Sunday, July 8, 2012

Down to the Wire...

 (** post by Manning **)

Literally and Figuratively 

Ah, six months later, I can see the dis-advantages of not blogging on a more regular basis.  My last post on my efforts at the school in Mboro was in December!  So I will do my best to provide a cliff notes version of the pot holed filled journey. Let me start by saying with persistence and perseverance I prevailed  until the very end with only a month to go here. The school is in a better place. 

Outside the walls - cleanup day.
Overall Observations: 

I think given my 25 years of professional work – both as an engineer and manager in and around IT, I can express the following thoughts. Technology in the developing world is hard.  It’s hard to create the necessary environments, hard to support, expensive, and can be of limited value. 

The OLPC program has a lot of good intentions, the XO laptop is a great device, but the overall design and setup is complicated and difficult to maintain by non-technical persons.  That wasn't how it was supposed to be, but that’s the reality in this part of the developing world.  Some very good documentation exists, but it assumes you are technical, have internet access and a lot of it appears to be primarily in English.  The core concept of a 1:1 computer to student program seems unnecessary and un-supportable.  Classes (at least here in Senegal) are large – 55 students/class with one teacher.  Maintaining and managing hundreds of laptops and the associated infrastructure for a multi-room, multi-building school is difficult with the normal teaching staff.  There is no personnel “overhead” and no-one from the school that can easily (or otherwise) take over management of this. Which is why it was in the state it was in when I arrived. Despite the electrical storm no one could trouble shoot or fix anything.  The gap is just too big.  Some level of true technical support is needed.  Someone that can understand the problems, research them and either solve the problems or make enough sense of it come up with a work-around.  The other problem is a program like this (200+ laptops, a server, 5 routers, and underground cabling) can be a pretty big distraction from the main purpose of the school – teaching and learning.  It’s mostly a problem for the teachers and administration, but all the same, it takes energy that could be put to other useful pursuits such as the need for a new roof, books, a library – wouldn't that be nice?  Maybe they will get there.  I personally think that a smaller footprint (10 computers per class, or shared among classes, plus computers for the teachers) with or without a server would be fine.  Kids could work in teams in the classroom or in a separate building, (if one exists.)  Also, a more standard Operating System (Android, Linux with a standard graphical user interface (GUI) or Microsoft Windows, Apple) might be more realistic too.  The teachers at this school found the non-standard "OLPC" interface confusing compared to a Windows type interface.  I’d also limit PC use to CM2 and CM1 classes (5th and 6th grade) and nothing younger. They’re the most ready and can most easily integrate into the current lessons that are going on in the classroom. 

It may seem obvious, but this is a really harsh environment (no AC, sand blowing everywhere inside and out, hot and humid much of the year, thunder and lightening storms and rain) and computer equipment in general does not do well in those environments.    Therefore, If you do have the OLPC program, the OLPC XO laptops (and server) will break and a requirement to have some replacement parts from the beginning should be mandatory 
(spare laptops, extra screens, extra keyboards and chargers...).  This is particularly important here in Senegal, as you can't get any of the parts locally.  All come from the US or Europe, and it's costly to send anything!  

Beyond that, the overall infrastructure is complicated, and probably too technical for most  remote schools with limited staff, resources.  Therefore, a technical person MUST be identified that can support the school (for a fee or free).  Ideally, a person would be trained alongside the teachers during the implementation so that they understand the program and how it all fits together with the technology.  
Kids at recess huddled by the only working wifi!

In the end this wasn't my designed program but I gave it my all and more - to get them back to a useful program.  And the kids enthusiasm really warmed my heart.

**  Now for the more technically gritty details **

The process – technology in the field:

After that initial triage I did (early on) it was determined that most of the equipment was either non-functioning or missing and I’ve spent the better part of the last six  months figuring out which things could be salvaged and for those that could not, what were our options?  The Server was one of the biggest problems.  It was purchased from a US based company by the original OLPC team in 2009.  It was designed for this type of environment – no fan, harsh environments.  Unfortunately, both the CPU and disk drive were fried.  So, I contacted the manufacturer and surprisingly they still had a record of the machine.  After some lengthy troubleshooting that required me to measure the voltage of the motherboard in several places as well as rigging up another power supply from an old desktop machine to validate that indeed it did not work, a new one would be required.  Turned out it was true with the disk drive as well – I purchased an external enclosure to see if we could access the disk & files.  But, no luck.  It spun up, and that was it.  A full server replacement would be required.  Given the alternatives (few), Hilary encouraged me to ask the company that provided the original server if they might have something they could “donate.”  I asked, and they did have something.  All I had to do was arrange for the shipping!  The problem, of course, is that shipping anything here is costly (more than the server) and while it may take a while there’s never a guarantee it will even arrive.  Fortunately, we happened to be connected up with an ex-pat family working for the UN in Dakar and had chosen during the Presidential elections in February to return to California.  So, our friend was willing to have it shipped to California and generously agree to bring back with her when she returned.  OK, so far, so good.  But, I didn’t want another lightning storm to take everything out again so I began looking for some “ethernet surge protectors.”  Unfortunately, they were nowhere to be found in Dakar and I was able to find some on ebay, and again had them shipped to my friend.  (Her suitcase was filling up!).

A few weeks later, she arrived back in Dakar with all my electronics (along with M&Ms, some books, and a pound of Peets).  I was very happy, as this was one of the last items I needed to get this project finished.  With equipment in hand, I made it back to Mboro, unpacked and started the install process.  However, it was not meant to be.  First there was no disk drive and second, the server was – Dead On Arrival.  I couldn’t believe it!  I called the manufacture to discuss – maybe I was doing something wrong?  Maybe the power supply was bad?  Maybe, Maybe, Maybe…?  And just to be sure, I contacted my friend and colleague Wil Bucoy in San Francisco for a 2nd opinion.  But no, nothing worked.  Another wasted week trying to solve this problem. 
My transport to and from Mboro.  

Always check the number of lug nuts - 3 out of 4 ain't bad...if there's only 2, I wait for the next car.

7-place cars waiting for passengers
Fruit stands at the "Gare" in Mboro

Mango season! (5 for $1)

So, what were our options?  One was to not have a server at all.  This would be problematic, and wouldn’t allow the kids or students to easily do their projects (designed with the OLPC laptop) nor access the internet.  The other was to find a server locally.  New and used prices were beyond the reach of the school.  Eventually, the director Pierre found an old desktop.  Would this work, he asked?  After some research, I concluded it would be “good enough.”  OK, so now I was ready!  What could go wrong now that I hadn’t already experienced?  Well, that was just the beginning of power outages, internet outages, water outages, other missing equipment and software incompatibility.   The biggest problem however turned out to be the current version of server software for OLPC Server wouldn’t recognize the disk drives.  This took a long time to sort out – and when I finally did conclude it might be the operating system build, and went to download an older build, the internet went out.   After a lot of “waiting” I concluded it would be faster to return to Dakar and download it at night from the apartment.  After several un-successful attempts in Dakar (internet outages that interrupted my large file download, primarily) I finally found a tool that would break up the file into smaller parts, download each separately and re-combine them later into one file.  And, it would re-start after outages.  (Every techie in the developing world should have something like this).  Just to be on the safe side, I downloaded several different versions, tools and other things I could think of and burned all to CD’s. 

Upon my return to Mboro, I was again “ready!”  I went to power up the “server” and – nothing.  It worked a week ago?  After opening it up and looking around, we decided it needed a cleaning.  So, off to the computer store and 2 hours or so later, it returned.  It powered on.  The lights flashed.  But, when I pushed the button to open the CD, a new grinding sound emerged, but it refused to open.  After another hour or so of disassembly, and trying various things (like using a paper clip) we managed to get it open long enough to insert the CD.  Amazingly, it worked!  An hour later the software was installed. 
"Server" (note CD drive bay extended)
There was still a fair amount of server software and wifi (SSH, putty and general Linux) configuration to complete, and again through my skype conversations with the expert, Wil Bucoy, we figured it all out.  I couldn't have done it without him.  A big thanks to Wil!

Is everything this hard?  Yes.

Since then, the server and classroom routers have been configured and installed, a new wifi network set up for the priests *(whom live nearby) and finally (last week) one of the cables was dug up and replaced (conduit, CAT 5 Cabling).  There is now connectivity to at least some of the classrooms!  (CM2, CM1)
Location of underground cable between Office and Classroom.
Of course, it's wasn't all work... Pierre's wife made lunch for us and had it delivered to the school on a day when the older kids (CM2) were preparing for their final exams.  We were able to sit back and enjoy a wonderfully cooked Senegalese meal, complete with sauce to spice it up!


Post Manning Support:

So, as the school year wraps up in Mboro, most everything is back in place and functioning.  There are a few final tweeks that are to be made by the original Peace Corp volunteer (who now lives and works in New York) and then next year, they can begin anew. And through Hilary's DWG network was able to identify a young Senegalese man (Youssou) who has a degree in information technology who has the time and aptitude to support the school after I’ve left.  He spent a few days with me at the school re-cabling, configuring the wireless, repairing XO laptops and doing XO operating system upgrades.  I’ve documented everything and we’ve walked through it a couple of times, so it’s as good as it’s going to get for now.  I think having someone who lives here who can talk in the same language, in the same time zone will make a big difference in keeping things running as smoothly as possible.  With unemployment the way it is here - I hope the school finds a way to pay him accordingly and everyone wins.

My new assistant, Youssou punching down the new cables in the classrooms.

CAT 5 cable construction...
 Here's to a successful new school year for Ecole Notre Dame Mboro! 


  1. Manning! What a story! Plaudits to you for doing a fine job under such circumstances. You are a wiser fellow now, possibly with a few gray hairs as a result of the tribulations.
    Good work!

    1. Dwight (from Manning) - well, indeed my hair has turned not only gray, but white too (from vitiligo) this last year. I certainly feel like I've learned a lot in this process, that's for sure.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences in the practicalities of closing the digital divide. My students studying Information Technology in a Global Society for their IB course in Dhaka, Bangladesh, will find this of real interest. We have been looking at supporting both a local CAFFE (computers are free for everyone) project (set up by one of our teachers here in the city) and a more remote one in Nepal. Lots to think about. Thanks.

    1. Replying for Manning (since it's Hilary and I post the blog updates) - You are welcome.