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Request for help from a Geek Volunteer

by Tim O'Reilly
Apr. 24, 2003

Over the years, we've donated books to many nonprofits and schools in developing countries. Last October, I received an email from Sudhakar Chandra, a self-described "geek volunteer," that got me thinking about how O'Reilly and other companies could do a better job of supporting the good works of people like Sudhakar. His email was a compelling reminder that books are a rare and precious resource in many parts of the world. Here's an abridged version of Sudhakar's initial email:

From: Sudhakar Chandra
To: tim@oreilly.com
Subject: Request for help from a Geek Volunteer

Dear Tim,

I am writing to you on behalf of Holy Rosary College, Tala, Kenya. After working in the computer industry for companies such as Prodigy and Netscape for seven years, I decided to help bridge the digital divide. I am currently placed as a volunteer in Holy Rosary College by UK-based Voluntary Services Overseas.

[The mission of] Holy Rosary College is to improve employment prospects of secondary schoolleavers by training them in secretarial skills. In response to changes in demand and the Kenyan job market, the college started offering Certificate and Diploma courses in Information Technology (IT). However, the college sorely needs quality computer text and reference books. Imported IT books from the US and India are rare and prohibitively expensive. They are beyond the reach of the students of the college. The limited funds available to the college are used to subsidize boarding and tuition fees of the many financially needy students [young women]. The students make extensive use of the twenty odd books in the college library. Unfortunately, many of the manuals and books in the library are outdated (Manuals for DOS, IBM PC-AT, WordPerfect etc.).

I have been using O'Reilly books for over seven years now and have found them to be consistently of great quality and depth. Being actively involved in the Open Source Software / Linux movement (as a package maintainer for Debian GNU/Linux and a contributor to the Mozilla project), I am familiar with the philanthropy and community involvement of O'Reilly & Associates.

On behalf of the staff and students of Holy Rosary College I request your assistance in stocking the college library with good books and manuals. We at Holy Rosary College would be most grateful if O'Reilly & Associates donated a set of its publications to the college library. If the shipping fees to Kenya are expensive, we would very much appreciate it if you could donate a copy of your books on CD-ROMS.

I would, on behalf of Sister Pauline Ndeche, Principal of Holy Rosary College, like to invite you visit our college to see first-hand how a little help from you will go a long way in helping alleviate poverty and combat gender inequity.

Thanking you in advance,

Sincerely,
Sudhakar Chandra

PS: I have to come up to Nairobi to check my email. I do this once in 10-15 days. So please excuse any tardiness on my part in answering to your emails.

I said yes to Sudhakar -- an easy choice, given his compelling request -- and sent his message to a few people in the industry whom I knew cared about bridging the digital divide:

I'm including below a recent request from a geek volunteer for books for a small vocational college in Kenya. I've replied and will be sending some books. But...

This kind of request comes to me fairly often. At one time or another, I've talked with each of you about various efforts to get books to developing countries, and I'd love to figure out how to make this more of a routine thing for myself and other publishers. Is there any organization that coordinates such requests? If there were, we could probably get a lot more books into Africa and other deserving places.

We've donated books for many years to the Internet Society's Developing Countries Workshop and other similar outreach efforts, but I think there's a big hole in the "market" for an organization that would:

1. help find colleges or other institutions doing technical training in developing countries;

2. collect books from publishers (after all, we need not even send out books from fresh inventory -- we all have non-salable stickered returns from the chains that are in perfect condition except for the stickers, and as often as not just destroyed);

3. provide a mechanism for funding the distribution/shipping costs. (I know several private foundations that might provide funds, but they can only work through accredited non-profits.)

If any of you know of such an organization, please let me know.

I heard back from Randy Bush of the The Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC):

the NSRC has been doing this for a decade or so. we have a stash of books from various publishers, o'reilly being prominent among them, from which we draw.

I had been responding to the NSRC as one of the many organizations that asked us for books, but I hadn't thought of them before this as a clearinghouse for individual requests like Sudhakar's. I was delighted to start sending more requests their way, and was able to arrange a $20,000 grant from a private donor to help fund the additional shipping costs associated with the expansion of their efforts. We were immediately grateful for their involvement, as the NSRC discovered that shipping donated books to Kenya is not a simple task. The country only allows up to 10 books -- even donated ones -- on duty-free shipments, so the NSRC ended up sending the books in batches of 10. When they reached Kenya, Sudhakar wrote:

Dear Tim,

Thank you very much for sending the books and CDROMs [O?Reilly CD Bookshelves] to Holy Rosary College, Kenya. I am not exaggerating when I say that the principal of the college and the teachers literally danced with joy upon receiving the packages. The teachers here have not seen books of such quality and depth and were moved by the generosity of someone they have not even met.

Thanks, again.

Sudhakar

Meanwhile, we got another request, from Stephanie Linenbaum of Geekcorps, for books to support their efforts in Mongolia. Steven Huter of the NSRC sent off the requested O'Reilly titles, and we heard back from Geekcorps founder Ethan Zuckerman, who's speaking at the O?Reilly Emerging Technology Conference:

Thank you so very, very much. I was in Ulaanbaatar a few months ago meeting with technology companies and setting up the Geekcorps program. I was amazed to discover that most of them had as much money invested in technical books as they did in computers, or their offices. Mongolian entrepreneurs buy books from Amazon, ship them to relatives in the US and then send them via DHL to Mongolia. By the time they arrive, they cost $100-$130, or a month's salary for the average engineer. Creating a collection of tech books for the Mongolian IT community is a great way to help a terrific group of people become world-class developers.

These notes of thanks from people who were giving so much of themselves to their good works inspired me to do more. As I?ve done several times before, I decided to invite a group of the best minds in the field -- in this case, geek activists -- to a summit where we'd tackle thorny issues, look for synergies and efficiencies, and get the creative juices flowing. The Geek Activism Summit will be held at OSCON this July. If you're at OSCON, come by the BOF and session on Geek Activism, and talk to the volunteerism organizations that'll be recruiting on-site. And watch this space -- I'll let you know what happens.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.

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