Bridging the African digital divide - with a ‘toaster’

Lines form at open-source software vending-machines.

By , Correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor

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    ‘What if open source can really be open source, even here? The potential is just extraordinary,' says Brett Simpson, head of Breadbin Interactive.
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The interior of the massive Chamber of Mines Building, on the west end of the University of Witwatersrand’s main campus, is like a dark, concrete maze. Drab stairways, imposing walls, the slightest glimpse of light from an interior courtyard – it’s almost as if the architects hoped to invoke a mine shaft.

So, when you get to the reception area for the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, it’s hard not to do a double take at the shiny orange, vending machine-sized box with the cheerful cartoon logo – the one that proclaims “Burn free, as free as the source flows!” It seems gleefully out of place.

“Here it is!” exclaims Brett Simpson, himself an energetic anomaly within the sober walls of this building. He puts his hand to the machine as if slapping it on the back. “A Freedom Toaster.”

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So far, to the uninitiated, the words connected with this man-sized box make little sense. But this is Mr. Simpson’s new quest in life, as the head of Breadbin Interactive, the company now charged with producing Toasters: to explain why this machine is a bright spot in the sometimes drab, often challenging, world of African technology; why it can knock down some of the computing obstacles in the global digital divide.

Before you can understand, though, you have to realize that life can be tough for a South African technophile. Even here – the most developed African country – electronic equipment is outrageously expensive (often double Western prices). Fre-quent power surges and outages can wreak havoc on computers. Only 5 percent of the population has Internet access. And those who do go online encounter the real doozy – limited bandwidth. (Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transferred simultaneously on the Internet highway.)

This last challenge – caused in part by a lack of hardware, in part by telecom monopolies – is a major problem for striving computer geeks. While Web surfers in the US can download YouTube videos to their hearts’ content, their South African brethren pay for every megabyte sent or received (sometimes as much as 80 cents a meg). Businesses and institutions also struggle; universities, for instance, need to block sites such as Facebook, iTunes, and YouTube in order to keep their Internet bandwidth available for scholarly research.

Limited bandwidth also puts up barriers to the “open-source” community – the online testing space for professional and amateur computer experts who want to try out new technology in a supportive e-environment. They build, and collaboratively improve upon, all different types of software, from operating systems to online photo workshops, that anyone can download and use for free. Open-source products are often considered more stable than their commercial equivalents, and are used by many businesses and government groups.

In South Africa, though, it’s hard for techies to participate, and it’s hard for laypeople to get their hands on open-source software – a “free” download here can end up costing almost $100. Many in the South African computing world have decried the situation, connecting it to the country’s economic and employment struggles.

“This limited usage is closely associated with a lack of local online innovation, poor Internet knowledge among the general population and a poorly developed ecommerce environment,” declared one blog, mybroadband.co.za, which has also called South Africa’s bandwidth situation “alarming.”

But this, Simpson says, is where the Freedom Toaster comes in. “What if open-source can really be open-source, even here?” he says, scrolling through a menu of possible downloads on the happy orange screen. “The potential is just extraordinary.”

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The Freedom Toaster idea started about four years ago with Jason Hudson, a computer expert working for the Cape Town-based Shuttleworth Foundation, an organization working for innovation in education and technology.

At the time, Mr. Hudson recalls, the foundation was particularly interested in open-source software. Not only is open-source free, it is better able to run on old computers than the more expensive and memory-greedy commercial software – a potential boon for Africa, where equipment is expensive and often secondhand.

The foundation was convincing schools and even government offices to switch to Linux, the open-source equivalent of Microsoft Windows or Mac OS.

“We were getting a lot of people excited about it,” Hudson says. But when new fans asked how to get their hands on the newest version of Linux, the answer was always the same: Download it. “We’d see their shoulders slump,” he says. “We had a clear message, we were getting out there and talking to people, but we were clearly falling short.”

Then he started thinking – why not make a software vending machine where, instead of having to download large files, a user could just burn them to a CD?

It so happened that the MTN Sciencentre in Cape Town was about to have an exhibition on open-source computing, and Hudson convinced his bosses to let him try to design a prototype that would burn a small selection of open-source software, including Linux, to CDs.

“It wasn’t very slick, but it worked,” he says. He and his colleagues decided to call it the “freedom toaster” – in the open-source community, to “toast” is the same as “to burn.”

They dropped the machine off at the science center, and then pretty much forgot about it, Hudson recalls. Then, they noticed that South African online chat groups were writing about the machine. Soon, there were lines of people trying to use the Freedom Toaster. “It really took us completely by surprise,” he says.

Hudson and others started realizing the potential of the Toaster. They could use it for music downloads, or government documents, or even movies – all sorts of content that people in the West download without thinking. Maybe users could even upload information – improving on an existing software program, for instance, or adding a new track to a song. Hudson and his colleagues imagined a South Africa where Freedom Toasters sat in all public buildings, available for spreading knowledge and bridging that digital divide.

They started sending out Freedom Toasters – to office parks and public centers, including this hallway here at the university. They also offered free operating designs, which showed how to build a Toaster. Groups in countries as far away as Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia began building their own Toasters, working with the South Africans.

Soon, however, Mark Shuttleworth, Hudson’s boss and the entrepreneur who founded the Shuttleworth Foundation (also the second private individual to pay for a trip into space), decided they needed a better way to meet the demand for the toaster, and a way to continue spreading the concept, He called Simpson – another employee who had taken a leave from the foundation, and ask him to turn the Freedom Toaster into a self-sustaining, low-cost business.

There was a hitch, however. Any business model needed to follow open-source principals. The Freedom Toaster’s content needed to remain free, a source of knowledge for the greater South African community.

“It was just super challenging,” Simpson recalls, but finally they came up with a system where organizations would pay for the machine, which could be loaded with content appropriate for their needs – bank documents, for instance, or government forms. Content would stay free for users. The idea has taken off. The University of South Africa was one of the first groups to jump on it. After a test run with five Toasters last year, they ordered 30 more for this academic season.

“We’re very enthusiastic,” says Louise Schmidt, a university spokesperson. “The students don’t have to go onto an Internet and use their bandwidth. They can just pop in a CD.”

The Sciencentre also bought in, using Toaster machines in their mobile science center vans, which they drive into impoverished areas of the city with the goal of interesting children in math and science. The interest in other countries also seems to be growing – for instance, there are now three Toasters in Egypt.

Meanwhile, South African bloggers rave about the toasters. “Well done to everyone involved with the Freedom Toaster project!” writes Mike Kroger, in a recent blog on his stuff.blat.co.za.

“I plan to get involved by building a few Freedom Toasters myself.”

“Yay,” responded a person identified as “Ami.” “Freedom Toasters rock.”

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