Bringing Linux to Third World Communities

by Schuyler Erle

I've spent a good portion of the last week down at the Alameda County Computer Resource Center, working with activists from the Independent Media Center and the Ruckus Society to assemble 250-plus PCs, install Linux on them, and ship them to activists and community centers in Ecuador. A similar concurrent effort has also been underway in Portland at FreeGeek. The motivation for this project comes primarily from our connections with Indymedia groups in South America, who frequently find themselves short of the tools they need to provide independent coverage of local and national news stories, like the upcoming FTAA summit in Quito. But, in a broader way, we are trying to find working models that allow us to turn the Bay Area's leftover junk -- in this case, old PCs, monitors, peripherals, and so on -- into valuable resources for people in less economically advantaged regions.

Enter the ACCRC, a non-profit computer recycling organization based in a large warehouse in urban Oakland. With ten full-time staffers and countless volunteers, they've been collecting leftover computer hardware from all over the Bay Area for several years. Often unskilled volunteers are then given the opportunity to learn how to assemble working machines and how to get SuSe Linux installed on them. Finally, the refurbished Linux boxes are given away, to deserving individuals, schools, and other organizations across the US and the world, instead of being left to fill up California's landfills and pollute local groundwater with heavy metals. Pretty neat, huh? Their 28,000 square foot warehouse is a computer archaeologist's daydream, and one look at the place had us fairly salivating to get started. The ACCRC has been gracious enough to let us use their facilities and have our pick of their hardware bounty, for which we are immeasurably grateful.

Of course, none of this would be possible without Linux. The freedom of Linux -- both in the libre and gratis senses -- enables us to build a custom system that will run easily on old machines that won't even install the latest version of Windows anymore. (And just how much would 250-plus licenses for the latest version of Windows cost, exactly?) Starting with a modified Debian distribution developed by the fine folks at FreeGeek -- Portland's answer to the ACCRC, if you will -- we've put together a lightweight and easy-to-use desktop environment. IceWM was selected as the window manager for its clean, simple interface, and its familiar taskbar and program menu. The undeservedly little-known ROX desktop was chosen for its super-lightweight desktop management and file browser. Finally, KDE provides the web browser, the word processor, the e-mail client, the PPP connection manager, and a whole bunch of other goodies. Of course, there's Spanish language support for everything. A candidate machine is then booted via a floppy whose sole purpose is to mount a root filesystem over NFS, a few of simple configuration options are selected, and, within half an hour, we have a finished Linux box ready to ship to Ecuador. Go, Linux!

So, the PCs, when they're all ready, will get packed into a shipping container and sent to Quito. There, Indymedia volunteers and tech activists will distribute those machines to Indymedia offices, and then to schools and community centers in the surrounding countryside. We are also hoping to build a public wireless network in Quito, to improve community access to high-speed bandwidth. If you're curious to learn more, you can check out the Indymedia article and video interview, as well as the Kuro5hin coverage. If you're in the Bay Area or Portland, and are keen to help, please please send me an email with some contact info -- we could really use the help!

We hope to have things under wraps by sometime next week. The project certainly hasn't been without its stumbling blocks. Progress can be slow and sometimes frustrating, as anyone who's tried to make old hardware and Linux and NFS go -- hell, even just one of those three can cause an old hacker indigestion under the wrong circumstances -- and sometimes the network conks out altogether for one reason or another, making everything come to a grinding halt. At times like those, though, we remind ourselves of the project's goals, and carry on: That we may empower activists to communicate with each other, and tell their community's stories to the world. That we may enable communities and their organizers to gain access to and share information on how they can better the lives of those communities and their members. And, maybe most importantly, that we might be able to provide some people with the tools they need to help others. It seems unfortunate that one's l33t tech skills so rarely offer the opportunity for work this satisfying.