Public policy and the web


It’s over a year since I posted a note (8th January 2007) on this initiative for online learning in developing countries, so I thought I’d check how it is being implemented on the ground. Contrary to the pessimistic views of some within the IT and education sectors, the evidence so far suggests very positive results when the laptops are in the right hands.

Two examples caught my eye. The first project in Peru is in the village of Arahuay (Altitude 2600 metres) with a total population of 742 people. The village is about 100 kms from the capital Lima and the school has just forty six students and 3 teachers. The account of the experience contains substantial detail about implementing the project in June 2007. This includes the opening event when the XO laptops were handed out, the attitudes of staff and parents, the motivation of the children and technical issues, etc. It makes fascinating reading.

What struck me most were the technical and social hurdles that have to be overcome in remote rural settings likke this and the enthusiasm of the teachers – an essential ingredient –  who were supported in the initial phase by the OLPC team.

The other example was a set of photos from Ulaanbataar, Mongolia where pairs of children (see below) were concentrating on using the XO machines on  a project which had just been started.
Two chiildren in Mongolia sharing the use of a XO laptop.

Peter Warren writing recently in Technology Guardian (7th February) warns that security experts fear a growth of spam and internet crime in the developing world through the spread of botnets infecting these cheap PCs like the XO. But haven’t we made it bad enough already in the developed world?

The case studies above from Peru and Mongolia represent very different cultures where the OLPC scheme is being implemented, but they have in common a search for how technology can develop the skills and knowledge of young people for the benefit of their local communities.

If they also provide further opportunities for cybercrime, we indeed need to make sure that computer security issues are addressed worldwide and not just in and for the benefit of the richest developed countries.

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I’d not been since the 1960s to Crete’s Samaria Gorge, with its history of human settlement stretching back to the 8th century BC. So when our son Barney, who’s taking some time off after 8 years working with the travel company Expedia, agreed two weeks ago that he could join me for some high mountain hiking there, it was a great chance to escape rain-soaked England for a few days.

Only 24 hours out of Manchester we were en route for Omalos in the west of the island. At 1100 metres this mountain plateau is the springboard for the magnificent 16 kilometre descent of Europe’s longest gorge to Agia Roumeli on the south coast and we were eager to be off.

Then came the shock when we stopped at a local taverna. Serving us our lunch, Maria reported that they had just found that morning the bodies of two members of an escorted group of 31 Polish tourists. There had been a massive search of the Gorge for 4 days but without water, the 37 year old brother and his 40 year old sister had been unable to survive the temperatures of up to 45 C.

The walk through Samaria Gorge is strenuous and hot but the 5-7 hour route is obvious enough, with steps and railings, WCs, resting and water points, a medical centre and even a helipad – all provided with the aid of generous EU grants for setting up this National Park.

How I wondered could people in a guided group die or even get lost and we found ourselves piecing together the story and events from people we met and from newspaper accounts. Rumours and theories were initially rife, but over the next 6 days we built up a consistent picture of just what had happened (though a coroner’s report is still awaited).

  • The group leader failed for two days to report that the two were missing.
  • The authorities were told the two were seen in the Samaria Gorge itself; and because of this 4 days were wasted on searching the wrong area.
  • On 26 July the brother was found still just alive by a Greek walker who had decided himself to climb above and away from the Samaria Gorge to the more westerly and dangerous Tripiti gorge.
  • The two made no contact via mobile phone to seek help during their 6 day ordeal – presumably because there was no coverage available.
  • The Greek walker had climbed higher in order to use his mobile phone to get news back to the cafe at the head of the Gorge.
  • The resulting search party found the two bodies early on 27th July after a long night climb; and helped the Greek walker back to safety.
  • It’s a tragic story but will lessons be learnt about support and emergency procedures, staff training, registration and group sizes? Basic mountain craft procedures of counting the group in and out of the Gorge were simply not used and there were the other obvious failings (identified above).

    Nor do the Park’s own control systems appear to have been put in place for checking off all successful descents at the southern exit point of the Gorge. Our own exit control counterfoils (See No 24753 below) were not checked or requested from us by the Park officials at the exit gate despite our early descent on 28 July being only a day after the bodies of the two walkers had been found.

    Ticket for Gorge with counterfoil, not removed.

    Finally there’s a key question about the deployment of mobile phone technology. With up to 800 people being bussed daily into the Samaria Gorge (and perhaps 50,000 in a full season), this is big business and a major income generator for the whole island.

    This area of the White Mountains is no ordinary remote wilderness, but a place of mass tourism where the vast majority of people will not be experienced mountaineers but will have a mobile phone.

    A phone mast on the top of Mount Gigolos above the Gorge at 1964 metres (See photo below) wouldn’t stop mistakes being made, but it would provide coverage for emergency calls for most of the area. Is this too much to ask for to lessen the risks to life in this wild and wonderful walkway?

    Mt Gigolos above the Samaria Gorge - a suitable site for a phone mast for SOS calls.

    Perhaps the EU Commission should be asking this question when next it comes to consider an application for a tourism development project for Crete. In the meantime though if you’re travelling abroad, check out the emergency number you need to use for the relevant country on this website. The number 112 is widely used in Europe but it’s worth checking the details before you go.

    Sadly it would not have helped Marek and Danuta Sawicka last week.

    POSTSCRIPT – 10 August 2007

    Yesterday Polish Radio announced that prosecutors in Wroclaw, capital of Lower Silesia, were investigating the deaths to discover if the travel company which organised the trip had put the two walkers into unnecessary danger.

    “THINK. DON’T PHONE WHILST DRIVING” was the text message flashed to me from the electronic notice-boards on the M62 motorways round Manchester this week. It was a snappy reminder that under a new law I would now be fined £60 and 3 points for dangerous driving if using a mobile while at the wheel. Fair enough but it got me thinking laterally like this – and about the safe use of mobiles and texting.

    1. Short messages can be a very effective medium in the right context
    2. Ten years ago few would have ‘got’ this particular message
    3. The mobile phone medium is now near ubiquitous
    4. How could this pervasive medium best be used to advantage for adult learners?

    Since my last posting ‘e-cash and the irresistible rise of the mobile‘ this issue has become in my mind a far more interesting question for ACL tutors and managers as they plan next year’s programme.

    I’ve been talking to Paul Wakefield, whose article ‘JANET and SMS’ in the December issue of UKERNA News I came across last week but had missed in the Christmas melée. With money provided by the DfES, UKERNA has already provided fast broadband connectivity via the JANET network for all ACL providers who want it.

    One of UKERNA’s big new projects under way is to organise a national SMS (Short Message Service) programme for the entire JANET community.

    Their market research and surveys have already shown use of SMS (especially in FE and HE), but a nationally provided service with lower unit costs, potentially allowing two way communication, integration with admin systems and group functionality (for up to ¼ million messages at once) could have a huge impact upon practice across all educational sectors.

    Paul’s in the midst of the procurement process at present and UKERNA is on course to sign a contract with the chosen supplier by the end of April, with a ‘go-live’ date following shortly after. “I can see this being a fantastic resource for the ACL community” he told me with obvious enthusiasm.

    He’s right and it’s not too early to think how it can be used to benefit both adult learners and hard pressed services. For a start imaginative use could bring both improvements in recruitment and retention of learners – which can’t be bad with a new OFSTED Inspection regime round the corner from next month. In any event look out for the announcement of the details in the early summer.

    POSTSCRIPT (13 March) – Paul Wakefield has now posted more details of the planned SMS service on the Development section of the JANET site.

    In my last post of 2006 I said that the new year was likely to see a growth of wi-fi and mobile services. The Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, opening today in the US, will be showcasing many of the hand held devices that will be vying to speed this process.

    Improvements in battery life, brighter screens and more memory are contributory factors and are all part of the story.

    Just as important though is connectivity and access. When I was in Seattle last year, I spent a morning with David Keyes, the city’s Community Technology Officer talking about Mayor Greg Nickells’ plans for free wi-fi access. These have attracted considerable corporate sector interest and will involve a pilot project in two neighbourhoods and four downtown parks. [Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 68-69 – Seattle]

    Things have been moving fast though on this side of the Atlantic too, spurred among other things by the Government’s Digital Challenge initiative. Ten local authorities were short-listed last summer and final details of their proposed strategies and action plans for digital inclusion are being hammered out this week to meet the 19th January deadline.

    Manchester’s bid ONE-Manchester, coordinated by the City’s Digital Development Agency (MDDA), looks strong on digital inclusion, has taken a bottom up approach and has succeeded in drawing in neighbouring Salford, Tameside and Trafford to create a unique ‘city-region’ laboratory for digital experimentation and testing.

    Its outline bid had some interesting elements of a framework like Digital Action Places and Personalised Netstart programmes for local residents and organisations, which will need some thinking through prior to implementation.

    Importantly the City has like Seattle gained a lot of national attention for its wider plans; and it’s gathered substantial corporate sector interest in establishing a 100 square mile free wi-fi network, Europe’s biggest, to help draw in the 40% of residents not presently engaged.

    As Dave Carter, Head of MDDA told me when I met him, Manchester and its partners are now taking digital inclusion very seriously as were the company representatives at the Request for Information and Comment (RFIC) meeting I went to in December.

    The bid is a strong one and deserves to do well in a very competitive field. Whatever the outcome, Manchester could be creating models and structures for implementing the Information Society in large metropolitan areas for the next decade. [Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 108 – Greater Manchester]

    Illustration of laptop prototype. Illustration of laptop prototype for Nigeria. Illustration of laptop prototype with wind-up handle.

    More news this time after my posting of 4 December 2006  from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the details of this scheme which will provide $150 laptops to children in the developing world. A key feature is that “the laptop’s creators started from scratch in designing a user interface they figured would be intuitive for children”, according to a recent Associated Press report. One curious feature is that the user interface does not appear to have been trialled with potential users in developing countries.

    The XO machines – as they are called – using a slimmed down version of the Linux operating system, are organised round an automatically generated journal, and not through folders. Though the experience will be very different from a conventional PC, there is still the opportunity to create a word document, browse the web and use a RSS feed (for blogs). The project has received at least $29 million from companies like Google, Red Hat and News Corp.

    The MIT Review article (1 January 2007) is worth reading in full and there’s a good website on further details of the project at  (http://www.laptop.org). The site also has a FAQ area and a Wiki section which explores many of the issues relating to the ‘One Laptop’ project in more detail.

    Photo of $150 prototype laptop for the developing world.
    It’s worth loking at the article in the New York Times (30 November 2006) by John Markoff updating on progress with the project One laptop per child in the developing world. Devised by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, the scheme has tentative support from 5 countries – Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria and Thailand – and could be set to supply, through a Taiwanese production company, $150 laptops to millions of young people.

    Provided it gets backing from the Governments concerned and there is support for teachers in how the laptops can best be deployed, there’s room for optimism here, despite the scepticism of some. Suchit Dash has some interesting comments on the programme on his Thoughts on Technology blog.

    [Digital nations in the making: Update Page 98 – Web 2.0 & adult education].

    The mid November Economist had an interesting article on ‘blogging professionals’ (Going Pro, p. 67, 16 November 2006). These are people whose blog readership generates sufficient income from click-through advertising to enable them to concentrate solely on blog production to the exclusion of other work. They represent a small percentage of bloggers, but are by no means restricted to the technical.

    dooce.com is a good example from a disillusioned Mormon woman – who has suffered from depression and chats away about home, kids, husband and the world – and shows the kind of advertising she has attracted to the site. She shares high popularity rankings with the author of You-Tube’s geriatric1927, whose wartime memories, recorded on simple home video, have found a seam which absorbs the interest of thousands of people.

    One blog mentioned in the Economist article was that of Om Malik, which I was particularly interested to see, as I had used his excellent material in Digital nations in the making when writing about developments in Web 2.0

    Another sign of the times for blogging is the attention paid by the mainstream press. Most have links on some day of the week. The Wall Street Journal (27 November 2006) for instance had Jessica Marmor’s Blog Watch on the highly topical issue of Weather and Climate. Two caught my eye as being of particular interest to tutors and learners studying environmental topics. 

    Jeff Masters, an expert in air pollution meteorology, who has literally flown into the eye of many storms to collect data, has  a wunderblog, full of informed views and data, including a good review of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. Another site realclimate.org has expert contributors from many countries and significantly looks at the politics as well as the science relating to climate change. Both are well worth looking at.

    For the last (and best) word on the subject of climate change, Jeff Masters recommends “for every citizen of the globe” the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of over 2000 scientists from 100 countries, mandated by the UN.

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