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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 November 2005, 09:49 GMT
CDs and comics offer digital aid
By Jo Twist
BBC News technology reporter in Tunis

Girl looking at comic
A gang of characters explain technology and what it can be used
Jostling on the sidelines of this week's UN net summit in Tunis were dozens of projects that provide people in developing countries with much-needed hardware to get digital.

After a while in the haze and crowded floor of the summit's ICT4All expo space, they start to blur into a colourful mass of e-learning, e-government and e-others.

Most of the grassroots projects rely on open-source software as a cheap, if not free, and adaptable resource.

Open software is seen as a crucial building block in the creation of a digital society in which everyone, anywhere, can share the knowledge, tools and opportunities that technologies can offer.

Knowledge is seen as the font of power and ultimately prosperity in its wider sense.

Two very simple and relatively low-tech projects, which focus on the distribution and use of open-source stood out at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

Comic turn

One was SchoolNet Namibia, a non-profit group which provides net services, computers, and training to schools in Namibia. It has had great success in supplying and training people on open-source software.

But they found was that after the trainer they provided for two months left the schools, the computers in the labs remained largely untouched, especially by the teachers themselves.

SchoolNet Namibia comic
We've started receiving calls from parents now asking questions about where to save documents they get from the net and so on
Ebben Haotuikulipi, SchoolNet Namibia
"It is no use giving computers away to schools if no one is going to use them," Ebben Haotuikulipi from SchoolNet Namibia explained to the BBC News website.

So in April, they came up with the paper-based Hai TI comic, which means Listen Up in the local language, Oshiwambo.

"It is printed every Tuesday in the local youth newspaper, so it goes across the country. What is in the comic is also all online," said Ms Haotuikulipi.

The colourful gang of characters explain technology and what it can be used for through stories, just like a conventional comic adventure.

When they talk about e-mail or downloading, for example, information panels near the speech bubbles offer an explanation and web addresses for readers to follow.

The characters are based on actual SchoolNet staff members and the comic has been such a hit that they are becoming minor celebrities. And word is spreading.

"We've started receiving calls from parents now asking questions about where to save documents they get from the net and so on, so the questions coming into our helpline are now about how to use the computers," said Ms Haotuikulipi, which is a sign of real success as far as SchoolNet is concerned.

They have also started to receive a lot more e-mails from all over the country since its launch.

The group has also noticed that the teachers, 75% of whom are women, have been inspired too with a large proportion of helpline calls and e-mails coming from them.

"Women and technology have never really got on. So we did want to get more women into technology too," said Ms Haotuikulipi. "The response has been really good."

Even though it is a young project, it has been recognised by the World Summit Youth Award for bringing technologies closer to people.

Toast and source

A second eye-catching project is equally simple and is proving to be a big hit, this time in South Africa.

Freedom toaster
The Freedom Toaster has a touch screen interface
The large bright orange vending machine-shaped object looks rather like an internet access kiosk. Then it spits out a CD from one of its four trays.

In fact, it is not linked to the internet at all, and it does not offer you a drink either.

The Freedom Toaster, a project run by the Shuttleworth Foundation, is a "bandwidth substitute". It requires no infrastructure, just an electricity supply.

It borrows its name from the open-source community's word for creating or burning a CD, known as "toasting".

Through a simple touch screen interface, it gives the digitally dispossessed in South Africa access to open-source software with free licences for those who might have a computer but no net access.

"Users come with their own CD, and it will tell you all the information you need about the different software, and asks users what version of software they want and how many CDs they want," explained Jason Hudson from the Shuttleworth Foundation.

There are now 30 machines installed in schools, libraries, science centres and retail outlets, and the response has been huge in the year it has been in action.

"It's been amazing," says Mr Hudson. "It has taken us by surprise. It started off as an interactive desktop display, but then it just took off."

All the programs available are stored on its hard drive and eventually the hope is it would be connected to the net, but that is just not possible yet.

Tonnes of information

The entire unit costs about 17,000 Rand (1,500), the bulk of which is taken up by the cost of the cabinet itself. Inside, it is basically a computer.

The Foundation admits that although the Toaster does not address the issue of getting computers into impoverished areas, it does provide a way of plugging into the wealth of information the net offers.

In true open-source spirit, the blueprints of how to build a Freedom Toaster are being made available in Freedom Toaster CookBook, which will be available from March 2006.

Jimmy Wales, founder of the collaborative, open, online Wikipedia encyclopaedia, said the Toaster is exactly the kind of distribution channel that a resource such as Wikipedia could use.

"The ability to go and download a CD and have tonnes of information on it is really important," he told the BBC News website.




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