Sunday, 09 August 2009 06:32

OLPC Australia trying to burnish its image


Rangan Srikhanta is an enthusiastic young man with one of the most difficult jobs in the country.

He is the executive director of One Laptop per Child Australia, an organisation that is trying to maintain a positive image after its parent organisation, run by Nicholas Negroponte, has suffered a drubbing in the media.

I encountered Srikhanta as a result of intervention by a PR firm. PR people have a great many faults but you have to give them credit for one thing: they are nothing if not persistent.

Following my last piece about OLPC, wherein I made reference to the fact that it seemed impossible to get a response to media queries sent to the Australian arm, I was approached by one of the many personable young women who dot the PR landscape and asked if I would have a chat with Srikhanta.

I have been asked this question many a time over my working life and my attitude has always been the same – I will even talk to the devil and give him/her a patient hearing. It doesn't mean that I will be party to spreading anyone's message and it doesn't mean that I won't ask hard questions. It also does not mean that my opinion will be changed one whit.

Srikhanta and I spoke on the phone for nearly 90 minutes. The organisation, which, Srikhanta tells me was only formally set up in January 2008, recently deployed 100 laptops in remote parts of Australia and announced plans for more deployments in the Northern Territory and Queensland. Since it was set up it has distributed 400 of the little XOs.

I told him that this was a pathetic number, especially since 100 million laptops was the parent organisation's original bold ambition. That's a sixtieth of the Earth's population.

But Srikhanta didn't want to talk about targets. He actually didn't know what the target was — he made reference to a million deployments worldwide — so let me provide some perspective. As of April 25 this year, the OLPC had half a million units either deployed or in the process of being deployed – and that was five percent of the stated target for the end of 2007.

Incidentally, that figure is 0.5 percent of Negroponte's original, flamboyant projection.

Any business which had this kind of record would, no doubt, be considered a failure. But not the OLPC. I see from an OLPC Australia media release that Negroponte is still referred to as a visionary.

Srikhanta's vocabulary is laced with buzzwords but to his credit he stops and explains every single one of them each time I raise a query. He has the patience of an ox and will probably need more than that if he is to come out of the experience with OLPC as anything other than a hardened cynic.

A double-degree holder with a background as an internal auditor, he is an intelligent individual who is trying to do good. That's true of many who venture into organisations like this.

But I digress. I ask Srikhanta why the two people who were the public face of OLPC Australia, Jeff Waugh and his wife Pia, were evasive whenever asked questions about the project. He makes a reference to legacy IT systems and indicates that this is a new era.

My queries about the deployment of laptops in Niue (corrected) brings forth the answer that this is the responsibility of OLPC Oceania. According to the parent organisation, Niue (corrected) is the first country to achieve 100 percent XO (the name of the laptop) saturation.

(Once again, Pia Waugh was full of talk about the Niue (corrected) operation but then disappeared in April this year to follow more earthy goals as a political hack in Canberra.)

Srikhanta has no knowledge of the Niue (corrected) operation and offers to put me in touch with those responsible.

I ask him why his organisation is experimenting in remote communities where Aboriginal kids are the majority. When I make reference to the fact that Britain tested nuclear weapons in remote areas where only Aborigines lived and draw a parallel with OLPC, he is offended.

He responds that this is because they want to achieve saturation in terms of laptop distribution in an entire community and this is not possible in metropolitan suburbs due to the numbers involved. He adds that there are plenty of non-Aboriginal children in the project's focus areas.

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia is now involved with the project ("they offer significant financial support"), and half a million dollars has come from an anonymous donor. Srikhanta says he cannot tell me the identity of the donor.

I ask him how much he is paid. He says he will have to consult the board before such details are revealed. I tell him that I'm making the query because the public often confuses not-for-profit organisations with charities; in the former case one can even be paid a million dollars, all it means is that the organisation does not generate a profit.

In charities, there is frequently a shortage of funds and those who work there have to often make do with less than what they were promised.

Srikhantha talks at length about the aims of the project in Australia. He is sincere and earnest. But then it is possible, like the nurse who replaced a patient's oxygen cylinder with one containing carbon dioxide, to be sincerely wrong.

He tells me of how the laptops are used to engage children in activities where formerly they could not be bothered to participate. I respond by asking how long this will last.

"The focus is on kids being involved in education," is his quote. He seems unaware that one of the project's former main actors, Ivan Ksrtic, wrote in May last year: "I quit when Nicholas told me — and not just me — that learning was never part of the mission. The mission was, in his mind, always getting as many laptops as possible out there; to say anything about learning would be presumptuous, and so he doesn't want OLPC to have a software team, a hardware team, or a deployment team going forward."

Srikhanta is quick to try and counter what he considers negative impressions of the project. He tells me that there is a mountain of positive coverage.

Maybe he should read Ksrtic a bit more. The latter is indeed a gold mine of information. He writes that in the 1980s, Negroponte and Seymour Papert carried out an experiment placing Apple II laptops in a suburban computing centre in Dakar, Senegal, for a constructionist-based computer leaning project. It was a glorious failure due to bad management and personality clashes.

"Fast forward almost two decades, to around 2000. Former Newsweek foreign correspondent turned philanthropist, Bernie 'one-man United Nations' Krisher convinced Nicholas and his wife Elaine to join Bernie's program of building schools in Cambodia. Nicholas bought used Panasonic Toughbooks for one school, and his son Dimitri taught there for a time," Ksrtic continues in a wonderful entry that needs much wider publicity than it has received.

He says that there must have been some thought on how to scale this. "The rest of the story is familiar: Nicholas wooed Mary Lou Jepsen while she was interviewing for a faculty position at the Lab, and told her about his crazy idea for an organization called One Laptop per Child. She came on board as CTO. Towards the end of 2005, the organization left stealth mode with a bang: Nicholas announced it with Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Prize winner and then-Secretary-General of the United Nations, at a global summit in Tunis.

"The part that bears repeating is that Nicholas' constructionism-based computer learning project in Senegal was a complete disaster: modulo commentary on the personalities and egos involved, it demonstrated nothing about anything. And Krisher's Cambodia project, the one evidently successful enough to motivate Nicholas to actually start OLPC, used off-the-shelf laptops running Windows without any constructivist customizations of the OS whatsoever. (They did have some constructionist tools installed as regular applications.)."

Not that this will have any impact on OLPC. In Australia, we will, no doubt, continue to see the organisation try to make inroads into its target areas as long as the money is available. What good this will do is open to question.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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