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Friday, 17 August, 2001, 08:18 GMT 09:18 UK
Tech gap bridges 'geeks' and 'geezers'
Geekcorps latest group of volunteers ready themselves for a trip to Ghana
Geekcorps latest group of volunteers ready themselves for a trip to Ghana
By BBC News Online's North America Business Reporter, David Schepp

The digital divide that separates rich nations from poorer ones is a massive impediment that might take decades to overcome - if at all.

Two US groups, however, have joined in an effort to bring technology to businesses in less developed nations.

Geekcorps CEO Ethan Zuckerman
Geekcorps CEO Ethan Zuckerman has hundreds of volunteers ready to travel
Geekcorps, a non-profit group that assists businesses in information technology (IT), has teamed with the International Executive Service Corps (IESC), a group that ships business executives to poor nations to lend management expertise.

Whiz kids and 'suits'

The new partnership will provide small businesses in cities such as Ghana's capital, Accra, with the best of both worlds - expertise in technology and in management.

It is geeks and geezers coming together to compliment the areas where each lacks expertise.

US business executives, who tend to be older, have loads of management and other business acumen but generally lack knowledge of the internet.

Meanwhile, Geekcorps' talent pool is comprised of IT whiz kids and veterans of the explosion whose expertise is in computers and electronic systems - not accounting and marketing.

As we become experts in the this field, I want to find ways to make sure that we try this in lots of different countries

Geekcorps chief executive Ethan Zuckerman

Both groups are fashioned after Peace Corps, the government agency that sends US citizens to foreign nations to help with improvements to infrastructure, education and other areas.

Both groups will head to Accra this autumn to help develop the city's IT sector, assembling 21 members of Geekcorps along with six IESC volunteers.

Together, they will assist 50 Ghanaian companies build computer networks and train employees.

Under the terms of the deal, seven paid Geekcorps volunteers will become a separate division within the IESC.

Growing digital divide

The disparity between technology haves and technology have-nots has become more glaring as more Westerners sign-on with ease to the internet.

The divide separating people in developing nations from access remains vast. It includes enormous populations that must first deal with very basic issues, such as food, water and electricity.

Within the business community, however, the gap has a better chance of being bridged. A country such as Ghana, which still struggles with basic development issues, nevertheless has a thriving business community that is eager to adopt the internet.

As businesses continue using IT, new opportunities develop and the local economy becomes stronger. The emboldened economy can then fund such things as IT education, further improving educational opportunities.

Dispatching talent

Geekcorps has so far sent two teams of volunteers to Accra, where groups work and live together while helping Ghanaian businesses adopt modern models of commerce.

The hazards for intrepid volunteers are few, says Geekcorps chief executive Ethan Zuckerman. Malaria must be combated with daily medication. Failure to take it or drinking local tap water may result in illness.

Safety, too, is a concern. But compared with big cities in the United States, crime is not a worry,

"There are countries that when we look at working in them, we have to ask ourselves the question [of safety]," Mr Zuckerman told BBC News Online.

He points to Somalia as an example. The country was under consideration as a destination for Geekcorps' next round of volunteers. But Geekcorps could not guarantee its workers' safety without moving them to a remote location far from urban centres.

That defeats part of the purpose of the group, which fashions itself after the Peace Corps.

Mr Zuckerman, 28, founded Geekcorps in 2000 after he sold his brainchild internet business, Tripod, to Lycos in 1998 for $58m. Sporting cowboy boots and long blond hair, he looks every part the counterculture techie associated with businesses.

He told BBC News Online that his Amherst, Massachusetts-based organisation is looking to expand to five other countries over the next several years.

But first, he wants to perfect the organisation's training model to ensure that it works universally in various cultural settings.

"As we become experts in the this field, I want to find ways to make sure that we try this in lots of different countries," he says.

See also:

13 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Ghana
21 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
Sexiest geek declared
02 Jan 01 | Education
Scientists stuck with geek image
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