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Project charged up and ready to go!

It looks like the solar school computer lab is set to do great things. The solar installation is practically finished, the batteries are charged, the laptops are ready and school holidays end on the 13th of July. A lot of hard work over the last couple of weeks is finally bearing fruit.

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Our training programme, mentioned in the last blog posts concerning, has a name - it is the Eastern Cape Schools' Participatory Internet Research and Training Project... ECSPIRT! And it's all about producing a new rank of ecspirts, sorry experts. We have secured funding from SELF and Rhodes University now for the project and are waiting to hear if some other funders would like to add a little to the project. So we are set to begin training a new group of software product managers in August!!
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: July 2nd 2008 09:46

We are working on a Living Lab

I met with Patrizia Hongisto who is senior researcher at the Center for Knowledge and Innovation Research at the Helsinki School of Economics - which is very active in the European Living Lab network. When I told her what we are doing, she immediately exclaimed that it is a living lab! The idea is that the innovation is embedded in the whole project and the whole project is alive (ordinary people taking part etc.). One develops ideas, but also offers services to industry to come and test their ideas in the lab (at a price). In this instance, eKhaya ICT and the Village Scribe organisation are making use of the lab to test their products in a way that empowers the people, because they directly share in the results!

That's a nice way to look at things. I hope it works out that way.

PS. I am very impressed with how COFISA and the Living Lab concept are working out at Dwesa, intermediating between industry and the University/community interests. It looks like our project and Dwesa will be connected before the year is over.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: June 19th 2008 08:43

Does Sustainability Scale? And what role does crisis play?

A second blog post on my meeting with Di Hornby, director of the Angus Gillis Foundation. One of the things Di was quite concrete about was that the Foundation will never grow larger than 5 members. Her reasoning was that all members can respond to crises in the community in a timely fashion - i.e. immediately. The thing is that crisis is an important growth element. Established structures are weakened by not being able to keep up with new demands, new methods start to emerge and a struggle ensues. (This is not unlike revolutions in scientific thinking as postulated by Tom Kuhn in the 60s.) This is an important time to assist the community and give them the confidence that the new structures can do all that the old ones did and more - confidence that the community can grow under it's own steam.

In eXtreme Programming (XP) practice, one does also not want groups that are too large, and classically each unit manages itself in day-to-day activities while aligning to an overall strategy. A software house like Google which is organised in a very decentralised manner, has many of these units, and "project leaders" switch from leading projects to programming in small teams often to ensure that the exchange of strategic and "local" knowledge takes place.

Such an informed peer-organised management style, which can also be achieved with XP management methods such as SCRUM, are surely applicable to Di's case. You need units that can react immediately, because they have the knowledge and mandate to do so. The responsibility rests on the team and there is always someone with enough experience to recognise the value of the crisis and the need of swift assistance.

Perhaps there is a way to bring such an innovative organisation style to development organisations! They certainly need it, it seems. After all, what model can development agencies be, if they themselves are bureaucratically and hierarchically organised with innovation stifling rules and processes... The lesson coming from XP is that process must be harmoniously married with the development, so that in the act of creating, innovating and developing, the very tools one uses to do the development must allow simple, intelligent documentation of the proceedings and this information must be available to all working on the project.

So does Sustainability scale? I certainly hope for the planet that it does! And on a positive sunny day like this I know it does. But first all people have to be empowered through knowledge and opportunity.

As we implement our Internet and Awareness training project - which now has a name (to be revealed later) - we will be seeing the effects that organisation has on sustainability. We will share our findings, as generously as Di did, and hope that it brings us all further.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: June 5th 2008 12:59

Sustainability is key

Di Hornby is someone who has been helping people in impoverished areas for many many years. As Director of the Centre for Social Development at Rhodes University (now under Cathy Gush), her activities were focused more closely to Grahamstown and Grahamstown East in particular. The Raglan Road Multi-Purpose Centre, which is now by all indications flourishing (a new library is being built, the centre sees hundreds of young children using the facilities in particular the BingBee kiosk and adult computer literacy classes are booked out) was a particularly successful intervention, in which ICTs also played a role. Since then Di has moved her efforts further out into the bush. North of Grahamstown at Kwandwe game reserve several communities are prospering owing to her efforts and those of the Kwandwe funded foundation she leads: the Angus Gillis Foundation. There is one thing Di does not compromise on, and that is, that communities must do the work themselves. The foundation is there to make things happen easier, to provide advice and an arm to lean on. As she puts it, "we are here to walk next to you, not infront of you. We don't lead the way. And as your strides become more and more confident and your progress faster, so we will gradually fall behind. Then you'll find one day that you do not needs us any more. But until that day we are prepared to walk beside you as long as it takes." This is Di's metaphor for the spirit of sustainability. No hand outs.

The standard method is this: a community must propose and implement improvements itself for an entire year, before it receives any great financial support. The foundation helps by organising and advising and generally supporting (holding hands). A community working group is established among the poorest individuals. They are taught how to save and how to collectively pool money and resources and to implement projects to further their aims. Within the first few weeks, a champion or two are identified. This is one of the main points at which the facilitators actually actively participate in the processes going on, since they suggest the role of the champion and also nominate the champions, providing reasons why these people should take leadership roles and asking everyone to support the motion. The rest of the time, the community is making its own decisions and prioritising tasks as it wishes. With an active community and an engaged leader - most of these participants are women by the way! - after a year there are usually results the community can be proud of and some sort of momentum is built up. If not, which may also happen for a variety of reasons, the programme is discontinued.The next phase is to match the savings of the group with foundation money Rand for Rand, to enable larger projects, safe in the knowledge that the group is established, can deal with crises and has a positive track record in completing projects.

The way Di talks and thinks is quite clearly outcomes based. After I had explained to her the SELF solar computer lab project we are working on, and the training programme we are initiating - about which I had some misgivings, because it involves rewarding teachers for extra-mural work, which they are actually meant to do within their job description, Di immediately proposed a possible solution. Payment is restricted to bonuses, and involves making the learners independant. So after an intial phase of additional teacher work, training, etc. the computer lab can actually be run by the learners who should be self-organised. The exact nature of how this can work may be explored in another blog post. This is a neat solution to the problem, which promotes win-win-win situations! Everyone wins, and one avoids the trap of demotivating people because funds eventually run out. Instead the value of the activity itself is promoted, which makes it much more sustainable and this will hopefully have short- and long-term benefits for all the learners in the programme!

It was a very exciting meeting - it highlighted many of the problem areas in our project of which I was aware and proposed solutions to the problems. Thank you Di!
[Ron Wertlen, eKhaya ICT]


By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: May 24th 2008 08:02

Rural Access to ICTs Crucial for DoE

On the 31st of January 2008, I met with the Eastern Cape Department of Education ICT coordinator, Nygel Jones. What I presumed would be a meeting with just Nygel, grew into a largish gathering as the DoE showed up with 9 participants. The meeting generated such great interest because it is about improving rural access to ICTs. The Eastern Cape Province has a very large number of rural schools. At the same time, they have been mandated to educate all teachers regarding ICT integration in their regular teaching within 2 years. But what use is that at a school which is in a marginalised rural area? And how can such a school operate despite all the infrastructural problems (not to mention ESKOM load shedding). These are the same problems that are being pondered by the Nelson Madela Institute at the University of Fort Hare (more about that in another post) and in fact the rest of Africa.

What came out of the DoE meeting is that all assistance, research and experimentation on the issue is most welcome. The DoE wants to fulfill its mandates by being actively involved in third party projects. This participation ranges from checking of curriculum to ensure standards compliance and relevant suggestions in this regard to feasibility assessment/evaluation of the project after the fact to determine how reproducible our model will in fact be. What the DoE does not seem to have understood though - and why third parties are necessary in such a process - is that the model is not sustainable unless the communities involved carry a major part of the costs. In fact, the ICT projects must also supply the revenues to the communities so that they themselves can pay for the infrastructure improvements. This means that although the DoE is instrumental in getting the facilities into schools, the larger value of these facilities must be realised and made available to the communities. Such models require integral support through techology, including software. These are just the kinds of models we are busy creating together with the University of Fort Hare and Rhodes University.

Currently we are intensifying efforts to get the code in place and the models out in the field. According to our project schedule (Roadmap) we are currently on time for an H2/2008 launch.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 13th 2008 09:38

While we weren't looking... Page Impressions for March

Lots of activity at http://ekhayaict.com/ since the end of January: as you will see in the graph for March, eKhaya ICT got 34800 p.i.s. That's quite a lot.

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The reason for the relatively large upswing is not only additional visitors on the home page. It is also traffic on our wiki, which is in pre-release beta testing. Further, we have been busily networking in the first quarter of 2008, so it is fantastic to see the interest in our work and indeed in our web presence.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 10th 2008 10:28

Open Letter to SchoolTool and Janastu

Open letter to two worthy projects with similar software goals:

Janastu:
The IDRC reports: "Janastu, Bangalore, proposed open source school management software to allow teachers and other staff to better administer schools, as well as create a community for discussion among educators".
SchoolTool:
"... is a project to develop a common global school administration infrastructure that is freely available under an Open Source license."
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Janastu and SchoolTool
Date: Thu, 03 Apr 2008 11:43:28 +0200
From: Ronald Wertlen
Organization: eKhaya ICT
To: school- a t -janastu.org, schooltool- a t -schooltool.org

Dear Janastu and SchoolTool!

I have been following the SchoolTool project for a while now, and was
surprised to find another group attempting to do something very similar,
in a field (non-profit, school education, etc.) in which cooperation and
collaboration are the only way to win.

It is quite peculiar to note that both projects are English AND using
Python! That said I don't know how (in)compatible Django and Zope are
as these seem to be the frameworks being used. The legacy of the Pantoto
platform will surely be a problem if that is involved on the Janastu side.

If you are unaware of each other - which I can hardly imagine, I hope to
get some collaboration going with this mail!! It would be fantastic to
grow a great project (and not get into petty company rivalries or
technical flamewars)!


Aside: We hope to get a SchoolTool project going with 20 rural schools -
but are still waiting for funding (a collaboration with the Nelson
Mandela Institute). So once that comes through we may be hearing more
from each other.


Best regards, from the Eastern Cape of South Africa,
Ron Wertlen



--
Ronald Wertlen
+27 79 4354681 (mobile)
+27 46 6229567 (land)
http://eKhayaICT.com/
*We build bridges across the digital divide*


By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 3rd 2008 10:53

Dell Foundation is Sole Computer Hardware Sponsor

I just heard that the Dell Foundation has increased its sponsorship of the project and will be providing all hardware for the Zwelenqaba S.S.S. solar school project! That means 35 Dell laptops with high-powered specifications enabling a vast array of applications are going to be in use in the schools involved in our project.

This is an absolutely fabulous thing. The Educators and learners are already activated and very excited about the project taking place and things are moving forward rapidly now!

Thank You very much Dell Foundation for enabling our project with hardware!
Ron Wertlen, eKhaya ICT
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 2nd 2008 08:43

The Smithsonian at Mdantsane, Eastern Cape

I fairly recently had meeting with Dr. Claudia Beck Reinhardt of the Eastern Cape Socio-Economic Consultative Council. She is a dynamic woman with a very strong vision. She sees the best possible facilities being installed in - of all places - the most neglected areas. In fact, she wants to set up something like the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. in Mdantsane (the township of East London / Buffalo City). The idea is to create a centre for touch and feel science learning - with thematically arranged rooms. For instance, in a planetarium, you might be able to see and feel the movement of the planets around the sun, learn about acceleration and velocity, differential equations with custom crafted learning aids. In the the biology lab, you might be astonished by the inner workings of an ant colony or a bee hive. In the morning teachers book the rooms for their classes and learners travel from their school to the Centre to receive special education by dedicated science teacher specialists working at the centre. In the afternoon the centre is open to the public, free of charge. It provides a wonderful alternative to the mundane reality outside and teaches at the same time. A large part of the idea is heightening awareness of the importance of Maths and Science in every day life.

Good luck with the project Claudia!! We hope it flies, and we hope to provide some great communication software for the computer lab!
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 29th 2008 11:26

eKhaya ICT Concentrates on Core Operations

Well regular readers of this column are wondering what has happened: Where are all the blog posts gone?

Don't despair! The period since the beginning of the year has been a very exciting one. eKhaya ICT has shifted business operations towards it's core business - the rural African software challenge. This has been done in several ways:
  • I am doing my Masters in Computer Science at the University of Fort Hare - eating the same stuff I dish up to the students there! It is really great to be at an Institute specialising in "Developmental ECommerce". See my blog there: http://cs.ufh.ac.za/ron/

  • Work is now intensifying on the SELF project at Zwelenqaba. The project is very tangible. The community and schools are very excited at the prospect of soon having their own computer lab.

  • Connections with Rhodes University are being strengthened - I am starting there as a Research Coordinator 2 days a week. It is going to be very good for eKhaya ICT to have me on the inside of the University - we'll hopefully be able to attract some good graduates, not to mention the cooperation possibilities! I'll be doing my best to coordinate activities there, open new doors to European cooperation and relieve the new Head of the Centre of Excellence (Prof. Alfredo Terzoli) of a lot of his strain. A mutually beneficial arrangement.
We are very excited about the changes and looking forward to the slightly more focused work!
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 29th 2008 10:25
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eKhaya ICT is an Eastern Cape based software company, specialising in quality solutions and software components of ICT4D.

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