Nov 10

Solving the Digital Divide is a Matter of Security

Today was surreal.

My mother was an English teacher, and now in her retirement, she helps men who are studying theology with their theses. One of these men is in Zambia. His name is Jean Renee Talbo and he lives in a place called Lusaka. He and my mother email each other back and forth regarding his writing. I told my mother I was interested in corresponding with Jean Renee, because heck, I’ve never met a person from Zambia and I figured it would be neat.

Jean Renee is a very kind priest who helps the village. He is concerned because the tractor they use to get goods in and out of the village is out of commission. I might be able to find him bikes, but bikes really aren’t useful during the rainy season. They need $4,000 for the repair.

Today I went to Jonas Lamis’s presentation “Brains, Bots, and Bodies” today at the Texas Union. I learned about technology that will semi-automate driving. I learned about search engines that don’t search–they do. There was talk of fighting off aging and artificial intelligence.

Such a stark contrast in ideas is just really hard to compute for a person in a day.

People often tell me “You have such a big heart” and tell me I should care more about myself. Here is my point–even Colin Powell acknowledges that the war on poverty is a matter of national security. When you have a world of haves, and a war of have-nots, and a network of people who prey on the insecurities of the have-nots to steal from the haves, being kind suddenly isn’t a matter of just feeling good. Acknowledging the fact that the poor even exist is a matter of security. By forging a mutually beneficial relationship with those less fortunate than ourselves, we 1.) help them gain useful skills, and 2.) gain a network of people whose best interests will tell them that we need to be protected. So we give a little, but we get a lot.

This concept doesn’t just apply to countries. It applies to us as business professionals and as individuals. Trust me, if you can help the problems of the least of these, helping those who are better off is a piece of cake.

So does anyone have money for a tractor?

Jun 02

Showing the Internet to a Burmese Refugee Who’d Never Seen it Before

Yesterday I went to Elaine Allan’s house to buy a couple of computer cords for the machines I’m giving to Burmese refugees. A lady named MuMu was over there. MuMu is a Burmese refugee who currently watches children for other Burmese people here in town. She speaks a little English, but is far from fluent. She has never used a computer in her life.

MuMu and other refugees like her are very interested in what has happened to Burma. MuMu didn’t know where her only sister was even before the cyclone due to the oppressive nature of the government. She’d heard about the storm from Elaine, but didn’t know the details.

I sat at a computer and showed her Google. I explained that this was a resource greater than all of the libraries she could imagine. There was a wealth of information at her fingertips, and she like anyone else could publish her story and connect with others.

She had seen a computer, but she had never in her life truly recognized the internet.

In seconds, I pulled up Google news and typed in “Burma cyclone”. I showed her pictures. Elaine and I explained headlines. She looked in amazement and a certain quiet sadness. I cannot imagine what was going on in her heart at that moment.

I messaged my friend in California and explained that this person was over 1000 miles away and could instantly communicate with me. I sent out a message of what we were doing to over 300 people on Twitter. All of this was new to MuMu. All of this could help her get better employment, educate herself and her children, or bring assistance to her family back home. None of it is at her disposal.

Social media is power. Believe it.

Apr 23

Using Linux Ubuntu to Bridge the Digital Divide

I am not an “open source evangelist”. My knowledge of code does not extend beyond basic HTML. I have had offers to teach me, but I am a marketer and my career advances when I learn more about marketing, not about code.

I also dabble in volunteering. Generally, I’ve been too career driven to volunteer, but recent circumstances in my life have made me reevaluate my priorities. I’ve been helping Elaine Allen, who works tirelessly to improve the living situations of many refugees here in town. When I tell her about cool new happenings in the tech world, she tells me about people living here in Austin who often run out of money for food. These people are refugees from Burma, Rwanda, Sudan, and Burundi, who came here with nothing but social security numbers and the need to escape a horrible situation. I met a refugee here in Austin who was down to three diapers for her baby and heard stories of another man who worked so tirelessly, he is 55 years old with long hair because he is too busy working as a janitor to actually stop to get a haircut. That is what $7 an hour gets you in Austin.

What does this have to do with Linux? Austin has lost thousands of jobs in the shift to a knowledge based economy. If a person does not have basic internet skills, they will fall further and further behind in the digital divide. I can help these refugees by simply giving them the computers people aren’t using. Why is Linux Ubuntu perfect for this?

  • I don’t have to pay for it (duh).
  • They won’t have to worry about anti-viral software, which I doubt they would know much about anyway.
  • Upgrades are silly easy and also free.
  • I can accept older computers, since Linux is less resource intensive than XP, and a welterweight compared to Vista. Why spend money when I can use other people’s unused computers for free and get better, virus and worm free results :-)? Most of the software they need is web-based anyway.
  • What do I not like about using Linux for this project?
    I generally like hanging out with people and being outdoors. This means I don’t want to be sitting and installing Flash or Gnash on every machine I get. According to the Linux Journal, I’d also have to install Java, MP3 support, DVD support, video streaming plugins, and true type fonts. People use this stuff, but setting them up on every machine I get fills my heart with dread. I just want to give computers to people who should be using them.

    Why Ubuntu is Cool as Hell
    Nowadays, software is more expensive than the machine you put it on. With Linux, there are no viruses, free upgrades, open office and gimp already part of the package. I can offer all the basics to people who need them without worrying that I’m going to get hauled off to jail or fined simply for trying to help people who have been through the worst humanity has to offer. This project would simply be too labor intensive and expensive if my only option was Windows.

    Mark Shuttlesworth doesn’t have to support Canonical or Ubuntu–he just does. The idea of consciously contributing something so useful to the community at large is truly inspirational.

    To learn how you can help these refugees, please visit borntohelp.org. To learn more about Ubuntu, a free operating system built by the developer community, visit Canonical’s website. To donate a computer, please contact me at michelle(at)michellesblog.net or ping me in the Twittosphere at http://www.twitter.com/michelle_greer.