On Pragmatism and the OLPC

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 01/07/2013 - 10:02

has a hands-on photoshoot with the revolutionary XO-4 convertible tablet/laptop.  It has an infrared touchscreen, has refocused its interface to run on top of a standard Linux distribution instead of a customized and tweaked version, and... um... it looks rather familiar. I mean to say, it's almost indistinguishable from the XO-1.  

And that's a very good thing.  What has happened to the OLPC program is, in many ways, what I'd hoped they'd intentionally choose as a path forward-  thoughtful and efficient development focused on impact over glitz, using existing projects and tools where available, and not re-inventing things that weren't broken, but using incremental improvements.  Of course, that approach doesn't catch headlines as well, but it does work.

OLPCs, Uruguay and Educational Value

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 10/08/2010 - 14:25

My recent blog post on Uruguay's Plan Ceibal generated a buzz of discussion over at OLPCNews on the value of measurement, test scores, and updates from the field on 1:1 laptop projects visibly impacting test scores (http://www.gse.uci.edu/person/warschauer_m/docs/netbooks-aera2010.pdf#ne...). Are these soft measures of attendance and laptop usage good enough, or must we demand test score improvements?

Social Change - to go, please

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 07/01/2010 - 09:50

Cross-posted at the FrontlineSMS Blog

The recent Technology Salons have been on local and sectoral implementations of mobile technology in development.

Mobile is hardly "new" anymore, but we're seeing increasing tools for peer-to-peer communications and decentralized development. Instead of SMS reporting for mHealth metrics or election observation (both amazingly powerful), we have Ushahidi and a team of volunteers from colleges and Haitian diaspora communities across the world saving lives in Haiti after the earthquake by synthesizing and translating reports from on the ground into actionable, trustable pieces of information.

Instead of training-and-visit agricultural extension work, we have tools like Patatat which are building group email lists through SMS messaging, enabling farmers (or anyone) to collaborate on their work, market prices, crop diseases, and so on - with increasingly little need for anything at the center. And of course there's twitter, which, while still "centralized" as a website, enables un-mediated communication amongst basically anyone in the world with a cell phone and a good text-messaging plan.

Waveplace organizes OLPC REALNESS Summit

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 05/05/2010 - 13:00

Nevermind: OLPC shouldn't sell the XO laptop

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 04/13/2010 - 11:00

OLPC News recently ran a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek article on How to buy an XO Laptop, which mainly pointed people to eBay. Which is sad, but eBay has long been the best place to get your hands on an OLPC if you're not a large government, international development agency, or cutting edge developer.

ICT4D Meetup in Austin during SXSW

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 03/12/2010 - 18:13

ICT4D Meetup, SXSW2010

In Austin for South By SouthWest? Join folks interested in ICT for development at the Gingerman (3rd and Lavaca) from 4-7pm on Sunday! I'll bring my OLPC for anyone up to the challenge of figuring out how to open it for the first time, and we'll talk mapping, SMS, crisis response and more!

The OLPC Vaporware Product Line Vs. the iPad

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 01/29/2010 - 10:11

olpc 3.0
iPad or OLPC?

Update: the EE Times has a great, similar article on the OLPC fantasy vs Apple reality.

So, the XO-2 has moved from promise to hope to scrap, and has made way for a tablet-style, iPhoneiPad-like XO-3 (Read about the 3.0 model at Forbes and Engadget, with the now-in-production 1.5 and the in-planning 1.75 XOs, both using the current design but with faster processors.

OLPC, and Nick Negroponte in particular, love to use conceptual designs to create excitement. This works great in normal, commercial development a few times. Once you miss a few targets, people react very negatively too it, even if you do finally release a product. Why do you think Apple pairs announcements with already-planned release schedules?

The OLPC Haiti Project Reports Back

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 11/20/2009 - 09:37

When the IDB plans to "evaluate its performance from a quantitative standpoint," it's a good sign that they mean to do just that. The XO project in Haiti, discussed here with a cost breakdown here is bearing a ton (1 pages, to be precise) fruit, with the recent IDB report (PDF).

It reveals some promise, some best practices, and also reminds us of some common problems.

I'm Still Not Convinced

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 11/18/2009 - 14:45

At the IADB seminar on ICT in the classroom, I asked Nicholas Negroponte why not sell the XO laptop -- at or near cost -- to anyone who wanted one? This gets beyond the hassle of having to convince bureaucrats of the value of the laptop without running pilot programs and delaying the eventual adoption. It (hopefully) creates some side markets in support, software development for non-educational uses of the laptop like rural healthcare, and could enable educational uses without going through the schools themselves, even.

Granted, there are some concerns. OLPC has thus far maintained a clarity of focus by working towards their mission of universal access, rather than having to worry (like Intel and Microsoft) about capturing an emerging market. Working at the ministry level potentially could reduce the transaction costs of each "deal," but more importantly, it guarantees some level of equitable distribution of the laptops, ensuring not just those with money will get access.

And this equity is important - for a education project within a school; you have to have all the students with laptops, or you by definition don't have a 1:1 program and you don't have a good shared computing setup either. Lack of computer saturation also opens it up to higher risk for theft.

The Inter-American Development Bank and ICT4Edu

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 09/15/2009 - 20:03

Today's IADB event, Reinventing the Classroom, brought together thought-leaders, practitioners and government officials to discuss the role of technology in education in Latin America. In sum, it was a lot of preaching to the choir. This particular choir, however, hailed from many different churches, temples, cathedrals, and bazaars.

Everyone present believed in the importance of technology in education, but there was enough differences in opinion and methodologies to keep it interesting. It ranged from presentations on real-world experiences of projects in Portugal using a variation of the Intel Classmate to projects in Brazil and Argentina to the amazing Plan CEIBAL of Uruguay, using the OLPC XO. Presenters extolled the virtues of free and open source software as well as the familiar Windows XP.

By the end of the day-long seminar, I felt an odd mix of hope and despair.

In Defense of the Laptop

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 09/09/2009 - 15:32

Reading Alanna Shaikh's writeup on the OLPC Program as a failure in the UNDispatch and clicking through to Timothy Ogden's harsh commentary, I began to feel a bit defensive for OLPC. I know, it's a bit out of character, but not really.

SJ Preaching to the Open Source Choir

Perhaps this is because SJ reminded me of some of the core good things that remain part of OLPC during his talk at the OLPC Learning Club / HacDC.org seminar Tuesday night. SJ went off on tangents on the value of open hardware in society, and the simple concept for learners when they realize that they have complete ownership and ability to open up and modify not only the tools inside the apps on the OLPC laptop, but the code that creates the tools, the code that is the operating system underneath those tools, and the hardware itself that the OS is running on top of. This is empowering and fundamentally and importantly different from a Microsoft environment, where everything is closed and locked down once you try to step outside the walled gardens.

OLPC TCO Deathmatch (2 of 4)

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 09/08/2009 - 10:45

Let's talk Total Costs of Ownership of One Laptop Per Child. Taking our set of different OLPC implementation cost calculators, as well as actual numbers that have bubbled up over the years, like IADB's Project HA-T1093 with 13,200 students plus 500 teachers (with a budget of USD $5.1M), we can try to settle on some generalities so we can compare apples to apples.

XO in rwanda
How much does this cost RITA?

Common Basic Assumptions

Let's start with how long the project will run, and what number of laptops we'll need to replace (due to age, damage, loss, hardware failure, and so on) during that time frame. That should be easy, right?

Five seems to be the magic number when talking TCOs, which is convenient when projected OLPC lifespans are also five years. Reality may disagree with that (and certainly GeSCI and Vital Wave wisely do).

So let's plan for five years, and drop re-purchasing of the whole batch within that period (see below for why this becomes relevant). We'll instead presume some per-year replacements (damage, theft, environmental problems, and "normal" wear-and-tear), but even this gets harrowing.

Different Lifespan Calculations

The OLPC Deployment Guide handily provides numbers for expected monthly repair frequencies, which they project at .083% risk of bricking per laptop per month - 1% failure over the course of a year.

Use the XO Chat Mesh, Luke.

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 08/05/2009 - 09:39

I've updated my mesh post with new Jabber server info - click read more for the full scoop!

It's Raining OLPC TCOs (1 of 4)

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 08/04/2009 - 08:58

Update: Hello readers from Alanna's post on the OLPC at UNDispatch - You should check my original article on the OLPC TCO - written back in 2006 - over at OLPCNews.com.

If you poke around enough on the Laptop.org wiki, you find a few interesting corners. Linked from their work in creating a training and reference document for OLPCCorps, a link to an Excel spreadsheet to calculate OLPC-specific costs for a deployment, which has been created and maintained by OLPC's John Watlington

Collaboration and the XO Mesh

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 07/08/2009 - 10:46

olpc learning club
Time to mesh XOs

Unless you're lucky enough to live within mesh range of many other XO users (or are part of an XO deployment or an innovative classroom project, you probably have a pretty empty "neighborhood," and look to Internet jabber servers to connect with other XOs.

The state of the public jabber servers of recent has been in flux for a while, but seems to be settling down.

XOChat.org seems to have disappeared from the Internet (any word on why?), and scouring the OLPC Wiki for community servers has led to more dead ends than I care to relate. To be fair, I've mainly been using Pidgin.im instead of my XO to test the networks out, and some servers, including XO1Share.org, isn't playing nice with my IM client - but does seem to have a decently vibrant community of XO users on it. Jabber.laptop.org and jabber.sugarlabs.org are the other contenders currently (and jabber.laptop.org allows IM clients!, Sugarlabs throttles non-OLPC connections).

There is also a scaling limitation in that any server can only take ~150 concurrent users.

Another path forward for the One Laptop Per Child Project

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 03/20/2009 - 10:11

I've long been an advocate for selling the XO commercially or at least following a Grameen Village Phone style approach to create OLPC XO-centric small business models. Or simply just enable smaller pilot projects to spread the XO technology. I still believe any or all of these offer amazing benefits to expanding the scale of the OLPC XO, re-establishing the XO as the dominant player in the low-cost, rugged, low-infrastructure-requirements laptop, ideal for education projects around the world.

This doesn't seem to be getting much traction, despite apparent interest. Let me propose a different path forward, closer to the original "we sell laptops in batches of 1 million or more to governments" idea: Drop education.

Don't get me wrong - education is absolutely key to development, and the OLPC XO can be a great tool for education. But education systems also need to invest in teacher training, school infrastructure (from simple, double-ventilated pit latrines all the way to electricity and computers).

But there are so many other areas where something like the XO could help. Anywhere that cell phones are established as data-reporting tools is a potential place to introduce an XO. The laptop is barely more resource-hungry than a cell phone in terms of power, and can work "off-grid" with solar or car batteries just as well. It can deploy without any central communications grid (unlike a cell phone), given enough XOs or mesh extending devices to maintain an active peer-to-peer mesh network, and add one satellite uplink or cell-modem into the system and you're online. More importantly, if the cell network is down, a mesh network still can pass along messages within a small area.

Even a simple OLPC can still provide a much more rich data reporting toolset than coding long strings of data into a 160 character SMS, not to mention the ability to add in encryption for personal security and not relying (necessarily) on a central network which could be compromised.

What are some areas that such a device could provide valuable tools? Crisis response would be one obvious win, but also health reporting and/or managing reports being filed, human rights violations, election reporting, and even something like agricultural data exchange, enabling farmers to "pull" and explore information on long-term weather forecasts, disease risks, and market prices.

Combine an XO with FrontLineSMS and you have a portable, solar-powered SMS communications hub, which I can see being valuable in a few tough situations if you had some manual encryption schemes set up with your constituents.

Accepted, the XO is more expensive and would require more training than a simple cell phone. It could not -- and should not -- replace cell phone deployments, as a cell phone can go longer without power and is less "flashy" than an XO. But hybrid systems involving OLPC XOs as well as cell phones, or using XOs as portable SMS-messaging hubs, or simply to quickly deploy a local area wifi mesh network are all clear needs that an OLPC XO could help with.

Let's get together and mesh alright (One Laptop in Jamaica)

Submitted by Jon on Sun, 03/15/2009 - 10:59

OLPC and F/LOSS enthusiast Dr. Sameer Verma, an Associate Professor of Information Systems at San Francisco State University has been beating the XO drum in Jamaica with this presentation to the University of the West Indies/Mona (UWI) and at the ICT4DJamaica conference (with great photos) last September.

You probably already know Sameer from either his role as organizer of SF-OLPC or his OLPCNews guest entry earlier this year, OLPC Jamaica, and the beginnings of a pilot project in August Town, a community near UWI, a stone's throw away from where I lived while in Jamaica.

$10 laptop in India?

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 02/26/2009 - 10:08

I'll believe it when I see it, but the Times of India is reporting that the promised $10 laptop is closer to a reality, but right now it's as real as the crank on the original XO design.

Who knew cardboard was so exciting?

I'm growing weary of promises for new / better / cheaper technologies for ICT4D - whether it's the pure-touch-screen tomfoolery of the XO-2 or new designs from India (remember that they've been promising this since at least late 2006, and the XO-2 has been a diversionary tactic starting in 2007 and formally announced May of last year.

We're missing the point here, as usual. ICT4D is not about the ICT, it's about the "D" - Development. Use whatever technology is best suited for the problem at hand, don't wait on the next big thing or spend money to develop it, at least starting out. This is why mobile phones are such an attractive tool - amazing install base, even in the developing world, low cost, low-power, but provides limited connectivity and 2-way (limited) data flow.

Small is bigger than big for OLPC deployment

Submitted by Jon on Sat, 02/07/2009 - 19:20

Via Morgan Collett we learn that OLPC is discontinuing it's "small" deployment support of 100-1000 XO laptop purchases:

Deployments should be any scale

Unfortunately, as some of you might have heard "Change the World" aka "Give a School" aka "Give 100, Give 1000" will cease to exist. We are just waiting for the info to be taken off the main website (any second now). We are doing this in an effort to refocus back to large-scale deployments that create change in a major way. We WILL honor all requests that we have received prior to the info being taken off the website.

As I commented last night, this is ridiculous - why can't OLPC perform remotely as well as every other computer manufacturer on the planet? Especially with a first-mover product with (for now) unmatched features.

I want 1-laptop deployments, 5-laptop deployments, and 10-laptop deployments. I really hope there's a good reason why that's not as easy as it seems.

India's $20 Laptop

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 02/03/2009 - 12:33

The XO Files Part IV: New Years Resolutions for 1CC

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 01/21/2009 - 05:50

This entry is part four in the series, "The XO Files: I Want to Believe in the XO" Read Part I here, then Part II, The New 4PC Market, and its Failings, and Part III: Re-imagining the OLPC Distribution.

The XO Files Part IV: New Years Resolutions for 1CC

The XO Files: I Want To Believe
The XO Files: I Want To Believe

The beginning of 2009 isn't going so well for the OLPC Foundation over at 1CC, with layoffs and very disappointing G1G1 sales.

To (finally) close up my "I want to believe" series on how things went wrong, and how things could go very right with the OLPC dream, let me offer some resolutions for the Foundation to consider for 2009.

I will decide on a mission statement
That is, "I will accept that OLPC is and has always been a laptop project, not an education project". And that's OK, if presented as such. The world needs a laptop like the XO, and it can still help improve education. But let's agree that the XO is a laptop and not an education miracle, and treat it as such - a wonderfully well-designed and flexible tool that can be used in many contexts in international development projects and in more quotidian ways as well. This opens up more "markets" for the XO, widens the potential scope, and creates a much larger and diverse user-base who can benefit from and contribute back to the ongoing development of the XO.

I will stop overreaching

Microsoft, the "third world" and anti-virus

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 11/19/2008 - 10:27

For the past year or so, I've repeatedly been trying to bring up what I see as a huge, gaping hole in any project which uses Microsoft products for an ICT4Development rollout - computer viruses. Windows XP, when connected to the Internet sans protection, lasts as few as four minutes before becoming infected, and rarely more than a day. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of OLPC XOs running Windows (with no mention of anti-virus software to date), and you have a nightmare scenario pretty rapidly.

The much-debated VitalWave TCO paper we discussed at the World Bank, which argued that the higher cost of Linux administrators balanced out licensing costs for discounted Microsoft and anti-virus software, even admitted the significant costs of purchasing and maintaining a subscription to anti-virus tools

If Microsoft wants to continue to capture the developing world market, this is going to be a barrier. They can drop their own licensing costs for the XP Starter Edition (which at this point is zero cost to them) down, and hand out older Office software; but the initial and subscription costs for anti-virus software are not (directly) under MS's control. Regardless, having anti-virus protection directly impacts the functionality of the device - if installed, A-V can slow a less powerful computer down to a crawl during a scan and at startup, but the consequences of not having it can render the system absolutely useless.

So it comes as little surprise that Microsoft has announced a free anti-virus software for XP and Vista that targets lower-powered systems (cough, like the OLPC?) to address both these problems and lower the cost barrier for adopting MS:

TCO for low-cost computing in Education

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 11/10/2008 - 11:55

The video archive of last Thursday's discussion at the World Bank on the total cost of ICT4E projects is now online at the Bank's eDevelopment thematic group blog

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