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US Volunteers Work to Reduce Global Internet Gap - 2001-08-20

Fifty-four percent of the homes in the United States are connected to the Internet, as compared with less than seven percent worldwide. A group of young U.S. technology experts hopes to help stem that gap.

They call themselves the "Geekcorps" after the word "geek," which is slang in the United States for a person who is passionately enthusiastic about computers.

Ethan Zuckerman came up with the idea a few years ago when he was a Fulbright scholar in Ghana. When he came back to the United States, he started a high tech company, and invested some of his earnings in the project. Then he began searching for other "geeks" interested in volunteering their expertise. "We are paying the transportation. We are also providing housing, and a very minor stipend," he said. "So people are taking time off from what are generally very high paying jobs, putting their careers on hold for a little while and donating their time."

More than 700 have volunteered. Ethan Zuckerman says thus far only 20 have been sent out, all of them to Ghana. "Projects range from trying to build an e-commerce site for a radio station, to building a work flow system for a furniture factory," he said. "We had an organization that produces an index of all business in Ghana. We helped them get their first data base together."

Jean McDonald, one of the first recruits, just returned from spending three months in Accra, Ghana's capital, where she taught a software company how to design web sites. "I organized training sessions," she explained, "and then I worked with two of the guys at this company intensively, [as] I built a web site from scratch and they watched."

Ethan Zuckerman says the Geekcorps is most effective working with businesses in countries that have some internet structure in place. "We would not be appropriate for a country that does not have a functioning telecommunications system," he said. "We would not be appropriate for a country where you can't do foreign investment."

The Geekcorps hopes to expand its Ghana program and set up new projects in Jordan and Armenia.