volunteer computing

Geek Giving

It’s a new year. We’ve made resolutions to do more, do more with less, do less, give of ourselves more, and give ourselves less. It can be hard to find innovative ways to contribute to the community with busy schedules and limited financial resources.

While Flash Fiction Online publishes a variety of genres, many of us come from a speculative fiction background or are geeky-like. Now, don’t go wagging your head at that. You might think you don’t know your left click from your left foot, but you used some type of technology device to get here today. Embrace your inner geek and let’s do the technology two-step for a bit.

For us geek-like folk, it can be hard to find a satisfying way to give back. It’s important to me to do more than fling money at the nearest good cause. I’d also like to find ways to connect with others who share my interests.

What struck me about both of the programs below is the importance of communication – specifically the written word via the web (hmm, sound familiar?) To be successful, these programs have to grab both the imaginations and the time of potential volunteers.

Volunteer Computing:
You can help scientists around the world by allowing your computer to work on itsy bitsy parts of their massive problems at times when you aren’t using it. Talk about embracing your inner geek – you can participate in projects as diverse as the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, climate prediction, or protein folding research. With many more projects coming on-line in the near future, there’s something for every style of geek.

The most widespread platform for these distributed volunteer computing projects is the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. You download software from the BOINC site and choose projects to get involved with. Because life has no meaning unless you are competing, you earn points for the calculations your computer performs. In true geek fashion, you only win bragging rights, but hey – those are worth something. In a great Chicago Tribune article about volunteer computing, one reporter describes the communication challenge faced by these programs so well I’ll just quote it:

“This is democratic computing, so it’s based on the goodwill of a bunch of people from all walks of life, all backgrounds,” Wandelt [U. of I. physics professor and director of Cosmology@home] said. “If as a researcher you cannot communicate what’s interesting about your problem to the general public, this sort of thing probably isn’t for you.”

One Laptop Per Child:
This project is also known as the XO laptop, and previously known as the $100 laptop. Due to a mustard stain on the original design spec, it’s now the $200 laptop. Headlined by current and former Smart Folk from the MIT Media Lab, the program has lofty goals.

The premise of One Laptop Per Child, beside the obviousness of the name, is that computers are powerful learning tools. When scaled and built for children, computers can be a leveler; reducing or eliminating disparities in income, socio-economic status, geographic location and hundreds of other challenges faced by children in developing nations today.

The laptop is packed with features – standard computer fare like writing and painting programs, and innovative applications like an acoustic tape measure that can factor in the current air temperature to accurately calculate the speed of sound (getting these figures wrong by a few significant digits really honks off the true geek), and a journal program that records each activity a child does on their computer.

In addition, children can click to see the source code for any activity. They can tinker with it. If they make a mistake, they can revert to the original. As the program states in their Mission:

“We want the child to interact with the laptop on as deep a level as he or she desires. Children program the machine, not the other way around.”

This embraces a new way of thinking about children and technology, and in my view ends some of this silly business of assuming that a child can’t comprehend (or doesn’t need to) the inner workings of a computer, particularly not a child in the developing nation. Why not? Everyone could benefit from a more intimate view of technology, even you people who shook your head at the beginning of this and said you don’t know diddly or squat.

As the OPLC folks say here:

“Starting from the premise that we want to make use of what people already know in order to make connections to new knowledge, our approach focuses on thinking, expressing, and communicating with technology. The laptop is a “thing to think with”; we hope to make the primary activity of the children one of creative expression, in whatever form that might take.”

A thing to think with. Wow. They had me with think.

In the fall of 2007 the OLPC project offered the $200 laptops for sale to the general public for $400 through the Give 1 Get 1 program. You bought one computer, and another was donated to a child in the XO deployment areas. Full disclosure – my family bought two. (That’s my 6 year-old working on his in the photo.)

One of the goals of the G1G1 program was to create a user base in the US and Canada that would act as a virtual support network for the recipients of the laptops in developing nations.

The online communities for the XO project are growing at a rapid clip. Opportunities to volunteer exist in supporting the deployment (communications, tech support, help desk, logistics, translation), writing manuals, developing software for the XO, supporting the teachers who will be using them in the classroom, and countless others.

This program has caught the imagination of people in the US and around the world. And I can see why — children empowered with technology from their earliest years in education. To loosely paraphrase one of my favorite authors: Just think of the thinks they can think.

Karen Smith aka KayTi

Semi-retired from technology consulting and educational software design/development while the wee folk are wee. Reading, writing, and blogging in my spare time between carpools and playdates. Flash Fiction Online slush reader. Coupon clipper. Vegetarian eater. Global warming worrier. Lifelong learner.