Those bright folks at Geekcorps Mali have come up with another project that I’m vicariously proud of. (By “vicariously proud”, I mean, “I had nothing to do with it, can claim no credit for it, but am really glad people are still doing cool things in the name of the NGO I cofounded.“) The project is called Moulin – French for “windmill” – and it’s an interactive, offline version of Wikipedia.
The idea of offline wikipedias gets a lot of chuckles, including this cartoon from Iliad at UserFriendly. But the idea makes a great deal of sense: there are low-end PCs even in very poor parts of the developing world, like secondary cities in Mali. But because it’s extremely difficult to provision internet access in rural areas, these PCs go unused or underused. With a French-language Wikipedia on CDROM, this PC becomes a library of sorts for a community that’s otherwise information-starved.
It’s a neat technical hack as well – the Wikipedia articles, sans images, are compressed onto the CD, which also includes a lightweight webserver and software to unpack and configure on Windows, Mac or Linux. The resulting version of Wikipedia can be edited locally, and can be updated with future releases via CD.
I’m seeing an explosion of interest in content for the developing world, linked in part to the One Laptop Per Child project. As publishers and open content developers think about what content they might try to put on laptops, it’s worth thinking about what other sorts of open content we’d like to make available to developing world computers, both online and offline. Alex Weir, a former Geekcorps volunteer, has worked on a project called cd3wd – a CD-Rom of useful open content materials for the developing world, including a wealth of agricultural and technical information. The main limit to building such collections is finding content that’s available under open licenses.
It’s possible that enthusiasm for One Laptop Per Child will inspire some publishers to make their content available either under truly open licenses like GFDL, or under more constrained licenses like the Creative Commons Developing Nations license. But the impact of opening this content could go far beyond just the countries in the OLPC project. This content can be distributed using systems like Moulin, and in conjunction with inexpensive recycled computers (and, possibly, printing capabilities), could help fill the “library gap” that most developing world schools and communities face.