Cliff Missen, Director of the WiderNet Project in Durham, tells us how he started his mission to bring knowledge to developing countries and what is being done today.
Cliff Missen is a clinical associate professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science, and co-founded nonprofit WiderNet in 2000. He oversees WiderNet’s efforts to improve digital communication in developing countries and leads development of the eGranary Digital Library and the Corrections Offline Education Platform that delivers knowledge of the world to people and institutions lacking Internet access. He was a TED fellow in 2007 and a Senior Fulbright Scholar in Nigeria in 1999. He has made presentations at Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Google, World Bank, MIT, USAID, and dozens of professional conferences.
“About half the world does not have the Internet”, says Cliff Missen,
the director of the nonprofit WiderNet. “And half those that DO have
the Internet… have really lousy Internet."
This digital divide is what inspires the staff and volunteers
at the tiny Durham nonprofit to develop affordable alternatives
for people in developing countries, U.S. prisons, and hard-to-reach rural areas.”
Cliff, what you and WiderNet have done to bring knowledge to developing countries that lack it and make the lives of those who reside there better is truly unprecedented in an era where it seems that the gap between developing and developed countries has become wider than ever before. Can we please ask you for some very basic information like how this whole thing got started?
As a young child I was in and out of foster care and often experienced first-hand the desperation and hopelessness that a lack of knowledge can cause to those who simply do not have access to it. I found refuge in books and restoration in the hands of angels (good foster parents, school counselors, teachers…) who were steeped in knowledge. I decided I would dedicate my life to the service of the poor all over the world, helping them get access to the kind of information that would enrich their lives and render them capable of making contributions to improve not only themselves, but also those who lived around them.
Do you remember when you first came to realize that it might be your destiny to help those most in need – the poor and impoverished living in our many still developing countries? And what you did as a result of these experiences?
It was when I was a Fulbright Scholar Nigeria in 1999, teaching at the University of Jos and doing research around the country. In both of these environments I saw first-hand the frustrations and lack of knowledge that non-access to the Internet can cause. Upon returning to the University of Iowa, I founded The WiderNet Project to provide training and research in low-cost, high-impact uses of information technologies in developing countries.
What do you remember as perhaps the first time that you realized that you were actually fulfilling the promise to help others that you had made to yourself years before?
Well you know that this was a complex evolution for me but I think that I first realized I had made good on my promise was when I introduced water well drilling technology to rural villages in Liberia in the eighties. I helped revitalize old-fashioned methods that were first developed by the Chinese in 1100 b.c. and inspired Europeans and early U.S. settlers to drill deep wells. I’ve coached hundreds of drillers world-wide through my books and another nonprofit, Wellspring Africa (www.wellspringafrica.org)
While starting an information technology program for young people in Jos, Nigeria, the eGranary Digital Library grew organically. In the original years we were focused on meeting the basic information needs of disconnected universities and health care institutions. But when we crossed the 1,000 installation mark, I realized that we had an ever greater responsibility to make this service sustainable and to engage our colleagues in the development of libraries that better suited their local needs and languages. Since then we’ve focused on developing young entrepreneurs to promote, install and provide training in their communities. Our main focus now is teaching librarians and educators to create their own Web sites and course materials.
All of these things grew out of basic listening. Spending time with people, hearing their stories, experiencing their discomfort, and understanding their needs.
Looking back, I recognize that I am learning what it means to be in service to another: a servant is not one who imposes their remedies upon others, but seeks to fulfill another’s need. For me, it’s a slow, awkward transition that challenges me in ways that I never expected. But at the same time, I grow more effective and confident that I’m doing meaningful good.
That thousands of people have found reward in assisting with this project over the years -- by volunteering, contributing their publications, or providing financial support -- makes the journey even more exciting. These are the things that I think really made me think that there were virtually no limits to what we can accomplish when we turn our hearts towards the service of others.
One of WiderNet’s projects that we often hear mentioned is its eGranary Digital Library. Why is something like this deemed so important in bringing knowledge to developing countries?
An excellent question! In practically all developing countries, many of the universities, schools, clinics and hospitals have no Internet connection and even the few that have connections have such limited bandwidth that they cannot offer free web browsing to the majority of their staff and students. Did you know that bandwidth in Africa can cost 100 times more than in the U.S.? And that’s for a minimal Internet connection that can easily consume half of the organization’s operating budget!
So how does eGranary help with this?
It moves a large assortment of educational web documents onto the subscriber's local area network (LAN) so that everyone within the institution can access these documents where there is no true Internet or the connection is broken.
And how many people is eGranary actually helping right now?
Our current estimate is that eGranary is helping approximately 3 million people worldwide through over 2,000 partner institutions in Africa, India, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, and other locations, plus inmates in 30 U.S. prisons. And WiderNet continues to further develop and distribute the eGranary Digital Library, which has enabled the delivery of millions of educational resources to individuals and institutions around the world.
Are there other services that WiderNet provides?
Yes. In addition to eGranary we provide computer labs, specialized off-line pocket libraries, on-site training courses and workshops, as well as consulting that uses if information technology. We have also refurbished more than 1,600 used computersfor use at universities in Africa as well.
Probably one of the other more significant services we provide is the Corrections Off-line Education Platform, a digital library that provides Internet-like experiences for users in detention, treatment, and other institutions that lack Internet access. Rich with millions of resources for GED, high school, secondary, and post-secondary education, it is in use at dozens of correctional facilities around the U.S. We do this through a process of getting permission to copy many web sites and then give access using intranet Web servers over wired and/or wireless local area networks.
You mentioned Pocket Libraries. Please tell us more about these.
A pocket library is a smaller collection, say 25,000 documents, that fits onto a flash drive or into a smartphone. For example, we’re currently delivering a collection that contains thousands of resources about Ebola – everything from research papers, posters, music videos, and curriculum for health care providers – all on a small chip that can be easily copied and shared.
Imagine a child in rural North Carolina or a remote village in Africa having a multimedia library in the palm of their hand, preloaded with all the books, videos, and reference materials they need for several years of schooling. Or a medical practitioner on a remote island in the Pacific who has a full medical library on her laptop.
We’re shrinking our software and working with other partners to identify the most appropriate resources to include in these pocket libraries.
Cliff, it is truly amazing and commendable how many things you do here and globally to help enrich the lives of those in need. How was it possible to accomplish all of this?
Since the organization began, staff, students and volunteers have worked continuously to deliver educational materials to the five billion people worldwide who lack adequate Internet access. We also conduct research into inexpensive, cutting edge technology and provide numerous training opportunities, through which thousands of university staff and administrators have been trained in programs customized to suit their institutions' specific needs.
What does the future hold for WiderNet?
Well, at the most basic level, offering technical assistance to people with poor digital communication means we are building a digital bridge. Today, we must focus on the bricks and mortar and the heavy lifting to build the bridge. But in years to come, we will be able to use this bridge to deliver courses, conduct mutually beneficial research, collaborate with our colleagues around the world at will, and provide our students and colleagues with unmediated interactions with their peers from other cultures.
On the surface these goals may not seem that complicated, but there's nothing really simple about the challenges of revolutionizing human communication, providing a voice to billions of individuals who have hitherto been unheard, and globalizing our education to the point where students are just as likely to collaborate with someone half a world away as in the next dorm room.
In the Western world, where many are wrestling with the full impact of digital communication, many educators suspect we have still only seen the tip of the iceberg. New global wireless communication technologies are only now being deployed. The impact of these changes on the political, economic, cultural, and private lives of the entire human race – online and offline - will be the critical issues of the next few decades.
I see WiderNet’s purpose as being a champion for the under-served, to collaborate and create solutions to include the currently disconnected majority of the world in a global conversation that will lift humanity to the next level.
Your goals are truly impressive, but is there anything that will limit your ability to accomplish all that you desire?
One of the most exciting things about WiderNet is the seemingly limitless number of possibilities for expansion, refinement and growth. However with limitless potential comes the need for a large team of people who share our vision of bridging gaps in educational inequalities between rich and poor countries. In addition, we must continue to acquire the necessary resources to make these possibilities come true.
Every contribution - money, equipment, content or even just a few hours of your time - has a positive impact on the lives of underprivileged individuals all around the world by placing millions of educational resources right at their fingertips and helps us overcome the constraints of funding, staffing, and technical equipment.
What can we do to help you help those whose lives can become more meaningful with exposure to the offerings of a digital world?
There are several things that both organizations and individuals that share our vision can do to help us accomplish our global mission and objectives.
Organizations can enter long-term partnerships with WiderNet to meet a specific goal such as developing a specialized collection (in agriculture, IT, or health, for example), distributing eGranaries, funding in-country training, and establishing computer labs at the school, clinic, or library of their choice.
Individuals can volunteer their time. We provide a meaningful volunteer experience that utilizes their skills or trains them in new ones, while offering a flexible schedule and a laid-back office environment. We need programmers, librarians, social media and publicity people, Web designers, fundraisers, management coaching and community champions. Our volunteers help us discover creative solutions that help bridge the digital divide, bringing much-needed educational materials to people around the world who need them the most.
Both individuals and organizations can make a gift or donation - When you make a gift to WiderNet, you're helping to bridge the digital divide and bring knowledge and Internet resources to information-starved people worldwide who cannot access the Internet. We will use your donation for a variety of purposes including training of technicians abroad, adding new content and features to our library, providing demonstration projects in rural schools, and developing specific content collections for the eGranary Digital Library.
Cliff, thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk to us today. We feel almost certain that for many the read this interview, it will be the first time that they will have learned of the WiderNet project, and the good works it is trying to do in our still-developing countries. And I am sure that many will want to help you to accomplish your world-wide goals in any way that they can.
THE WIDERNET PROJECT IS A U.S. 501C3 NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION AFFILIATED WITH WIDERNET@UNC AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT CHAPEL HILL, PROVIDING RESOURCES, COACHING, TRAINING, COMPUTERS AND EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS TO SCHOOLS, CLINICS, LIBRARIES AND HOMES IN UNDERSERVED AREAS OF THE WORLD.
TO GET MORE INFORMATION ON HOW YOU CAN HELP CLOSE THE INFORMATION GAP BETWEEN DEVELOPED AND DEVELOPING COUNTRIES PLEASE CONTACT THE WIDERNET PROJECT:
Address 1906 East, NC Highway 54, Suite 100F, Durham, NC 27713
TO MAKE A DONATION TO WIDERNET PLEASE VISIT https://www.widernet.org/donations/DonationAdd.asp
THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND
Malawian innovator and author William Kamkwamba works with WiderNet to bridge the know-do gap. When the repercussions of a drought in his home country of Malawi forced him to drop out of school, he turned to his local library to keep his mind engaged. There, he fed his love for engineering and electronics, and found inspiration to build a windmill that could power electrical appliances in his home. This project eventually attracted international media attention and opened a world of new educational opportunities.
Now Kamkwamba is working with the non-profit WiderNet Projectand the WiderNet@UNCresearch lab at the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS) to create learning modules for the eGranary, a server that provides offline access to millions of videos, documents, and Web sites.