out there and we can get help from people to build the networks, frameworks and tools that power VSPi.

GETTING TECHNICAL

Why WordPress?

There are other platforms, frameworks or languages that could make building the content management and display easier for us but a massive amount of websites run WordPress. That means a ton of people know how to use it, build template and themes, plugins, distribute content for it and manage it. We can take advantage of that wide community of WordPress hackers to come up with powerful ways to use it – and even beyond that, introduce first-time engineers in developing communities to enter a world of development on a platform that’s well documented, supported and talked about. It’s a catalyst to get them interested in building and gives them new entrepreneurial opportunities. Wouldn’t it be cool if a student got their hands on a VSPi, then got curious about how it worked (like how many of us got started with computers), so started poking, building, then eventually committed code back to VSPi and even start up their own business for making websites for other local businesses.

As students start using VSPi, and teachers and community members begin adding their own content, VSPi is going to change and evolve. How does Village Science keep up with this evolution?

There’s two main pieces to the VSPi’s technical future:

1)    the codebase that powers the servers themselves will need to continue to be developed as people want to do more things with them

2)    the network that aggregates and distributes content as it gets written and added to each individual VSPi will need to become more robust

As I wrote in my previous blog post, it takes a village to raise a framework. We’re going to need a lot of help from people who know how to work on WordPress and people who know low-level systems, front-end development and architecting distributed networks.

Everything we build is open-source and hosted on the Village Science GitHub so that it’s easy to work with. We’ve got a release of the VSPi platform live and an early release of the WordPress part. We’re working through a series of sprints through to the end of the year to improve some of the network connectivity to make a more usable interface and to make content easier to share. We’d love to get 4 or 5 good sets of hands contributing before the end of the year to help us reach our milestones.

Think you can help? Please email me or read more about the opportunities on our discussion board.

“Under the Hood” is the second of a three-part series about Village Science. In the final post, Founder Justin Spelman explains the importance of relevant and culturally appropriate content, and gives a preview of what we’re installing for our first projects in Laos.

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