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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.
This is the second installment of a two part interview. The first part can be viewed here.
OpenFree: What have been the most difficult technical challenges in setting up Inveneo projects around the world and how have you managed to overcome them?
- Environmental surprises. Though we've been happy with how well our equipment stands up to the rural environment, there have been surprises. We didn’t anticipate the problem of rats eating cables and insects laying eggs in computers!
- Battery maintenance has also been a problem. We now recommend cables be installed in PVC pipes. We mount our equipment in sealed cases. And we specify low maintenance batteries for power systems.
- Support. We’ve found, after a year of installing and supporting ICT project in rural areas that there will always be a need for a second tier of technical expertise and support. And, it’s best if this support can be provided locally, at an affordable rate. And, to that end, we’ve found really strong local IT experts who we now partner with to certify on our systems who have become the critical link between Inveneo and our clients for local installation and trouble shooting. We’re trialing this program in Uganda now.
OpenFree: Inveneo was involved in providing communications services to New Orleans in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, how were the challenges different from those traditionally experienced by Inveneo in the field?*
Jeff Wishnie: Interestingly, the challenges were very similar. First, we had to understand the local needs and political/cultural challenges of the project. So we identified and worked closely with a local, on-the-ground organization that understood the community and their needs.
To respond to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, we partnered with CityTeam, who had a good awareness of the community. They were able to help introduce us to the local Emergency Operations Center who authorized us to operate locally.
Second, we had to be able to put systems together that could operate in physically challenging conditions—with little access to electricity and traditional infrastructure.
The main difference is that we up worked with several donated systems (rather than just our own) and a volunteer network to create a 3 county wide telecom-network which served telecenters for individuals and families as well as schools, police stations, and fire stations.
OpenFree: How has the open source community helped in facilitating Inveneo's growth?
Providing out-of-the-box solutions using free and open source software is core to Inveneo’s philosophy.
All of Inveneo's software infrastructure is open source. We use Gentoo as the basis of Inveneo Linux. Firefox, Gaim, Sylpheed, and OpenOffice are critical end-user applications.
On the Hub Station, we use SME Linux and Asterisk which provides the core functionality for our VoIP system. Even our routers run open-source Linux WiFi distributions.
Without these technologies, it would not be possible to economically serve our clients.
In addition, we open source all of work - software modifications, hardware specifications, and even the designs for our bicycle generators.
We’ve been moved by how supportive the open source community has been in supporting our efforts to date. We hope to actively involve volunteer engineers even more in the ongoing development of Inveneo Linux and our server infrastructure.
OpenFree: What are the major organizational challenges in running a volunteer organization that deploys software written largely by volunteers? What are the key elements in making it a success?
Jeff Wishnie: The biggest challenge with volunteers is finding projects that are meaty enough to engage them, but still something that people can complete during nights and weekends!
I think the key elements are establishing a community infrastructure that allows people to contribute suggestions, features, and bug fixes as their time allows. In addition it's critical to have dedicated coordinating resource.
We are currently working on establishing this sort of infrastructure at Inveneo, though currently most development work is handled in house.
OpenFree: A lot has been said about the OLPC laptop computer. What is your evaluation of it and how does Inveneo view it as a potential system for deployment within its own initiatives?
Jeff Wishnie: The OLPC project has very different goals from Inveneo. We are primarily focused on fixed-location communications--phone and Internet. The OLPC is about highly portable systems targeted to education.
That said, the OLPC project aims to dramatically reduce the cost of computing systems. If successful it could potentially drive down the cost of components used in our networks or even provide an inexpensive platform for running some of our services.
We'll just have to wait and see what the end product turns out to be.
OpenFree: Thanks Jeff, I'm sure the forum members will be interested in commenting on your thoughts.