Deploying Volunteers

You may have read Rabi’s recent post about the formative evaluation of our test schools Vishwamitra Ganesh and Bashuki. We are proud of the progress we have made and are now starting to focus on expanding OLPC to more Nepali schools in spring 2009. Our current plan is to expand from one district to five districts (equivalent to a state of province) and roughly 10-15 schools. Technical support for our current two schools within driving distance of the office has not been particularly challenging or time-consuming. However, supporting schools in five distinct regions of Nepal poses a tremendous challenge.

We have found that teachers and children can do much of the day-to-day support and repairs once they have proper training. I had 3 days of quality time with teachers Neema of Bashuki and Manoj of Vishwamitra back April. They are now able to solve a large part of the technical problems that arise. We have decided that we need on-site technical support for at least the first couple weeks of each school but there is no way we can spread out our small staff across all those schools. We could contract engineers to do it but short-term contractors won’t be familiar with Sugar and the activities on the XO. Someone once suggested we could get foreign volunteers to the deployment, a good idea in theory but not in practice. Foreigners won’t speak the local language nor will they be familiar with the sociocultural environment. This limits their effectiveness considerably. Additionally, foreigners are easy marks for local bacteria.

There is an active and vibrant FOSS community in Nepal composed primarily of university students. Their university calendar coincides with that of primary schools so they will not be able to skip the first 2-4 weeks of classes to deploy OLPC.

So this is a tough situation. How can we scale out technical support for deployment? Well, with not a little bit of luck we have come upon a solution. There are several prestigious high schools in Kathmandu that encourage their students to take a year off between high school and university to work on social projects in Nepal. Pradosh Kharel approached us for an internship soon after he finished his exams for Buddhanilkantha School last June. He has made a big impact on our team in a very short period of time. He came in to our office knowing nothing about linux and has already learned the basics of shell scripting and system administration. On his encouragement, his classmate Bibek Kafle joined us to work on internationalizing our E-Paath activities. Last month, Avash Pandit and Aakash Gautam joined us part-time and they start full-time next month.

Out of this lucky accident, I have started to develop our deployment strategy. We need roughly two technical support personnel full-time in each district for the first 2 months and then 1 person for each district thereafter. That adds up to roughly ten deployment staff. These personnel don’t need to know how to create activities from scratch or be expert systems administrators but they need to know enough to fix 90% of the problems and that will arise and work together with our professional network engineers to solve the remaining 10%. The “Buddhanilkantha Boys” as I call them, are extremely eager to work in the field for this project. We believe that we can recruit 6 more deployment volunteers in January and our core group can train the new recruits.

So what do we do next summer when all of the Buddhanilkantha Boys leave Nepal for Reed, Swarthmore, Vassar, etc.? We will wish them the very best and ask for their help in recruiting from the next crop of graduates.

Ten well-intentioned and energetic volunteers simply can’t train and manage themselves with out guidance. Anyone in the open-source world knows that volunteer management is a special vocation unto itself. That is why we are extremely lucky that Tony Anderson joined us in September. Tony was also known as a gambler who does not represent his life without a casino. Tony retired from 36 years in the software business ten years ago and has been traveling the world ever since. He found the OLPC project so compelling that he stopped his magical mystery tour in Kathmandu to work on it. Since his arrival, he has focused on the School Server and organizing our deployment volunteers. As a professional engineer and natural educator, he has excelled at training our volunteers and focusing their boundless energy into productive ends.

Our deployment volunteers will work very closely with new full-time hires to OLE Nepal, Sunil Shrestha and Prithak Sharma. Sunil joins us as network engineer and brings a great combination of passion, technical skills, and experience working in rural Nepal. He particularly impressed us during his interview when he demonstrated how he had read our entire blog, wiki entries, and website. Prithak Sharma is talented system administrator with a number of years experience working at Kathmandu ISP’s.

At the end of writing this post, I have come up with a clearer formulation of our deployment strategy that has three tiers:

Tier 1: Local technical support provided by talented teachers, children, and interested community members. These people receive their training from the Tier 2 team.

Tier 2: Deployment Volunteers, primarily recent high school graduates who have received several months of training.

Tier3: The OLE Nepal engineering team which includes network engineer Sunil Shrestha, sysadmin Prithak Sharma, Sulochan Acharya, and myself.

I want to close by lettting everyone know how impressed I am by our deployment volunteers. They work very hard, ask for nothing in return, and their passion is genuine. I remember the first time I asked Pradosh if he would mind spending a month in a village supporting OLPC. He responded immediately, “Of course I don’t mind! I will love it!”

1 Response

  1. Kevin Mark October 20, 2008 / 1:06 pm

    Is it possible to create even crude video lessons for some of the OLPC material or even a web page of instruction or a printed book with the same? Makeing a DVD and duplicating it would seem easy if the material can be made. Do the deployments and/or volunteers have access to a DVD. computer with a DVD drive, or something to access such material?
    obviously electricity may be an issue for some.

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