it comes to the quickly outdated world of computers, the adage one mans trash is another mans treasure
has rarely applied. Once users upgrade to faster, flashier
models usually every 18 to 24 months their old
computers are considered has-beens. A few get
recycled or reused, but the majority (close to 90 percent)
are stashed in the basement, forgotten in a closet, or worse
yet, tossed in the trash. According to the Environmental Protection
Agency, computers are ranked the nations fastest-growing
category of solid waste.
Tim Anderson MPA 2000. A former charter school headmaster
and zoological society director, Anderson found this scenario
depressing, so while he was at the Kennedy School he decided
to figure out how to wrangle second lives out of orphaned
computers. He talked to his professors, researched the Internet
for hours, and consulted with international students in the
Mid-Career program over Thanksgiving dinner and afternoon
coffee breaks. Eventually, he realized that while schools
in the United States were becoming more and better equipped,
far fewer in developing countries were up to speed. His conclusion
was to become a high-tech trash picker of sorts by starting
the World Computer Exchange, a nonprofit that collects working
computers and ships them to local schools and learning centers
in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
seemed like the perfect idea, he says, until others started
telling him it was already being done.
I first started doing the outline for the organization, everyone
said, Oh, thats happening all over the place.
Lots of people are doing it, says Anderson, from
the nonprofits headquarters in Hull, Massachusetts.
It was daunting because I couldnt find any of
them. Eventually I found a few, but most were working with
new computers and werent located in the United States.
Anderson and his small staff of mostly volunteers are starting
out fairly small, with one shipment of computers and monitors
expected to go out each month. In April, after a year of planning
and organizing, their first cargo of 380 computers was shipped
to Cameroon, in Western Africa, in a 40-foot container that
weighed an estimated 12 tons. A second shipment went to Nigeria
in May, followed by shipments to Benin and Ecuador.
still experimenting with the shipments, Anderson said,
noting that before he packed for Cameroon, he asked more experienced
shippers to write down exactly what they did. I leaned
that way, rather than by trial and error, so it turned out
to be more efficient and faster.
with good advice, it took 47 volunteers including kids
from City Year and neighboring high schools spread
across eight tables to prepare each Internet-accessible computer
to make sure the operating system and software were intact,
all the buttons and wires worked, and that each monitor had
a compatible keyboard and cords.
complicated as this sounds, Anderson says the packing, like
the computer gathering, is actually the easier part of the
work. The harder part is what happens across the ocean with
the nongovernmental organizations and schools that serve as
expected the problems would be more on our end, such as logistics
and coming up with money, he says. But the difficult
part is making sure our partners are ready for the shipment.
Weve had to put shipments on hold because they werent.
says this is why the process has been so slow and can take
a full year from the time he initially contacts a partner
before the shipment is ready to go out.
may not even be a place to plug the computers in, no one to
maintain them or set up networks, no security, and no training,
he says, referring to the 39 countries they are currently
working with to develop implementation plans. Its
not like here where we get a computer and immediately plug
it in. Theres also the enormous cost of electricity.
We dont pay for that. Thats their job. They welcome
the computers and the opportunity, but cant always figure
out the logistics or how to pay for the shipping or upkeep.
the exchange worked out an agreement with the United Nations
to cover direct shipping costs for countries involved in their
Sustainable Development Networking Programme, like Cameroon.
In other countries, money is raised privately at fundraisers
or from companies, like the radio station in Uganda that made
a large donation to cover some of the costs for its September
shipment. Other locations have also decided to charge adults
to use the computers during after-school and weekend hours.
Anderson, who learned in May that the exchange was designated
by the World Economic Forum as one of six educational information
technology projects that merited expansion and traveled to
Durban, South Africa, for its June summit, says that while
the exchanges main focus is getting monthly shipments
on track and eventually moving to a bi-monthly or even weekly
schedule, its also dedicated to extending beyond computer
donations. As its mission statement says, the exchange intends
to act as a broker in bridging the international digital
divide, promoting cultural understanding between students
in the United States and developing countries, and facilitating
the use of technology and experiential education in education
big part of this plan includes partnering students in the
United States with students in countries that receive computers
through shared Web sites and an e-pal program
an online version of the traditional pen pal. Surprisingly,
Anderson says, hes having trouble getting U.S. schools
have 700 schools overseas that have signed on and are interested,
he says. We have a few kids connected so far, but were
desperately looking for U.S. schools. When it works out, itll
be great for both sides because [the partnering] teaches civics,
community service, geography, and teamwork. And, particularly
for American students like his 13-year-old son who interviewed
a few of Andersons partners in India and Cameroon via
e-mail for his school newspaper, access to people from other
countries is something important that they might never have
I was at the Kennedy School, I brought people home from different
countries to spend weekends and to share holidays, Anderson
says, noting one particular Thanksgiving meal. It gave
my kids pause. They were giving thanks for a new Nintendo
game, while the Kennedy School students were giving thanks
for being free and alive. It was a true learning
information on how to donate a computer or to contact Tim
Anderson, go to www.worldcomputerexchange.org/.
photo: Ashley Lazonick