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More on One Laptop Per Child

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An interview (first of two parts):

When Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative was first announced, the project was nearly universally lauded by the tech press. OLPC was born with a truly noble intention: to put laptops in the hands of children in developing nations who previously had no access to such technologies, the 21st-century equivalent of the “Give a man a fish…” adage.

OLPC made its flagship notebook, the XO, available via its Give One Get One program. This initiative proved fairly successful, with some 80,000 machines set to be deployed to developing nations.

Now that the program is a reality, however, critics have become more vocal about what they perceive as shortcomings in the program, a matter compounded by recent events such as Intel’s departure from the project, the defection of CTO Mary Lou Jepsen, and the end of the Give One, Get One program.

We caught up with OLPC’s Chief Connectivity Officer, Michail Bletsas, to speak about these issues and the future of One Laptop Per Child.

Brian Heater: How would you gauge the success of the OLPC thus far?

Michail Bletsas: It’s hard to gauge. It wasn’t quite at iPhone levels, but I think we did well. The main point for getting all of these laptops in the U.S. was to see the developer community. And that has worked out really well. I would call it a success, without any reservations, at this point, despite some negative comments and some difficulty.

Which are to be expected, I think.

Well, we don’t have a distribution network. We have a commercial distributor doing this, essentially pro bono. Right now, I’m very happy with the product. Now, if you look from an outsider’s point of view and you see a non-profit selling laptops, there are definitely a lot of things that could have been done better. But given the resources at hand and the fact that we don’t really sell any money on overhead and administrative items, that’s to be expected, I think.

I know that you had set a definite time-line as far as when the Give One, Get One program was to end, but was part of the justification for not revisiting it the fact that some people have been responding to the XO as though it were a commercial product?

No, not at all. The issue has been how many resources we have, in order to deploy the 82,000 laptops to the developing world—actually, it’s more than that. We got some money and straight donations from people that didn’t want ones for themselves. There’s no point in running the program again, until those systems are deployed.

Was the process of sending the laptops to consumers in the U.S. who weren’t part of the target market draining much of the resources?

It has put some stress on the resources. We do have some skeletal support organization, at least, which is mostly volunteer. But we have a couple of full-time people here at OLPC who are are worrying about that support. The biggest problem is how we get those 85,000 systems in place for schools in the developing world, connected to the Internet, as much as possible. We need to clear the pipeline before we think about doing something like that again.

The majority of the people who bought the systems in the U.S. knew why they were buying them. There were some exceptions; people who went in there and said, “Oh, it looks cute.” And they get something that’s good but doesn’t function like the laptop that they’re used to, and that’s where most of the support calls come from.

But we didn’t stop it because of that. Once you have the process in place, moving 82,000 or any number of machines wasn’t the issue in the U.S. It’s getting those machines in place, in places like Mongolia and India and Afghanistan and Iraq and Rwanda and Ethiopia, where all of these machines are going.

Clearly the Give One, Get One program can be considered some sort of success, with it using up so many of your resources.

Yes, and also it’s something that we have to address. We should be able to scale that a lot higher. We should be able to easily be able to add a zero to that number, and still be able to do it, without adding a huge organization in place with all the overhead that it will entail. This is something that we think we can do. We are in the learning stage, but I think we can do that, because we get a lot of help from the outside. So it becomes a problem of coordination, making sure that you don’t waste anybody’s help or goodwill.

You mentioned a few countries earlier. Are you focusing on specific countries, or is it whoever comes to you with orders?

It’s a push-pull process. Obviously, we have to have some interest from the country. We are not going to go over there and force these machines on them. But it’s also a function of the country’s needs and development level, so with G1G1, we really tried to focus on particular countries.

We also tried to see if we could get matching grants. At least in Rwanda, Mongolia, and Ethiopia, we have matching grants, so every machine that we give via G1G1, somebody else—whether that’s a wealthy individual in Mongolia, the government in Rwanda, or a foreign government in Ethiopia—gives machines.

So the majority of the machines that aren’t being purchased by the countries are coming from the Give One, Get One Program?

Yes, and discounters. There have been orders in Uruguay, Peru, and Mexico, and those are different—the government paid for those machines. For the other governments, the American and Canadian people are donating those machines.

Do those people participating in the Give One, Get One program have any input, as far as what countries the laptops they purchase end up in, or is that entire OLPC’s decision?

At this point in time, because of legitistics, it’s kind of hard to have them select among places. What happens right now is that Mongolia stepped up. We’re trying to see what kind of resources countries put on their end, so the first machines went to Mongolia. We think that these are going to be the seed machines for a much larger program.

The second country will probably be Rwanda. We’ve been in discussions with them for over a year now, one way or another. They’ve selected 60 schools, and eventually we’ll be able to tell people where all of their machines went.

And you certainly don’t want to be in a situation where you’re sending one or two machines to children in an area. You want to send them to an entire class or school.

Ideally, you would like to send them to an entire school district. That’s the model. You want a situation where it’s really one laptop per child. You don’t want a situation where some kids have laptops and some kids don’t.

When you’re choosing which countries to send laptops to, it seems as if you wouldn’t want to be sending them to developing nations where there’s a shortage of food and clean water. Those other issues should take priority over sending laptops.

Yes. The way that this should be done is, [in a] place where there is no clean water and no food whatsoever, just dropping a computer is not going to have an immediate effect. However, there are lots of people who do take care of these things, and if you have programs in place to address those other needs, I think that we’re a perfect match. Obviously, we’re not saying, “if you’re going to do one thing, do ours.” We are saying that you should do a few things, and one of those should be ours.

It’s more of a secondary solution, after these other more essential needs are addressed.

From the countries that we are going to right now, the laptops are ending up in places where there is a school… We do want the laptops to end up in even less developed places. I would love to see the laptops ending up in Darfur, for example. But again, this has to be part of a more coordinated effort. Nobody’ saying, “Don’t do food.” [laughs] We’re saying that if you’re doing something about food and water, you have to do something about education, too, eventually, so these people won’t need food for the rest of their lives–they’ll be able to sustain themselves. We think it’s a good investment.

[To be continued.]

Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2008 at 10:17 am

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