Wherever It Takes You

Can you remember the first moment when you were curious – really curious – about how something worked?

When I was age 3 or 4, my parents gave me a cheap AM radio. It was shaped like “Big Bird” from Sesame Street, sitting on a nest. (In a clever bit of design, the nest actually housed the speaker and switches that operated it.)

I remember playing with that radio for hours. Sometimes in the late afternoon of the hot Arizona summer, I could place that yellow, plastic bird on just the right spot on my windowsill and, through the crackle of static, hear a faint signal emerge from a station in West Texas. That memory from my childhood is indelible: Listening to that announcer’s tinny-sounding southern drawl as I looked out my bedroom window, watching the dust particles in the air move like fireflies in the waning light of the sun.

To this day, I can still remember wondering, How did that voice travel all the way here from Texas?

I’ve been curious about technology ever since I was that little boy with his first radio. As an adult, though, I can look back on that single childhood moment and understand how many gifts and privileges were packed into it: There was a store nearby where my parents could buy me a radio. It was cheap enough that they could afford it and, just as important, wouldn’t care if I broke it. I had teachers. I had books in my own language which could explain to me how radio waves worked, how they could sometimes even skip across the atmosphere all the way from West Texas. And on and on.

If you live in a place that has been transformed by information technology, in a place where all of these things are taken for granted, it can be a challenge to remember that most of the world still isn’t like this.

_MWS9879

There are still a great many human beings – children and adults – who cannot ‘follow their curiosity’. Books, information and modern tools like computers are too expensive for ordinary people in many places. If electricity or the Internet is even available, it is often unaffordable.

The fact remains: For all of the powerful changes that our modern tools have wrought, they still haven’t eradicated poverty, illiteracy or disease. There’s no “magic gadget” or technological fix for problems like these, only human beings who are actively working to improve their own lives and those of their neighbors.

So here’s what I’m curious about these days:

How can technology help these people do that work?

In 2011, I joined the board of Village Science to try to find some answers to that question. Village Science develops projects that promote the exchange of information, technology and entrepreneurship. It brings together like-minded people and groups to build the tools and frameworks needed to improve literacy and economic development for people all over the world.

Our new program leverages existing, affordable technologies in new ways that we hope will help people who are trying to improve their communities. It is designed to enable as many people as possible to ‘follow their curiosity’ and we need your help to get it off the ground.

Here’s what we’re doing:

P1230157

  • We’re building an information hotspot specifically for the developing world called “VSPi”(wepronounce it “Vespy”). It’s small – about the size of a deck of playing cards. It’s also incredibly affordable, usually costing less than $50 in parts.
  • VSPi is versatile: Schools and community libraries that already have some computers or tablets can use them to connect to VSPi’s content. In places that don’t, the VSPi itself can be used as a computer by plugging in an inexpensive monitor and keyboard. And because VSPi’s computer needs very little power to operate, you can run it on batteries, solar panels or even a water-wheel placed in a nearby stream.
  • We’re reaching out to partners who have already developed great textbooks, videos and information in a community’s own language and we’re using the VSPi to give them wider distribution. By pre-loading their content on VSPi, an Internet connection isn’t required for it to be accessible – and our content partners can see what information these communities actually find useful.
  • We’re building in tools for “Participatory Design”. VSPi users can easily add their own content to the community hotspot. People living anywhere can also help improve VSPi’s content translations or even its software. We can then use our specially-developed updating framework to share those improvements throughout the community.
  • We’re using “ingredients” that can help build new jobs.  VSPi uses Linux and WordPress – software that powers many of today’s Internet-based companies. By teaching people how to use them, we’re giving them exposure to the skills needed to modernize their economies.

By putting together this package of inexpensive hardware and free software tools in just the right way, we can make a platform that lets people directly participate in creating and improving information access for their own communities. One that also builds new skills for modern jobs.

Village Science has already started building this platform. We need your help to make it better.

How You Can Help

Village Science is sharing the VSPi framework with the world. You can download it today, play around with the open source code and improve upon what we’ve begun. We’ve also set up a forum which makes it incredibly easy to ask questions, suggest changes and learn more about technology needs specific to these communities.

There are lots of opportunities to help in your own way: We need WordPress people to help us refine our theme. We need Linux-y people to help improve our server software. We need graphic designers to help us make it beautiful. We need writers and translators to help us prepare the documentation and content. We need other groups who are working on technology in the developing world to join the conversation and share their experiences.

When we’ve finished, we’ll have made something truly remarkable together: A powerful, free framework to spread and share knowledge. To enable people looking to have a positive impact and share their skills in a way that improves lives.

And to help people, no matter where they live, to be able to follow their curiosity – wherever it takes them.

(This post originally appeared on Veritrope.com)

“Wherever It Takes You” is the first of a three-part series about Village Science. Coming up next, VS Chief Technologist Nick Wynja takes you under the hood of the VSPi and explains how we’re building a Raspberry Pi for the developing world.

Tags: