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Computing in the Third World: A Success Story

I just got back from my third trip to Haiti, a third-world country hampered by numerous problems. Nevertheless, after two years in operation, our school installation is reporting 100% uptime. Careful planning on electrical infrastructure proved to be worth every penny.

The First Problem is Power

Funny how AC power, which in the U.S. we take so for granted, is completely problematical in the third world. Endemic power problems are the worst threat to achieving widespread computer adoption in the third world.

In Haiti, my recorded observations in two cities posit total AC power grid failures at least once a day, and at random times.  Duration is from several minutes to several hours.  In addition, power spikes and voltage problems are common.  The results to personal computers are predictable: premature failure.
For example, I am involved in a 2008 project that put PCs into a K-12 school and teacher’s college in the city of Jacmel, on the Caribbean.  To overcome the unacceptable mains power problems, our technology team undertook the following infrastructure to support a 20-PC classroom:
– Industrial window air conditioners to cool and dehumidify classroom air
– Roof-mounted solar panels, lead-acid batteries, and an AC inverter
– 35 Kw diesel generator for backup power when solar is not available
– Installed costs including freight and duties were US$35,000; the PCs represent 40% of the total cost.
Side-by-Side Test: Protected Power PCs Keep Running
Five, unprotected, three-year old Dell Dimension computers in another classroom at the same Jacmel school are all dead with motherboard failures.  The capital is not available to replace these computers which failed well before expected useful life end.
The solar-to-battery classroom has 20 PCs that are all operating after tow years of operation that includes a Category 4 hurricane and a devastating earthquake.
PC Education Starts With the Basics
It is common for first-world students to get hands-on PC experience during their K-12 years, and to expect college-level students to have basic computer competency.  In the third world, it is common for even college-level students to have essentially no hands-on PC experience.  Therefore, education needs to start with basics like mouse movement, menus, folders and all the UI concepts needed as a base for application-level experience.
At the Jacmel school, hands-on computer training starts at age 10 with a classroom-hour a week. Teacher training receives extensive computer familiarization. However, the school population has doubled in the two years since the computer room was opened. Up to fifty students at a time now use the twenty PCs, so actual hand-eye skill training are not ideal.
Microsoft Has an Important Place in the Third World
Outside the U.S., it is common in the first and second world to see deliberate moves away from Microsoft operating systems and applications (e.g., EC).  I am quite surprised at the third world demand for Microsoft software.  The key reason is job skill development.  K-12 education is much more aimed at building usable work skills than in the first world, and here Microsoft operating systems and applications are — and buyers expect will continue — thoroughly embedded in business, commerce, and government.
Do Child Laptops have Limited Interest?
I have evaluated EePC, Intel Classmate, and OLPC laptops and extensively discussed the pros and cons with prospective buyers.  Some observations:
– The screen size is only personal; a plurality want desktops with large (19″) LCDs in order to sit two students per PC to maximize equipment utilization.
– Microsoft applications and Windows (see above).
– Concern for theft and loss.  Lack of capital for loss replacement.
– In general, laptops were of lower demand/interest than desktops.
In spite of these objections from Haiti and Brazil, Intel is making slow progress convincing governments to invest in country-wide child laptop deployments. Haiti, which lacks a fully functional government, is a poor candidate for country-wide PC deployments.
Classroom PCs Must Come Without IT Infrastructure
Classroom PCs need the same backup, anti-virus, software update, and other mundane but necessary care and feeding as a small business.  However, the lack of IT personnel skills and availability makes even routine IT infrastructure and management exercises difficult.  In short, a server is not much good if there is no administrator or operator trained and certified to keep the infrastructure running.  Our solution to date is to use LAN-level automated backup products.  I think it is a chicken and egg problem where lack of interest in learning about proper IT infrastructure management is tied to a lack of jobs related to IT infrastructure management.
By focusing 60% of our infrastructure investment on clean, reliable electrical power, our PCs are delivering the uptime needed to meet a demanding 14-hour-per-day usage schedule. The feared infant mortality was averted. The costs of that electrical infrastructure, which took an exorbitant 60% of the overall budget, are projected to support at least a decade of operations. That translates into about two generations of PCs.
The doubling of the school size was not forecast. Nor was the growth through success; adding more student classes to younger grades based on early success and the installation’s reliability. We’ll put in another six PCs this year to lower the students-per-PC ratio. However, the situation will never be ideal.
Looking to the Future
The rapid decline in desktop electrical usage makes it possible, in a couple of years, to think about doubling the number of PCs into an adjacent classroom — without increasing the solar-battery infrastructure. Stretching that existing solar-battery infrastructure is the obvious lever.
Netbooks are another future alternative for the classroom. At another Haiti project, a jobs-creating business was started with a pallet of 24 netbooks costing about $10,000. With wireless LAN and a router, this computer services business was in business in hours. However, unlike the take-it-home approach Intel advocates with the Classmate PC, these netbooks stay on the desks at night.


3 thoughts on “Computing in the Third World: A Success Story

  1. I see this is a couple years old, but I have been trying to design a personal system like this in my head for a long time. Would you change things now or suggest anything specific for running a single desktop on the kind of eccentric power Haiti provides? Something that could supplement city power? I would love to know your thoughts.

    • 1. I would use a desktop all-in-one such as the iMac. They’re basically laptops with a bigger screen.
      2. Use a large-capacity battery backup power-supply such as APC 1200 VA. That gives you many minutes of power before you shut down.
      3. Solar-power: a single solar panel can drive an all-in-one desktop.

      Good luck!

  2. Pingback: Buying a PC for Your Third-World Adventure | Peter S. Kastner on Technology

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