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