The Right Tools for the Job – II

I was in Pentecost island last week, visiting some members of my extended family in Lalwari, a village located almost in the clouds in the island’s mountainous spine. The village is only accessible by footpath, meaning that day-to-day life is almost entirely without automation of any kind.

Half an hour’s walk down a muddy mountain trail lies Ranwadi School. It recently received nearly a million Australian dollars in upgrades. The school has always been a beacon to PENAMA province’s brightest students. Now, due to strong support, solid administration and high quality resources, Ranwadi is stronger than ever.

I walked down to the school one rainy morning to provide assistance with a computer that had been acting up. A spyware infection had damaged some system files and the machine could no longer start. I spent about an hour re-installing the operating system software on the machine, and everything was fine.

Well, it should have been, anyway….

When we restarted the machine to complete the configuration, the software – purchased overseas by the donor – needed to be ‘activated’. It said it needed to contact the company that manufactured it in order to make sure that the software hadn’t been pirated.

Fair enough. As there is only one telephone line in the campus – it’s the only one for several kilometres – we unplugged the machine, carried it to the admin building, connected it there and started the activation process.

Nothing worked. The software just didn’t understand where it was. It wanted to use the local network to connect to the Internet, but there was no local network. If we told it to use the modem, it wanted to dial the US directly. It apologised for the fact that this was patently impossible, but gave us no alternative.

In the end, a little ingenuity and some extra hardware saved the day. We dialed up to the Internet through someone else’s laptop, then connected the PC to it via a ‘fake’ network built from odds and ends lying about. This was just enough to allow the newly installed operating system to phone home and ensure its corporate masters that it was being used in accordance with its license terms.

In all, the repair process took us a few hours. The costs in terms of time lost were somewhat greater, however, because the computer had sat unused for some days until someone came along with enough experience to diagnose and fix the problem. It would have been longer if I hadn’t happened along. We also disrupted work in the administration office for about an hour as we futzed about with cables and rigged up our ‘kiaman network’.

I can’t help but feel a little nervous about the fragility of the setup. Last August, in a similarly-titled column, I argued that we need to find hardware that suits our particular needs here in Vanuatu. The same is true of the software that runs on these machines.

Vanuatu can be roughly divided into three categories: First come Vila and Santo, with a fairly healthy (if modest) local economy, and therefore very good access to power, telephone and Internet. Next, the provincial centres of Lakatoro, Saratamata, and the Lenakel/Isangel area are each improving markedly in terms of power supply and telephone services. It’s expected that they will see reliable Internet access before long. Low levels of economic activity mean that access to these resources is not universal, but at least they exist.

The last section consists of the rest of Vanuatu – the islands and villages where 80% of the population reside. Power is only intermittently available, often only by burning costly and hard-to-obtain fuel to power unreliable generators. Telephone service is expensive, relative to income, and difficult to access. The Internet is a pipe dream.

Improving communications for people in Vila and Santo can be done fairly easily, because these towns have a great deal in common with towns throughout the developing world. Models developed elsewhere can be copied and pasted here with only nominal adaptation. The government and its private sector partners have demonstrated their commitment to this, and we’ll soon see the first fruits of their labours.

The provincial centres of Lakatoro, Saratamata and Isangel present some challenges. The problem of improving communications services here can be attacked two ways: We can invest disproportionate amounts of money and resources into their development in an effort to bring them up to the same level of economic, or we can tailor-make a series of scaled-down, incremental measures that will provide improvements on a gradual but more cost-efficient basis.

The first course is the one taken by Canada and the US during their development period. With little regard for cost, they made it a national priority to provide communications to every single household in the nation. The wisdom of such a commitment has been borne out by the vast increase in economic activity that resulted, providing more than commensurate return on the investment.

But Vanuatu has only a tiny fraction of the resources that these nascent giants had at the time. An alternative might be to take a more tactical approach, to build a simpler communications infrastructure based on commodity hardware that meets the present need, and which can be upgraded when the time is right.

The development challenges at the village level are of the same nature as those experienced in our second-category towns, only they are more pronounced in every way. So pronounced, indeed, that we can’t contemplate huge North American-style infrastructure works nationwide. Even a comprehensive roll-out of low-cost, basic communications will prove a challenge to all concerned.

So why, then, do we assume that what’s good for Vila is good for Lalwari? Why do we try to use the same software on the same PCs, with the same power requirements and the same support needs as we do in Vila? Not to put too fine a point on it, this approach will never work. Not, that is, unless we find our way to making a massive investment in rural infrastructure at immense cost.

The typical argument provided to justify this one-size-fits-all approach is that we don’t have the special knowledge and skills to stray from the beaten path. Fair enough, but if we accept this argument, we should accept as well that we don’t have knowledge, skills or resources enough to stay on it, either. When even the most trivial problem can render a computer unusable for days down in Ranwadi, how can we ever hope to keep one running in Lalwari?

The simple answer is that we can’t – at least, not using the tools we currently have at hand. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t run computers in Lalwari, either. We only need to accept that the knowledge and skills we need are special, appropriate to our unique situation.

And make no mistake, the right tools exist. There are flourishing communities on the Internet who daily share their experience and knowledge concerning development in areas every bit as challenging as Lalwari. They use software and operating systems that have been tried and tested in these areas, whose usefulness, robustness and supportability is proven.

Most importantly, this software doesn’t create silly barriers to its own users by demanding to ‘phone home’ to the mother company by means unavailable anywhere but in the developed world. The same tools that work for us in the village can work with few if any changes in everywhere else. If we work from the bottom up, we actually can make one size fit all of us.

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