Geekcorps: A Peace Corps for techies

Think your tech skills are underappreciated? Geekcorps wants you to take them to Zambia or Kenya for a month. Photos: Life in the Geekcorps

How do you bring the Internet to countries like Mali, where more than 70 percent of the population is illiterate and the telecommunications infrastructure barely exists?

You use the radio.

Equipped with dust-resistant PCs, digital audio broadcasting equipment and antennas assembled from salvage, local radio broadcasters are emerging as ersatz Internet service providers in the West African nation, thanks in part to a program initiated by Geekcorps, a U.S.-based not-for-profit organization dedicated to cultivating high-tech skills and businesses in the world's emerging nations.


What's new:
U.S.-based not-for-profit Geekcorps seeks volunteers who can spend a month or more helping emerging nations advance their telecommunications infrastructures.

Bottom line:
Geekcorps could play a pivotal role in bridging the technological divide. But while potential volunteers are intrigued by the concept, they sometimes drop out because of job circumstances or family issues.

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If a villager wants to get a note to a friend in another part of the country, he or she comes to the radio station and dictates an e-mail to the DJ, who then sends the message off to another station closer to the recipient's location. The DJ who receives the e-mail then issues a broadcast: Muhammad Kanoute, come to the station and I will read your e-mail message to you.

Previously, sending a message could take several days of jarring bus rides, according to Wayan Vota, director of Geekcorps, which is a division of the independent non-profit International Executive Service Corps. The stations also garner revenue by selling ads and charging for the e-mail service. Many also have a service where they will broadcast live from weddings.

"There is no New York Times wedding section, but (residents) still want to be known in their community," Vota said. "The underlying goal with every implementation is: how can you make sure this is a money maker for the community?"

A station created by the organization in the village of Boureem Inaly makes $50 a month after expenses. That's enough to hire an additional person at the station.

While a host of and academics have announced plans to bring technology to the emerging world, Geekcorps has been on the ground in West Africa and other regions for more than five years, and its presence could potentially play a pivotal role in bridging the technological divide.


Some of the technology behind for emerging markets, after all, comes partly from a PC concocted by the organization.

Although the organization would love it if volunteers could stay four months or longer, one-month stints are common. Geekcorps pays the travel expenses and housing and tries to make it easy for family members to come along.

"The people we are targeting to volunteer are employed, might be mid-career and have families," Vota said. The median age is 32.

The organization will make a recruiting pitch in San Francisco on March 2 at Jillian's Billiards in the Sony Metreon entertainment complex. Currently, according to the Geekcorps Web site, the organization needs experts in Knowledge Management, object-oriented programming, C++, and Linux for spring and summer 2006 assignments in Zambia, Kenya, and South Africa.

Geekcorps can essentially be thought of as a Peace Corps with a focus on PCs. The organization recruits technical experts to conceive ideas for integrating technology into local economies in a self-sustaining way.

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