One of the hardest things to explain about what I do is the fact that it’s been done before. I’m coming on the scene late: the first XO computers came out seven years ago. Some of the first users have already hit adulthood. The point is, there’s a history here, composed of all sorts of stories: successes, failures, and lots of headscratching along the way.
One of my goals for this trip is to take a look at some of the projects that got started long before I came along. I’ve talked to some of the people involved, but there are some questions you can only answer by going and seeing it for yourself.
So far, I’ve gotten just a taste. Example: my friend Bill Stelzer tried to bring 10 laptops via the Dominican side and they got held up in customs. Since I was in Santo Domingo the other night, I was able to pick up laptops from the guy who had been storing them for us – after three years, they’re finally going to get into the hands of some kids.
More interestingly, on my way back to Port-au-Prince I stopped in Lascahobas to evaluate everything in preparation for the program launch in a few weeks. Ben Burrell, a computer professor near my home in Virginia, has gone to Haiti a few times to work with a school that received 400 XOs a few years ago. I met with the director, Bernadette, to get some useful info.
She talked very openly about the difficulties she’s had since the computers first arrived. In the beginning, there was a group that was going to do some training, but with no money to pay them that fell apart pretty quickly. So, the kids and teachers never really had the chance to learn the computers – sure, they figured out on their own how to take photos, draw pictures, chat, but there was never a complete curriculum like the one we’ve developed for Unleash Kids projects.
Then, of course, electricity to charge them was an issue. The solar charging system was never delivered, so they hooked up power strips to the unreliable city power in order to charge computers whenever it happened to come on.
At some point, they stopped using them completely and just stuck them in storage. As you can see, there’s a ton of computers stuffed into sacks. That’s what most Haitians carry their belongings in, by the way – certainly helps keep them dry.
Unfortunately, thieves broke in to the room and stole some of the sacks…including the one that had all the chargers inside. So now there is literally no way to power the machines that remain. There’s about 150 left. Some were stolen, others were never returned by the students using them, and others broke.
So, in a few weeks we’ll swoop in and see what we can salvage. We’ll try to do it right: train a group of both teachers and younger student interns, give them a curriculum, install solar power and a server to provide additional interesting content…the whole nine yards.
What gives me hope this time around is, it’s not just about all that technology. The university professor launching this project, Ben Burrell, has been working with the women’s group that started the school for a few years now. His church wasn’t involved in the original XO deployment – if they had been, things might be very different today. People need a number to call when machines break, they need a step-by-step curriculum guide, and they need to be given a voice when we’re arranging every detail of the project. I’m excited that we’ve got a good team together, both Haitians and all of us outsiders, working to get it right this time. The school and Bernadette wants to put these computers to use – they just need someone willing to go on that journey with them.