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

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
5 min read
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 multinational corporations 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 the energy-efficient, ruggedized PCs from Via Technologies 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.

Initially, the payoff on these projects comes from the fact that certain tasks--getting information on vaccines and scheduling transportation, for example--are made easier. But over time, the idea is that technology can better help establish a middle class and, ultimately, greater social stability.

"Someone with an income and a job is the most dependable person you can find," Vota said. "He is going to be the first to ask for a level playing field."

"I will send you to a place where you will have three to five apprentices emulating your keystrokes."
--Wayan Vota, Geekcorps director

In Ghana, for instance, Geekcorps volunteers six years ago noted that digital printing had yet to hit the country, so it brought in experts who could hook up PCs and teach locals how to use publishing software. A database for accessing crop prices and agricultural data across West Africa has also been established. Since then, Ghana has become an Internet hot spot of sorts for West Africa. Busy Internet in Accra is Africa's largest Internet cafe and has served as an incubator for five companies.

Additionally, Geekcorps helped set up Ghana's first Internet exchange in 2005. Before that, e-mails from one town to another were being routed through other countries, mostly Europe.

In Mali, the group brought over a wireless expert who disassembled Western-built antennas with locals. Through reverse-engineering, the locals and the expert figured out how to craft a cantenna out of an inner-tube valve, an old window screen and water bottles. In all, the cost came to about $1.

Once the design was complete, Geekcorps terminated the local apprenticeships. The next day one of them took the initiative and came back with a rate sheet for selling antennas to stations. The local antenna company now employs four people.

With a few minor tweaks, the current antennas--which still cost about a dollar and provide about the same performance as antennas sold in North America for around $40--could receive TV signals.

In general, locals adapt to technology quickly and in unexpected ways. In Mali, DJs at radio stations that installed PCs began to use them to answer listener questions using information found on Wikipedia or other Web sites. Digital technology also makes it easier to keep politicians publicly accountable for their promises.

During the Paris riots, Internet use kicked into full swing. One of Mali's largest exports is young men who serve as laborers in Paris. Villagers wanted to receive a continual stream of news reports, as well as to send messages to their migrant relatives.

Geekcorps also tries to work in countries where the Internet infrastructure exists, but can be exploited better. One project going on in Lebanon right now revolves around figuring out ways that local hotels can advertise and book rooms on the Web to expand tourism. In Lebanon, and many other nations, often the only hotels that book rooms through the Web are outposts of Western chains like Hyatt and are concentrated generally in the chief cities.

Another ongoing project involves creating a way for customs agents along the Kenya-Uganda border to communicate more easily and thus reduce the time it takes to ship cargo between the two.

Geekcorps kicked off in 1999 after Ethan Zuckerman, who had sold his company, Tripod, to Lycos in 1998, found himself flush with cash and lots of spare time. He began to discuss philanthropic ideas with other newly wealthy Internet entrepreneurs. Zuckerman attended the University of Ghana on a Fulbright scholarship and understood firsthand the difficulty of getting books there.

The dot-com crash sucked a lot of the enthusiasm out of the effort. By 2004, Geekcorps teamed up with the International Executive Service Corps. Funding for various projects comes from USAID, a branch of the U.S. State Department.

Recruiting and scheduling remain among the chief problems. Potential volunteers are often intrigued by the concept, but then drop out because of job circumstances or family issues. Most, though, enjoy the experience, Vota said.

"I will send you to a place," he said, "where you will have three to five apprentices emulating your keystrokes."