03 November 2011

One Laptop Per Child's Parachute Aid

The founder of One Laptop Per Child, Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, said that he wants to drop the organization's new tablets without anyone on the ground for support or implementation. I would say this is literally an example of parachuting aid but that would be a misuse of the word since it appears parachutes will not be used. From PC Magazine:
"We will literally take tablets and drop them out of helicopters," and return a year later to see if the effort was a success, Negroponte said. A new tablet design can withstand a 30-foot drop, and even be left out in the rain.

"When I say no people, I mean absolutely no people," he added, when asked if he was serious. "When I say I drop out of the helicopters, I mean it... it's like a Coke bottle falling out of the sky," he said, apparently referring to the 1982 movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy. In that movie, however, a bushman is convinced that the Coke bottle's embodiment of the concept of property is evil, and leaves his village to dispose of it.


The new tablets will be preloaded with 100 books, and will be able to connect to the Internet wirelessly. Previous tablets have used a peer-to-peer mesh connection to help establish connectivity.

"Adults may be able to steal it, but they won't be able to use it ... maybe an older brother will get a hold of it, use it for pornography - that's life," Negroponte said.
It is hard to know what to make of this. On one hand there is something exciting about providing the technology and giving people the opportunity to use it as they need. The story from this angle help to illustrate the innovative capacity of all people. On the other hand there is the concern highlighted by the reference to The Gods Must Be Crazy. They might confuse people and go unused or end up something people scramble to grab and sell.

What is painfully obvious is that it will be impossible to predict how people would react to the drop.  Is this a good example of top-down aid?  Is it even fair to call it top-down?  I am not so sure.

HT Lina



Wayan Vota points out that this is not a new idea for Negroponte.  He spoke about it in July at the Social Innovation Summit saying:
So you've got a hundred and fifty to two hundred million kids [not going to first grade], and so here's the question: Can you, either literally or metaphorically, drop out of a helicopter, which is exactly what we plan to do, with tablets into village, where there is no school, but there's kids, at least eight to ten kids?

And then go back a year later - are they reading? And if the answer is yes, that would be transformational. Then people might pay more attention. And then it would apply to places where there are schools, so on and so forth.
Better yet, there is a video of him talking about the idea (~15 min mark)  from this September's Social Good Summit in NYC:

For some reason these instances did not get as much attention and he keeps saying that his experiment will be to drop the tablets and return a few years later to see what happens.