February 28, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Geekcorps: A Peace Corps for techies

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Initially, the payoff on these projects comes from the fact that certain tasks--getting information on vaccines and scheduling transportation, for example--are made easier. But over time, the idea is that technology can better help establish a middle class and, ultimately, greater social stability.

"Someone with an income and a job is the most dependable person you can find," Vota said. "He is going to be the first to ask for a level playing field."

"I will send you to a place where you will have three to five apprentices emulating your keystrokes."
--Wayan Vota, Geekcorps director

In Ghana, for instance, Geekcorps volunteers six years ago noted that digital printing had yet to hit the country, so it brought in experts who could hook up PCs and teach locals how to use publishing software. A database for accessing crop prices and agricultural data across West Africa has also been established. Since then, Ghana has become an Internet hot spot of sorts for West Africa. Busy Internet in Accra is Africa's largest Internet cafe and has served as an incubator for five companies.

Additionally, Geekcorps helped set up Ghana's first Internet exchange in 2005. Before that, e-mails from one town to another were being routed through other countries, mostly Europe.

In Mali, the group brought over a wireless expert who disassembled Western-built antennas with locals. Through reverse-engineering, the locals and the expert figured out how to craft a cantenna out of an inner-tube valve, an old window screen and water bottles. In all, the cost came to about $1.

Once the design was complete, Geekcorps terminated the local apprenticeships. The next day one of them took the initiative and came back with a rate sheet for selling antennas to stations. The local antenna company now employs four people.

With a few minor tweaks, the current antennas--which still cost about a dollar and provide about the same performance as antennas sold in North America for around $40--could receive TV signals.

In general, locals adapt to technology quickly and in unexpected ways. In Mali, DJs at radio stations that installed PCs began to use them to answer listener questions using information found on Wikipedia or other Web sites. Digital technology also makes it easier to keep politicians publicly accountable for their promises.

During the Paris riots, Internet use kicked into full swing. One of Mali's largest exports is young men who serve as laborers in Paris. Villagers wanted to receive a continual stream of news reports, as well as to send messages to their migrant relatives.

Geekcorps also tries to work in countries where the Internet infrastructure exists, but can be exploited better. One project going on in Lebanon right now revolves around figuring out ways that local hotels can advertise and book rooms on the Web to expand tourism. In Lebanon, and many other nations, often the only hotels that book rooms through the Web are outposts of Western chains like Hyatt and are concentrated generally in the chief cities.

Another ongoing project involves creating a way for customs agents along the Kenya-Uganda border to communicate more easily and thus reduce the time it takes to ship cargo between the two.

Geekcorps kicked off in 1999 after Ethan Zuckerman, who had sold his company, Tripod, to Lycos in 1998, found himself flush with cash and lots of spare time. He began to discuss philanthropic ideas with other newly wealthy Internet entrepreneurs. Zuckerman attended the University of Ghana on a Fulbright scholarship and understood firsthand the difficulty of getting books there.

The dot-com crash sucked a lot of the enthusiasm out of the effort. By 2004, Geekcorps teamed up with the International Executive Service Corps. Funding for various projects comes from USAID, a branch of the U.S. State Department.

Recruiting and scheduling remain among the chief problems. Potential volunteers are often intrigued by the concept, but then drop out because of job circumstances or family issues. Most, though, enjoy the experience, Vota said.

"I will send you to a place," he said, "where you will have three to five apprentices emulating your keystrokes."

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6 comments

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Kudos-Way to bridge the digital divide
With all the industry news I read, I can't believe I didn't know about GeekCorps. With growing and growing gaps between First and Third world countries - a really noble way to bridge those gaps. Kudos to Mr. Zuckerman on starting the vision and all the people who give of their time to help others become wired.
Posted by marileev (292 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Kudos-Way to bridge the digital divide
With all the industry news I read, I can't believe I didn't know about GeekCorps. With growing and growing gaps between First and Third world countries - a really noble way to bridge those gaps. Kudos to Mr. Zuckerman on starting the vision and all the people who give of their time to help others become wired.
Posted by marileev (292 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Geeks Rule In The African Bush
Clearly, Geeks rule in the African Bush as they do around the rest of the planet.

The #1 Life in the Geek Corps photo showing two Geek Brethren inside Thatched Hut Cyber-Control says it all. That Dynamic Techno-Duo is the quintessential Ueber Geek Technical Team dressed for Techno-Ops in the African Bush.

The Manager Geek is dressed in a J. C. Penney, Geek-Sheik business suit; the Worker Geek is in cotton duck trousers with his shirtsleeves rolled up ready for Techno-Action with both Techie Brethren wearing G.I. [Geek Issue] shoes.
Posted by Catgic (106 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Geeks Rule In The African Bush
Clearly, Geeks rule in the African Bush as they do around the rest of the planet.

The #1 Life in the Geek Corps photo showing two Geek Brethren inside Thatched Hut Cyber-Control says it all. That Dynamic Techno-Duo is the quintessential Ueber Geek Technical Team dressed for Techno-Ops in the African Bush.

The Manager Geek is dressed in a J. C. Penney, Geek-Sheik business suit; the Worker Geek is in cotton duck trousers with his shirtsleeves rolled up ready for Techno-Action with both Techie Brethren wearing G.I. [Geek Issue] shoes.
Posted by Catgic (106 comments )
Reply Link Flag
A rare bird
I interviewed Zuckerman for an article a few years ago. Found him
to be very unusual for an Open Source advocate and IT success
story. Most of those people are know-it-alls who want to impose
their views on the world. Zuckerman is someone who is just as
interested in what he can learn from others as he is in his own
knowledge. He is also a pragmatist, able to work with people who
he doesn't necessarily agree with politically.
Posted by J.G. (837 comments )
Reply Link Flag
A rare bird
I interviewed Zuckerman for an article a few years ago. Found him
to be very unusual for an Open Source advocate and IT success
story. Most of those people are know-it-alls who want to impose
their views on the world. Zuckerman is someone who is just as
interested in what he can learn from others as he is in his own
knowledge. He is also a pragmatist, able to work with people who
he doesn't necessarily agree with politically.
Posted by J.G. (837 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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