Monday, April 26, 2010

La Carpio 2.0


Introduction

Last Friday was a landmark day in La Cueva de La Carpio! A year and a half after the computer lab was donated, the learning lab is now networked, connected to the internet, and climate controlled! This was a big step, opening a whole digital landscape of opportunities for the community. Friday we did a soft launch, and the room was full of teenagers late into the night as people opened their first e-mail addresses and started up facebook accounts. Antonio started us off with the first facebook status update from our newly uplinked computers. Jose eagerly sent me his first e-mail and started adding language student friends on facebook. Manolo and Roberto found Lalo's photo albums on Picasa and relived recent memories of soccer games and camp.
It was exciting to watch. A day of many firsts. But we discovered we were already on-line celebrities. For GOOD things! We found pictures of ourselves at camp, pictures of soccer victories, videos we'd created, programs we'd designed that were now shared with the world. A simple Google search will bring up lots of information about La Carpio... not all of it positive. But we were too busy seeing and reliving a bunch of fun memories to sift through all the "suceso" news reports. It was cool to see what our digital self-image had become... what our online identity was before our little computer lab ever crossed the digital divide. Our history was written on blogs and in Facebook photo albums of people who'd visited us. Our photos, videos, and programs we'd created in computer class preceded us on-line, and it was like opening a time capsule to relive those memories and open those projects again.

Our little computer lab can still be a place where we learn and create and explore new worlds. Some of us are at the point where we can probably administer the lab and repair the computers if they break. The rest of the community can use the computers now, too. In fact, we will probably be able to cover our operating costs and even put some money toward soccer camps.

Who knows where it will go from here! Things have changed a lot since these machines first got here a year and a half ago. We are thanking God for each new miracle along the way. Let's see where he takes us next.

The Setup










In August 2008, 12 computers were donated to help kids learn in a "different" way, with more interaction and visual stimulation. The computers were maintained as time and extra help was available, but as time went on many became infested with viruses which were causing obnoxious distractions and inhibiting the computers' performance. Just to give you a picture of the situation, I accumulated 598 infections of 2 strains of virus on one flash drive, from one computer. This would occur every time I used a flash drive to open a file for teaching a class.








598 Virii on one flash drive
Personal record: 598 virii on one flash drive


But hey, it's not a hopeless cause. Just gotta work with it. By July 2009, we had all 10 computers in the lab up and running, reinstalled from the ground up with fresh AV protection. The desktop was redesigned to give priority access to educational games and office utilities, but we left the old games intact. The educational games were mixed in with the others, so kids would start into them before they knew they were not supposed to like them. That was the end of "Phase 1". Each computer had to be redesigned from the bottom up each time, and if there were any problems or I needed to install or update something, it had to wait a week so I could return to the office and download what I needed from the internet.








Scratch
Dissecting a program in Scratch





Che lalo
Photoshop class project

In August we completed the second phase in the process by installing a 16 port switch and connecting each computer to it. With the computers networked it was FAR easier to teach classes by sharing a folder from the server computer. Not only that, I came across a cool open-source application called iTalc, which allowed the server computer to control the rest of the computers, lock the screens and keyboards for lecture parts of the lesson, and even share the teacher screen to the rest of the classroom to guide them through the assignment. This was great for our classes, and even helped make it possible for fellow missionary friends Brian and Amanda Blalock to come teach Photoshop and art classes. For more information on computer classes, you can read the blog entry I posted back in August.






Brian and Amanda
Brian and Amanda help out in a Photoshop class

There was no router, so each computer had manually assigned IP addresses. The manual IP addressing might seem like an unnecessary technical complication, but it was kind of cool because in December we helped out a fellow ministry at la quinta parada (5th bus stop) down by the landfill. Christ for City's Nuevos Horizontes has a similar setup with about 10 computers. They even had a/c and cabling... just lacked a router. Another fellow missionary (Henry Happ with reachGlobal) donated a router and the two of us went with about four guys from la cuarta parada (the 4th bus stop) to take part in hooking up their new network. My boss Mauricio came along as well so we could survey possibilities I mention this to point out several cool things... firstly, from the very beginning we've had a lot of groups working together to move things forward. I'm a big fan of this, as I think working together glorifies God. And most groups working in La Carpio are aware that each organization seems to do their own thing. So it was cool to have some cross-pollination going on. For the kids as well... I realized this was the first time some of them had been over in this part of their barrio. The second reason this is cool is because these kids are getting technical insight into technical aspects of computers that will give them a head start if that's a career they will chose to pursue.






Lalo and Mauricio by the River
Lalo and Mauricio discuss ideas for ways to get Internet into the valley. Turns out it was simpler than we thought.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

When the computers came back from their "hiatus" over the Christmas season, only about 5 of the 12 booted up. It had been six months since we'd freshly installed each one, and clutter was beginning to build up. But this time I was ready - I'd created a custom image on one of the machines that I hoped would transfer to all the others. Basically I created a cookie cutter to imprint the same settings on each machine, instead of rebuilding each one from the ground up. Thank you NNU technical response center training. Thankfully, it loaded correctly on 9 of the machines, which helped streamline the installation process. And yet, it still took me about a month to get all the machines up and running! Why?
Working on Computers
With the time I saved on tedious installation settings, I now had more time to help the kids get the computer up and running. First we cracked open the cases and started diagnosing POST errors by swapping around memory chips and broken hard drives. Next, we walked through the re-imaging process by booting up onto a rescue disk and reimaging the computer with a fresh installation from a flash drive. Again, something that wouldn't take me much time, but this time I showed a few kids how to do it and then made them do the next one. By the end of those few weeks, some of them had replaced broken hard drives and completely reloaded an operating system. "There are other people here who have their own computers, aren't there?" I asked them. "You can fix them now, can't you?" "Yeah, but I can charge them," Jose told me. "Sure, if you want." He and Walter and Cesar helped me apply custom network settings on each computer after we'd re-imaged them.
As I write this I realize it sounds like every step of the process fit into a bigger picture. That's the benefit of looking back on everything, to see how things fit into place. But the reality is that a ton of time was spent on things that fizzled and never went anywhere. The custom network settings were one of those things, along with lots of documentation and budget proposals I wrote up that never turned up anything. I could rewrite this article and recount every failure and dead-end rabbit-trail we pursued, and it wouldn't sound the same. At several points along the way, however, reminders of how little had been accomplished became very discouraging. Walking back into the lab with only 5 of 12 machines working after Christmas break was one of those times.





Cadorsil and the ladies making wooden jewelry

At this point I we had a lot of exciting ideas for the computer lab, but everything was in limbo. I started to close off to new ideas and started thinking... I'll believe it when I see it. For the past few months, fellow language student Cadorsil had been doing a jewelry/discipleship class with some of the ladies in the area. She mentioned the possibility of our class creating a webpage to sell some of the jewelry on-line. It was a great idea, but I couldn't see how that would happen without internet connectivity. A few weeks later we visited ICE, the telecommunications company, about the possibility of getting DSL or cable. There was a huge waiting list and both agents we talked to politely explained the danger of sending technicians into the area. Cable internet was a no-go. And WiMax was unlikely because our building was kind of in a valley/hole, and even cell phones have problems at that level.






Manolo and Luis Carlos help Kevin and Marvin build the new entrance

A team came down from Texas seal off the room and make a new entrance more accessible to the public. All this was in hopes that somehow internet connectivity would be possible, which we really had no idea about. The team sealed off the room, built a new entrance, and installed an air conditioning unit in the lab. Sounds like a good idea, because climate controlled cool air and less dust would help prevent the type of problems we'd been having with hard drive failures. Smart guys who write huge books about globalism and the digital revolution often praise the ability of technology to be a leveling factor that gives anyone a chance. Maybe so, but the fact still remains that computers are not manufactured or designed to work in urban slums of the tropics, with heat, dust, intermittent electricity, and rough usage. You have to build up an entirely foreign, contrived environment around the computer just for it to work. Needless to say, the week after the team left the room was now sealed off like a greenhouse, and the a/c was not working. Lalo called the store where he bought the a/c unit and they refused to send technicians down into "that area" to look at it.
By Friday, March 6, everything changed. With the help of a friend of a friend of a friend, Lalo found a guy in La Carpio who worked on air conditioners. He immediately identified the problem and juiced up the a/c. Oh blessed arctic air, pushing the tendrils of heat out the ceiling of our computer greenhouse classroom. Friday morning the WiMax technicians went down with Lalo to see about the possibility of installing internet. They took one look up at the mountains surrounding San Jose and flicked their hand... no problem. The WiMax towers had perfect line of sight.
By Friday night, we had air conditioning, a sealed-off room with a special entrance, and internet connectivity. Let the fun begin.





Lalo's March 6 update letter Speaking of miracles, today was a great day in La Carpio. It has been a dream/stretch goal for a long time to have internet in our computer lab. I wanted cable, but my experience with Amnet was more like Amnot. WiMax was our Hail Mary. We scored and everyone wins! Early this morning, we had our test/installation. I was worried, as WiMAX is wireless RF and we are in a hole. When the techs showed up they saw direct line of sight with the antennas on the mountain. I wish I had thought of that. In La Carpio, you can look down and see desolation or you can look up and see a thousand shades of mountain green cutting through a big blue sky. Psalm 19 “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the works of his hands.” Today was our first day ever of air conditioned internet. Expect new friends on the facebook. If you plan to come see us and have your own device, try WiFi in our kitchen and I’ll treat you to a cup of coffee.
Praise the Lord and Install the Internet Filter

I still wouldn't believe it until I saw it. We swung by an electronics store and bought a router to simplify the networking process, rendering all our tedious IP addressing exercises pointless.
I walked through our new entrance into a burst of cool air and a new small box that was now our portal to the world wide web. In about 15 minutes we had the first computer hooked up from our learning bunker, and Antonio announced La Carpio connectivity to the world by updating his facebook status. In about an hour we had the connection split between the five computers we had working. Our familiar faces wanted to give the new internet a test drive. There were a lot of firsts that Friday night that carried over into the next week. Here are some of the things that made an impression on me:
The first thing everyone ran into was that there was no homepage. No one knew what to do. So people opened up their internet browser, and then sat there. So, what do we do? How do I find friends? Music? Pictures? Games? How do I make a webpage? How do I get an e-mail address?
To our horror, some people went back to playing the old video games that were on the computer. "Do you realize that we have the INTERNET?" "So... what's it for?" I am reminded of my favorite explanation of the world wide web. A place where basically nothing happens.





Aula de computacion
First night with A/C and internet connectivity

We are valued

"How does any of this digital landscape relate to me?" One of the first things the kids did was start checking out Lalo's blogs and photo albums. They found photos dating back several years of soccer games, camps, mission trips, fun in the neighborhood. They found tons of photos of themselves doing fun things. You wouldn't think those photos came from a slum by the garbage dump from reading Lalo's blogs or looking at the photos some of the language students have posted.







Girl
Photos other people take of your neighboorhood

Most media reports coming out of La Carpio are all bad news. Academic articles do a better job trying to expose the inequity, but often end up repeating the same mantra as the media and objectifying and "issuizing" the community. The kids discovered their on-line identity was exciting and fun. The pictures and videos and fun memories were an awesome alternative to the news reports and statistics "describing" La Carpio.








Nelson
Beloved Nelson, 1992-2009


"What's this say?" Cesar asks me. "Amado Nelson, 1992-2009", I translate. Beloved Nelson, 1992-2009 commemorates the life of Nelson under a picture of his smiling face. Nelson was a friend and relative of many of the guys first checking out Lalo's blog that night. He was gunned down the week before last Christmas. The local newspaper dedicated him a short paragraph in the "suceso" section. But Nelson's smiling face had a long history on Lalo's blog before he was killed. There were a lot of people that knew his name and were praying for him. And I think maybe Cesar understood that. His picture is up there too.

We are published

Not only did they see pictures of themselves posted on-line. They also saw their handiwork. Videos they'd created in computer class from camp in July. Photos they took at camp.








Jorgito asks Scratch to solve a riddle









Jocelin
Jocelin taking photos at camp



The programs we made in computer class in the "Scratch" program were posted on the MIT Scratch community website 6 months ago. Queso listens to his voice he recorded into one of the projects and cracks up at how high-pitched it was before it changed. These kids' projects had already become part of a worldwide programming forum for kids and students using the "Scratch" software. Scratch has an option to upload programs directly to the web, but I had deleted it months ago. That next Monday we went through and re-enabled the "Share" option, and a few kids uploaded their projects straight to the web.

We are still learning

"How do I find girls?" is one of the first questions I'm asked. I don't know if he means to chat with or to look at, but either way the question makes me uneasy. Most teaching about the internet and on-line safety should take place in the home. For several reasons, this is not going to happen. Lots of these kids are educated in things far beyond what their parents ever got a chance to learn about. We've gotta help with some of those first steps on-line. And we are still learning as well.
On Monday I installed one of the newest and most interesting filtering techniques I've seen - opendns. Everything on our network is filtered at the router by the DNS server, by peer-reviewed domain-name filtering. I like it because it's complicated... if you don't understand how that works, don't worry about it. If one of them figures out a way around it, I won't be frustrated; I'll be impressed. Also, sites are reviewed and blocked by real people and not keywords. And finally, the filtering process happens on computers that aren't ours, so are thinly-stretched processors don't take more of a hit. I already caught someone run into it. On accident, I'm sure.
Like I said, we're still learning as well. Next week the lab will convert into a small business model and try to cover its own costs, with some left over for soccer camps. Some of the teenagers can have a pretty cush job administering the lab - free internet, pay, and A/C? What more could you want? If the kids pay 300 colones ($.60) to rent a video game console down the road for an hour, maybe we can offer a better alternative here.

We're all doing something new

That first night a handful of guys set up their first e-mail addresses and facebook accounts. They found people they knew on-line - language students, missionaries, and added them as friends. They got tagged in photos. They learned how to chat. They wrote messages on people's walls. Manolo and Randall wrote thank-you notes on the walls of Stateside people who'd given to help them go to soccer camp. Jose and Cesar begged me to show them how to make a webpage, so we started a La Carpio blog and made our first webpages.
In very little ways, we took a few measures to try and give this Internet Café a positive twist. The internet filter is one way. Virus scanners and working computers is another way. But beyond that, each computer has a really cool screensaver with Bible verses in Spanish on a subtly animated background. A Spanish Bible verse pops up every 10 minutes (OK, I like the idea of that but I realize it might get annoying pretty quick). Each computer has e-Sword Bible software installed with a less cryptic name and a few versions of Spanish Bibles. There are typing lessons, educational games, art games, and office tools.








Looking at Camp Photos
Looking at camp photos on their own computer

And whatsmore, I'm experimenting with different ways to use customized local art and input. After seeing the difficulty people had not knowing where to go from a blank homepage, I created a custom homepage, with links to suggested websites, tutorials, Costa Rican immigration information, where to open a new e-mail account, and a bunch of the photos, videos, and projects people have uploaded from the community. This is all housed locally on a WAMP server on the administrator's computer. The webpage also has an integrated forum so people logging on can post comments and anything they find important (basically like a facebook wall for the Internet café). Hopefully this will tap into some of the creativity the community has and give them a way to voice that and share it.
This is the first time I've watched a computer lab make the shift from being a black hole that money is thrown into to earning back some money to cover its costs. That, plus tight integration and service for the community seems like a pretty good idea. I'm excited to see how it goes.

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