Invereo.org is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of remote communities around the world through the provisioning of basic IT infrastructure services. They have worked in many developing nations and recently were asked to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The forums at OpenFree.org had an exclusive interview with Jeff Wishnie, Inveneo's Chief Technology Officer, to see how Inveneo is changing lives.
OpenFree: What does Inveneo do and what inspired it to be created?
Jeff Wishnie: Inveneo is a 501c3 non-profit social enterprise. Our mission is: "To empower people in remote and under-served communities, and the organizations that serve them, through access to computing and communications."
To this end we design, integrate, install and support hardware, software and power systems that deliver Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to organizations and communities in rural and remote areas of the developing world.
These systems, which provide voice and Internet connections, are used for basic communication, education, economic development and relief services.
The co-founders of Inveneo were inspired to form the company after helping to install a communications system in rural Laos with the goal of spreading such systems world-wide.
OpenFree: How does Inveneo raise funds for its operations? Who are the most
Jeff Wishnie: As a social enterprise, Inveneo strives to be self-supporting through our business model which involves selling hardware, training, and installation services. In addition, we use grants and donations as core funding to expand operations and lower the cost of hardware and installations.
OpenFree: How are the systems installed by Inveneo tailored to the needs of its users? What are the most popularly deployed hardware and software configurations and why?
Jeff Wishnie: Our core hardware products are the 'Communications Station' and the ‘Hub Station’.
The Communication Station provides client-side computing, Internet access and VoIP telephony services. It is a low power-consumption unit comprised of an LCD, embedded solid-state computer, analog telephone adapter, and power-over-Ethernet to power a long-range WiFi router.
This system draws only 20 watts or about 1/3 of the consumption of a laptop and 15 times lower than a desktop and uses 12-volt DC power making it easy to power via solar, wind, microhydro or bicycle generator. Because it is solid state, it is highly dust, moisture and heat resistant.
The Communication Station runs a custom Linux distribution called Inveneo Linux which offers the users web browsing (via Firefox), email, instant messaging, and office applications (OpenOffice). The UI is greatly simplified, and the release is installed in a read-only fashion making the system extremely low-maintenance.
The Hub Station, designed for use by the network administrator, is the server side of the system. It is a low-power, low-cost server running the SME Linux distribution, Asterisk VoIP PBX, web-server and wiki.
Communication Stations and Hub Stations may be installed on the same wired-network to provide services to schools, internet access centers, or offices.
For providing service to remote areas, the Hub Station is located in a central village. Communication Stations are placed in surrounding villages and linked to the Hub Station via long-range WiFi links (up to 20km in a single hop).
OpenFree: What type of IT planning is required prior to deploying the systems?
Jeff Wishnie: Before designing a system, we need to know our users specific needs. Some common questions are: do they primarily need desktop computing functionality, Internet, telephony or some mix of all? What physical infrastructure will be required (including WiFi links and buildings to house the systems)? What power infrastructure is require? How many hours a day do they plan on operating the system?
We have a questionnaire which gets the process started on our website. Depending on the complexity of the required network and power systems, we will travel to the remote locations and perform site surveys to plan WiFi towers and power systems.
OpenFree: One of the failings of many IT projects is a lack of user acceptance. How does Inveneo work to reduce the risk of this occurring at locations all around the world?
Jeff Wishnie: Inveneo is a technology systems provider. All of our projects come to us from an organization on the ground--NGOs, local governments, relief agencies and private organizations.
They use our integrated technology to build capacity to deliver services to rural communities and also often to deliver access to ICTs directly to the communities they serve.
These organizations are already working closely with the communities they serve and have ongoing relationships and a solid understanding of needs. This is critical for designing appropriate systems and assuring adoption.
For example, our installation centered in Fort Portal Uganda is in conjunction with a local NGO called Action Aid.
Action Aid operates an economic development project, via a system of 'ICT Reflect Circles' where village members form councils and plan projects that to improve their communities. For example forming agricultural cooperatives, helping AIDs orphans and widows, starting small businesses, and building schools.
Access to ICTs provides these village circles vital information and tools to empower them to execute their projects – information about markets prices for their goods, access to government websites and telephony between villages to better coordinate.
In the case of our installation, community residents, via the ICT Reflect Circles, explicitly chose in-village communications as a development priority. Circle members then selected a person, typically a village leader, to host the computer and telephone in their home for their village.
In Part 2, Jeff will speak about the major technical challenges Inveneo faces in the field and with the many volunteers he has to manage. This will be posted next week.
Invitation: Do you know of someone with interesting IT experiences in your community? Would they be willing to answer some questions on what they do? That person could even be you! If so, contact me, Peter at OpenFree to get started.