High-tech philanthropy: how you can be the next Bill Gates!

I have just come across a really cool initiative for educating children in developing countries: One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).

I know, I know. Just from the name, it sounds like the sort of pie-in-the-sky idealism cooked up by affluent do-gooders in their summer home who have never had to live on what people earn in developing countries.

But check it out. Really. Each unit costs only $200 US (less than £100).

As the founder and president of OLPC, Nicholas Negroponte, says, “It’s an education project, not a laptop project.” The design and distribution strategy reflect that. They have held to a number of simple design features in creating this laptop, the XO, which should make it ideal for use in the most under-developed areas:

… the laptop could not be big, heavy, fragile, ugly, dangerous, or dull. Another imperative was visual distinction. … [T]he machine’s distinctive appearance is also meant to discourage gray-market traffic. There is no mistaking what it is and for whom it is intended.

XO is about the size of a textbook and lighter than a lunchbox. Thanks to its flexible design and “transformer” hinge, the laptop easily assumes any of several configurations: standard laptop use, e-book reading, and gaming.

… The integrated handle is kid-sized, as is the sealed, rubber-membrane keyboard. The novel, dual-mode, extra-wide touchpad supports pointing, as well as drawing and writing.

… It contains no hazardous materials. …

In addition, —for use at home and where power is not available—the XO can be hand powered. It will come with at least two of three options: a crank, a pedal, or a pull-cord. …

Experience shows that laptop components most likely to fail are the hard drive and internal connectors. Therefore, XO has no hard drive to crash and only two internal cables. For added robustness, the machine’s plastic walls are 2mm thick, as opposed to the standard 1.3mm. Its mesh network antennas, which far outperform the typical laptop, double as external covers for the USB ports, which are protected internally as well. The display is also cushioned by internal “bumpers.”

The estimated product lifetime is at least five years. To help ensure such durability, the machines are being subjected to factory testing to destruction, as well as in situ field testing by children.

(from the features page)

And, more importantly, they are inexpensive. They are built as simply as possible, and run with only free software (their conditions for software inclusion are analogous but not identical to those found in the excellent GNU General Public License).

You can participate in various ways – by volunteering, by donating to OLPC. But my favorite is the “Give 1 Get 1” campaign. You pay for two of them; one goes to a child in the developing world, and the other comes to you for your child to use. Let’s face it – it’s a great little device, especially for the price tag.

So from 12 November, for a fraction of the cost of a normal laptop ($399 US, or £191.93 at today’s exchange rate) you can buy your child a sturdy, versatile educational tool while contributing to an innovative and promising effort to lift poor children out of poverty through education.

As a long-time fan of laptops, of open-source software (particularly Linux), and of education, I find this plan very exciting. I would love for Kaia’s first computer to be an XO. (I kinda think it’d be nice to have one myself, too.)

Of course, I’ll also have to keep my eyes on other projects with similar goals (see here, here, and here). They all seem to be interested in the charitable goals of helping kids in developing nations, so I don’t think competition and rivalry will become too much of a problem.

Let me know what you think. I am currently in the first flush of excitement over this idea – I haven’t turned my critical-thinking fully on this idea. Would you contribute to this project? Would you buy one of these for your own child as well as for a needy child?

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