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World Computer Exchange Tries to Bridge Digital Divide

A new program is underway to ensure that schools in the developing world are able to hook up to the Internet. The goal is to ship computers to help bridge the international digital divide.

In mid-April, a ship will leave Boston harbor with a special cargo. Onboard will be a container packed with approximately 380 personal computers, destined for educational facilities, orphanages and learning centers in the west African nation of Cameroon. The high-tech devices were collected by members of the World Computer Exchange.

"The Exchange is a nonprofit organization based in the United States," said Timothy Anderson, the Exchange's founder. "The Exchange operates by gathering computers in the United States and, hopefully, in other countries. Right now it's just the United States, and then shipping them to partner organizations that have prepared careful implementation plans."

For the project in Cameroon, members of the World Computer Exchange are working with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Networking Program.

"They have gathered 34 schools in their country to be a part of this and we are beginning to gather schools in the United States that will be linked up," said Mr. Anderson. "So, we try to have a partner school for each of the new schools that are learning about technology. We try to have teams of people go over to visit. So, Cameroon is the first one, then Nigeria. We have a shipment going about two weeks later into Nigeria. Then, we have shipments lined up for maybe the next one to two months into Ecuador and northwest India."

The computers that the World Computer Exchange collects for shipment are previously owned. But, they share one thing in common: They are all powerful enough to access the Internet.

"We collect the computers from individuals around the United States," said Mr. Anderson. "They ship an individual computer to us. More computers come to us from companies around the United States. A lot of them are shipping them to us. We get Macs and PCs and laptops and all manner of computers. We'll take anything as long as it's able to be used by these young people on the Internet. So, it's got to be a pretty straight forward system that can be adapted locally."

Partners in each country will help with the installation, connection, and maintenance of the computers.

"Part of what makes these things sustainable is when the local partner organization comes to realize: Okay, it's going to cost us this much for the Internet connection and for the local phone call per minute cost and for the electricity costs," said Mr. Anderson. "How are we going to cover it? We know everything is getting serious because they start talking about the fees that they'll charge for adult usage, outside of the time when the school uses it. That's when it becomes sustainable."

Timothy Anderson says that computers will be sent only when preparation and in-country training are complete."The local partner of the Exchange is responsible for providing the training," he said. "Part of their planning, developing their implementation plan, often takes almost a year. During that year, they figure out what curriculum they want to cover and begin the actual training process of the local teachers and adults that will be working with the young people and sometimes even with the young people themselves. The partner organizations are usually large organizations. In India, the partner organization is the SEWA, the Self-Employed Women's Association."

The World Computer Exchange's first shipment leaves in just a few days for Cameroon. But, even before it arrives, the group is working with more than 30 partner organizations in nearly 40 other countries around the world. There may be an international digital divide today, but, in a few years, that may change.