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Could offline Internet access bridge the digital divide?

The nonprofit WiderNet Project turns to Indiegogo with its eGranary Pocket Library that helps connect people living outside of the Internet's reach.

About 12 years ago, outside consultants convinced the deputy vice chancellor of the University of Jos in Nigeria that paying $150,000 for a satellite Internet connection would drastically improve the school. It was a huge investment – the equivalent of 16 professors’ annual salaries – but he hoped the satellite would revolutionize the university. The decision would prove disastrous.

Cliff Missen, who tells this story, says that after the purchase, teachers' pay came up short, leading to faculty strikes and student protests. Mr. Missen's friend, the administrator who decided the university needed that Internet connection, was attacked while driving his daughters home from school. After a local trader saved the man's life, he returned to work a month later, telling Missen, “These children need me. This education is their best opportunity.”

These are the realities that face many who live with the digital divide, which is why Missen started the WiderNet Project, a nonprofit trying to make sure that schools don't need to spend enormous amounts of money just to reach the World Wide Web.

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“One of the things that inspired me to found the WiderNet Project was I was visiting several universities around Nigeria, and I would hear the same story again and again,” says Missen, director of WiderNet Project and professor with the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina. “Vice chancellors and librarians were saying the only people who want to talk to us are people who have something to sell. So they just could never really trust [people] or often times they were being sold things that were not what they needed and what they could afford.”

WiderNet, located at the University of North Carolina, believes it has found an answer for communities currently outside of the Internet's reach. Since 2001,  the nonprofit has been working on offline solutions to the digital divide. It invented what has been dubbed the “Internet in a box.”

The eGranary Digital Library is a disconnected solution to accessing to the Web. The digital library is a central sever that currently holds around 32 million websites, videos, and documents that can be accessed without an Internet connection. WiderNet has partnered with thousands of publishers and institutions to create its archives, which include Wikipedia and Khan Academy, a nonprofit that uploads video lectures to YouTube. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has also worked with the WiderNet, offering its OpenCourseWare and BLOSSOMS programs to the collection.

Anyone can connect to the central digital library through a wired or wireless connection, and, as Missen explains, some have even set up wireless access points, or “hotspots,” outside of their buildings for their neighbors to use. Students can access the digital library through a normal Web browser. Everything looks and acts like the Internet, but all offline.

The system is not perfect. These digital libraries are a snapshot of the Internet, not the real thing. Once information is stored on a device, there is currently no way to seamlessly upload changes made to the main library. Missen says WiderNet has been working with Wikipedia to figure how updates can reach each partners' individual digital library offline.

Like the Internet, eGranary is only as good as its number of access points, which is why WiderNet created an Indiegogo campaign to assist in shrinking the library to mobile size.

“With this Indgogo campaign, we will write the computer code so even the smallest chip can offer the most dynamic educational experience," says Missen.

The eGranary Pocket Library is a smaller, portable version of the full digital library and could be considered the “Internet on a chip.”

While the larger digital library holds 4 terabytes of information, the Pocket Library creates specialized archives addressing the different needs of institutions. The chips have 8 GB, 16 GB, 32 GB, or 64 GB of memory and can be inserted directly into a laptop or phone. Anything the chip contains can be downloaded to a separate device for later use. 

WiderNet collaborates closely with experts in different fields to create Pocket Libraries that address the needs of different institutions. For example, the nonprofit has worked to build a “medicine portal” for colleges in Zambia. Collaborating with the University of Alabama and experts from around the world, WiderNet helped create a national curriculum with hundreds of resources for medical students, including textbooks and videos.

Back in 1999, while studying as a Fulbright Scholar in Nigeria, Missen became very aware of the lack of Internet access. He and associates began sending CDs with copies of websites back to friends in Nigeria. Once word of the CDs spread, people could not get enough, says Missen, and the group found themselves sending more and more materials over. Before long, people were asking for all of Wikipedia.

This was the indirect birth of the WiderNet Project and the eGranary library.

Missen hopes WiderNet will grow and get to a point where the nonprofit can afford to rent satellites on behalf of schools to transmit updates to the libraries.

[Editor's note: This article has been changed from its original version to include additional information about the project.]

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