Snails-Pace ICT Development

There's an old adage among geeks that goes something like, "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon packed full of tape drives travelling at high speeds across a desert." It appears that the same can be held true of snails harnessed to DVD-wheels, which are faster than ADSL, as well as the controversial RFC 1149, A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers.

There's a point to this, which is that most development workers have come to take Net access as a given, but in many countries receiving ICT-earmarked aid, there may be any number of hurdles to get over (including basic electrification).

I had to overcome this assumption as an ICT volunteer in Jamaica was being disconnected. I had no Internet at home [1], and no Internet in most of the school labs that I was visiting, or if any, shared dialup at a blazing 33.6 (bad wiring), and when you're spending the day in a converted shipping container with no A/C in the Jamaican heat with a lot of computers, sitting around waiting for your virus-software and anti-spyware tools to download is not an easy thing.

These hassles led to my side-projects, which ended up being my lasting legacies. I'll leave my magic done with the local cell phone systems for a different topic, but for now let me focus on the problems of downloading files.

I started out with a CD R/W of my favorite tools, which contained a hacker's-delight of tools, registry editors, virus removers and anti-virus programs, anti-spyware, common drivers needed, ethernet-snooping software, network analysis junk -- basically a mix of everything I ever had thought "if only I had...." during a school visit, and results of brainstorming with my coworkers. It came to include a few floppies for those times that the CD drive was dead of course, but it wasn't very useful outside of my hands.

Lab managers began to ask if I could leave a copy of it with them, and this struck me as a great idea, until I got home later that night and started thinking of scenarios where they destroyed their registry, deep-erased their hard drive, or changed word documents to be opened by the calculator or something like that.

So I gave the CD a UI. It's continued to make itself useful even back in the states as my one-stop tool CD for PC troubleshooting, although it's been morphed to a form almost anathema to its existance, a website.[2]

My other project developed out of this, for those not-so-rare occasions that a duppy (Jamaican ghost) was 'pon the computer, and Windows just wouldn't even think about booting -- so I started carrying around a Knoppix bootable Linux CD -- pop it in, reboot, and you're running Linux. This is pretty fun, except kinda useless by itself, so I remastered Knoppix into a Jamaican-Education version, focusing the software on useful games and programs for educational environments, and burned a local copy of the entire Ministry of Education website into it, with all of its multi-meg curricula guide PDFs.

The Knoppix remaster had limited success, though the USAID education project took up distribution of it, but the SchoolTools CD became a popular item around the office and more advanced school labs we visited.

This is all a very long-winded way to make the point that in development, ICT practices have to be revisted. Sure, wikis and blogs and all these wonderful web tools and hosted services are great, but they are rarely as widely relevant as we'd like to think. Still in 2006, a paltry percentage of the world's population has ever been online (I think only 2/3rds has ever made or received a phone call!). This means that we should continue to think about options for the disconnected world (and, for the ICT standpoint, what to do with a computer but no Internet).

Perhaps, though, snails with DVDs might not be the right method (for purely security and data integrity issues, not to mention salt in the data path).

[1] We got on the waitlist for a landline phone and discovered that it was estimated at a 9 year wait, 9 years being the probable time of someone dieing or moving out of our area, the switching circuit was full.

[2] To be fair, it also has a semi-permanent place on my thumbdrive.