Food For Thought: Localized Content Aids Disconnected Africa

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Article ImageWe hear in the news about famine-stricken areas of Africa, but due to connectivity problems, much of Africa is also information-starved. And, like a shortage of food, a shortage of information can be a disaster.

Founded in 2000 to mitigate the third world's dire digital communications problems, the WiderNet Project is a largely volunteer, nonprofit organization based at the University of Iowa. It's director, Cliff Missen, explains that Africa is a disconnected continent for many reasons. "Remember, telephone penetration in Africa is low—sometimes as few as 20 phones per 1,000 households," Missen says. "Besides, when you and I connect to an ISP via our phones, our measly 52K connections share the ISP's multi-megabit connection to the Internet. In many situations in Africa, the dial-in users wind up sharing an Internet connection that is slower than their modem speed," Missen says. "It's not uncommon for an African ISP to have a 32K connection to the Internet."

The African Virtual University, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, recently conducted a survey that concluded that the average African university "pays 50 times more for their bandwidth than their educational counterparts in the rest of the world." Missen believes it's more like 100 times. "Few cities in Africa have fiber optic connections to the outside world, and those that do have only a single connection, so there's little competition and high prices," according to Missen. "Most Internet connections in Africa are made via satellite, which is simply many times more expensive to install and maintain."

Of course, the ultimate solution for all this would be to build more infrastructure, to lay optical fiber lines across the oceans and all across Africa, but WiderNet's realists realize that's not something that is going to happen overnight. So they hit upon a stopgap solution called the eGranary Digital Library project, which aims to help third world institutions store important educational information at the local level. Just as a village might collect all of its grain together in a granary to insure against famine, an eGranary collects information into a centralized repository that is free from the trials and tribulations (and expense) of the public Internet.

Essentially, an eGranary is an information-laden hard drive, a sort of Reader's Digest compilation of educational resources available on the public Internet. WiderNet volunteers scour the Web for pertinent content, often guided by direct "wish list" requests from subscriber schools. The information is culled from the Internet with a tool called HTTrack, which is Web site "scraping" or "mirroring" software. Sometimes an entire Web site is copied to an eGranary Digital Library; sometimes just the portions containing the most useful information.

Content contributions for the eGranary Digital Library currently come from more than 500 organizations, publishers, and authors who have granted permission to distribute their works, including California State University, Carnegie Corporation of New York, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Columbia University, Cornell University, MIT Press, NASA, National Cancer Institute, National Geographic, New York Times, UNESCO, U.S. Department of Education, World Bank, and the World Health Organization.

Today's version of eGranary contains about 2 million documents on a 250GB hard drive. WiderNet is making these pre-loaded drives available for $150. Most subscriber institutions already have servers and local area networks in place, so they simply add the eGranary hard drive to their existing server. So far, WiderNet has succeeded in placing more than 50 eGranaries throughout Africa—one in Bangladesh and another in Haiti. This effort is currently benefiting at least 300,000 students and professors and helping them save money. Web page documents open 5,000 times faster from an eGranary than from a typical African Internet connection, according to WiderNet estimates.

Of course, challenges remain, the biggest one probably being the timely and efficient updating of the content. WiderNet is currently manually updating eGranaries twice a year. They are also experimenting with satellite digital radio services such as WorldSpace or Xirius. All that users in Africa would need would be simple $100 portable receivers, which they could hook up directly to their eGranary servers. With such a system, the group hopes to be able to update content weekly.

There is, of course, a lot more work that needs to be done to update Africa's digital communications capabilities. For now Africa remains an econtent Dark Continent, but thanks to WiderNet, it is getting brighter every day.