Geeks for a good cause


Does helping to create a Wi-Fi antenna from a water bottle, wire mesh and a motorcycle tire valve stem sound like a great way to spend a few months away from work? How about working on a Linux-based PC that runs off a car battery and solar power?


If so, you may be a natural for Geekcorps, a hard-working nonprofit that trains people in the developing world to use technology. Geekcorps volunteers typically spend at least four months in countries like Lebanon, Mali, Ghana and Nigeria, working intensively with local people who want to use technology to accomplish some goal, like creating a network of regional markets to share prices of staples such as potatoes and pawpaw in African nations. Geekcorps pays the volunteers' travel expenses, housing, meals and other incidental expenses in return for their expertise.

The nonprofit's aim is to make themselves obsolete through training local people and creating systems that can survive in rugged and remote settings.

The water bottle Wi-Fi antenna was created by Moussa Keita, a college student in Mali who was working for the local Geekcorps effort, says Geekcorps Director Wayan Vota. The US$1 makeshift antenna works as well as a $300 one from Best Buy, Vota says. But even more important than saving money is the fact that commercial equipment is incredibly difficult to acquire. "Literally, we are working out beyond Timbuktu," he says. "We come into Timbuktu for supplies."

Soon after Keita fashioned the innovative antenna, Geekcorps held a ceremony and fired him. A few days later, Keita returned with business cards for his own consulting service. He now employs a staff of three people handling networking problems in Mali and elsewhere.

Improvisation is also important to create equipment that survives the local conditions. The group uses low-power chips donated by VIA Technologies in PCs capable of operating on low power in hot and dusty conditions. They use Linux for one simple reason: Downloading the constant flow of Windows patches would be almost impossible in areas with sporadic and slow Internet access. Another challenge is to create an interface that works for illiterate people.

The work's is clearly difficult, but rewarding. About 70 percent of Geekcorps volunteers want to re-up and stay beyond their initial term of service, Vota says. "They're experts in their fields and we give them free rein to come up with the best solutions to a problem."

Interested in helping out? Vota is currently searching for French-speaking Linux experts, but no matter your speciality you can add your name to Geekcorps database.

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