There may come a day when the whole world logs on effortlessly to the Internet, but it ain’t happened yet. Today, there are about 7.1 billion people on Earth and only about 3.1 billion have private access to porn and cat videos. The rest have to use some form of public connection, or they do without.
This digital divide creates a bifurcated world, where some people have the information and knowledge to get ahead, while others are left behind. But the solution isn’t necessarily to roll out more Internet. In fact, you can get a lot of information to people using more old-fashioned methods, like hard-drives and SD cards.
That’s what a North Carolina nonprofit called WiderNet Project has been doing for the last 12 years. Starting in the early 2000s, it began distributing hard-drive libraries to disconnected–or barely connected–communities in Africa. The “eGranaries” operate like the web, except they’re not hooked up to the main network. The content–which includes the entire Wikipedia and all 3,000-plus Khan Academy videos–sits locally, serving linked computers that don’t have an Internet connection.
Now, WiderNet wants to move beyond its initial product, which is aimed at groups, to create tiny chips for individuals. It’s crowdfunding its “eGranary Pocket Library,” an SD card that fits into the side of a phone or tablet.
“The big eGranary is good for networking people with multiple computers, but what we’re finding is that a lot of people are starting to get tablets and smartphones,” says Cliff Missen, WiderNet’s founder. “We’re thinking we need to meet them where they are.”
Each library is customized to a particular audience. For example, the nonprofit recently created an ebola pocket library with the CDC, World Health Organization and other charitable groups. It included 25,000 resources, from Wikipedia entries and journal articles to posters and ebola songs.
WiderNet is trying to raise at least $60,000–money that will go towards rejigging PC-made code and developing pocket libraries. It has several planned, including a “Veterinary Sciences Pocket Library” and a “STEM Pocket Library” (for teaching science and technology to young women). But it needs sponsorship first.
Missen started WiderNet in the early 2000s after working as an academic in Nigeria. He saw how few books and documents were available, and also how vulnerable schools were to consultants offering Internet services. The university where Missen worked paid $150,000 for a satellite connection, only to find it then couldn’t afford more basic priorities.
While Facebook and Google are rolling out high-altitude Internet balloons and “walled gardens” to the disconnected poor, Missen thinks e-libraries could be good enough for their purpose in many cases.
Especially as the platform now allows people to create their own content.
“One of the reasons we’re building this micro-platform is so local ministries and health agencies can start building their own web pages,” Missen says. “When people do that, it’s absolutely electric. They see their own picture and they’re part of the technology and they’re just sold. Having people be content creators and not just content consumers is key.”
Support the eGranary Pocket Library here.