No borders for Information Technology

The technology gap between first world countries and developing nations is growing at an ever-increasing rate. An organization founded at CERN, Informaticiens Sans Frontières (ISF), hopes to alter this trend with their current project, MANGO NET. Starting in Africa, they aim to lead these nations to use Information Technologies to positively influence their economy, education and lifestyle.

Information Technology has long since been introduced within African countries, but there are many daunting problems that have stalled widespread application. The literacy rate within small African communities is very low. "The interface used to operate a computer requires literacy", explains Silvano De Gennaro," member of the CERN Communication Group and President of ISF. "Technology alone is not the solution, you have to adapt it to the cultural level and the abilities of the people who receive it." Also, the price of purchasing and operating a computer is often unreasonable with respect to the average cost of living. For many, spending 3 hours in an Internet café equates to an entire day’s pay. Further problems include political, geographical and financial inhibitions.

African universities are also faced with difficult challenges. Without essential IT resources, it is nearly impossible to participate in current research. Teachers and students are often forced to share a limited number of computers to learn and stay current in their fields. Conducting experiments and sharing results is often beyond their reach. "The students are really missing the first element in IT development – the computer," describes De Gennaro.

Based at CERN, ISF was founded in 2003 as a result of discussions during the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS). It has already approached the IT issues from various angles, preceding the current initiative with three other projects – Computer Recycling, LIFE (Linux Integrated Free Environment) and AFRICA@home (see box).

After these initial actions, ISF is now working on MANGO NET (Made in Africa NGO NETwork), a project whose objective is to develop a network of schools and production labs across the continent that can teach IT students how to assemble computers. "This will provide a source of ready to use computers that do not need to be imported from other countries", explains De Gennaro. "Initial hardware costs will be much lower as parts will be bought in bulk quantities and the computers will be assembled and marketed within the continent". Students will be trained not only to assemble the computers, but also to provide technical support for users using the Linux based LIFE interface. MANGO NET will provide a basis for an African IT industry that can keep capitals within the participating countries.

In his role as Coordinator for non-Member States, John Ellis is also collaborating in the ISF project. He sees it as a useful tool for giving African universities the chance to be part of CERN research, and he emphasized this need in a recent CERN colloquium about ISF, showing a world map of all the CERN Member and non-Member states coming from all continents, with the noticeable exception of Africa. Honorary CERN staff member Ben Segal also supports the efforts of ISF. As author of both AFRICA@home and LHC@home, he sees a future applying these technologies in developing nations. Both initiatives participate with ISF to provide these technologies, focusing primarily on the universities.

Did you know?

The Computer Recycling programme ran for a number of years, but was eventually abandoned because the great input of time and effort yielded very little output. The computers arrived with very limited computational capacity, as they were often recycled from the Grid (at CERN), where they do not require a video card or a significant amount of RAM. As an alternative, the LIFE programme provided newly designed software that translates Linux into a user-friendly interface that can be used as an educational resource (it does not require literacy at its basic level). AFRICA@home is a BOINC project that uses private household computers from all around the globe to compute accurate predictions about the spread of Malaria.

Once universities are appropriately equipped to international standards, they can excel. "What we would like to do is give the African universities a chance to join international research – a chance to actually conduct research," says De Gennaro, "Instead of removing scientists from the countries to come work in Europe, we want to bring them the Grid. With the Grid, they can join international research projects such as the LHC for instance."

Although MANGO NET is only in its preliminary stages, support for the project is quickly growing within Europe and Africa. "Participating universities will play a large role in the project, providing teachers and IT resources, and the possibility of donations of parts from IT companies such as Sony and Toshiba is being explored." concludes De Gennaro, "The road to development starts with digging the foundations of science and building a competitive infrastructure for research."

To participate in the ISF projects, contact Silvano de Gennaro at: