$100 laptop project is 'fundamentally flawed'

The head of one of the largest charitable suppliers of re-conditioned PCs claims there are some basic problems with creating a bespoke laptop for the developing world
Written by Andrew Donoghue, Contributor

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) scheme is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the IT industry, according to Tony Roberts, chief executive and founder of UK charity Computer Aid International.

Speaking to ZDNet UK last week, Roberts claimed that although he would be delighted if the OLPC scheme proved a success, he had severe reservations about the strategy underpinning the project.

"The real reason that this won't be successful is a misunderstanding of the history of technology. They are looking to introduce a non-standard, untested platform... which they will only sell to governments," he said. "The decision to buy will be made by politicians who are elected every five years, and politicians generally don't take the decision to risk their political future on non-standard technology."

The project aims to develop a portable PC for use by children in the developing world for around $100 (£50). The price has risen since the scheme was first announced to around $135 to $140.

Speaking at the Red Hat Summit earlier this month, the head of the OLPC project, Nicholas Negroponte, said that past attempts to give children in developing countries access to PCs have failed because the children did not see the computers as their own, and as a result did not engage with them as expected.

"People say, 'We just gave a hundred thousand PCs to schools, and they are still sitting in their boxes.' The problem is that you gave them to the wrong people — the kids don't think they are theirs, and see them as government property, or they are locked up after school," Negroponte said.

But Roberts, who as well as heading up Computer Aid spent time as an academic lecturing on the historical introduction of new technologies into societies, said that the OLPC project was also distracting attention from other worthwhile technology projects in the developing world. "At the UN World Summit [where the OLPC prototype was first displayed last year] there were so many exciting projects that didn't get any attention because all eyes were on the OLPC," said Roberts.

Computer Aid has just celebrated shipping its 70,000 PC to the developing world. The organisation, founded in 1998, refurbishes used PCs, routers, printers and other technology. It then ships them to a network of organisations in the developing world where they are distributed to schools, universities and community groups.

The organisation is looking to expand its remit to include working with local health clinics to provide e-learning systems for nurses, and tele-medicine capabilities. Medical specialists in the developing world are often limited to the capital city, so by providing more detailed patient information, medical staff can reduce the need to move critical patients.

Computer Aid is also involved in a joint project with the UK Met Office to create the infrastructure to allow weather information to be collected and analysed locally in the developing world. At the moment, information collected from local weather stations is sent to a central office to be analysed and the information is then fed back.

But, according to Roberts, the centralised system takes too long, so Computer Aid is helping to equip the local stations with the means to interpret the information and relay it to the community more rapidly. "This information is critical, it can be the difference between life or death or someone's livelihood but at the moment, the systems just don't work," he said.

Computer Aid is also planning a charity bike ride next February in Kenya to raise awareness of the organisation's work in that country.

If you would like to donate your businesses PCs you can find more information through the Bridge the Digital Divide project being run by Computer Aid and ZDNet UK's parent company, CNET Networks.

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