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Open Source Computer Donation Program Aims To Go Nationwide

Ensuring that schools in low-income communities have access to the same technologies as wealthier schools isn't enough for James Burgett, executive director of the Alameda County Computer Resource Center in Northern California. He wants them to have better technology, and he wants them to have it for free.

Burgett -- along with several partners, contributors, volunteers and staff -- has been refurbishing computers for years, loading them up with open source software and deploying them in classrooms (and giving them to individuals) in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's recently expanded that effort and is now looking to take it national.

The motto of the Alameda County Computer Resource Center (ACCRC) is: "Obsolescence is Just a Lack of Imagination." Its mission is to take in used electronics -- including computers that otherwise would have been discarded -- and find a use for them. If something is unfixable, it gets sent to secondary recyclers (anything to keep the equipment out of landfills). If it is fixable, it gets refurbished and then donated to a variety of recipients, including public and private schools in low-income communities, non-profit organizations and needy individuals. Support for the donated systems is also provided, including complete repair and replacement for the first year. After the first year, schools are asked to reapply.

The operation is subsidized by Burgett's electronic disposal business. Proceeds from disposals (of old TVs and the like) are put toward the charitable donation program.

In its refurbishment efforts, the non-profit ACCRC has historically turned around something like 24 to 50 machines per month, which have then been given away. But recently the company teamed up with open source developer Untangle to organize a March 1 event called "Installfest," which brought together around 130 volunteers, including members of local Linux user groups, for a drastically accelerated production cycle at four locations.

Pulling Off Installfest I
On this expanded scale, there were some minor logistical hitches, but, in terms of the number of machines turned around for distribution, the event was successful.

"This is the first time we've ever gone out and solicited the public to do donations or [refurbishments] on a large scale," Burgett said in an interview with THE Journal.

"Normally we do between 24 and 50 machines a month. We're still doing the final count, but we pulled off at least 300 [on the day of the event]," Burgett told THE Journal last week. That's not just 300 computer donations; that's 300 machines pulled apart, put back together, cleaned, accessorized and loaded up with software by volunteers in a one-day effort. "We're looking at probably the equivalent of six months of production in a single day."

What made it work was an outreach to individuals and organizations in the area.

"This event was different because we were calling on the Linux users in the San Francisco Bay Area to come to specific locations in order to increase the rate at which we do [refurbishments]," said Andrew Fife, marketing manager at Untangle, which specializes in open source security solutions, including Web filtering, virus and spam blocking, and intrusion prevention.

Several user groups in the area were solicited and contributed significantly to the effort. These included the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group, the San Francisco Linux User Group, the Bay Area Linux Users Group and the Peninsula Linux Users Group. Other contributors to the event include Creative Commons, which packaged together content for the systems (including multimedia content); No Starch Press, which contributed a PDF copy of its Ubuntu for Non-Geeks for every system; and Archive.org, which at the last minute showed up to contribute servers to be used in the next Installfest. (Archive.org, incidentally, operates the "Wayback Machine," one of the most significant and unsung resources on the Web, containing archives of some 85 billion Web pages from 1996 to the present.)

As of this writing, the finished machines from Installfest I are undergoing final quality testing and will be rolled out to schools soon after that's concluded.

Extending the Initiative Nationally
The March event worked so well that ACCRC and Untangle now want to hold similar events on a quarterly basis and expand the concept beyond the Bay Area this summer.

"If we can rally the community around it, what we'd really like to do is turn this from a regional Bay Area event into a nationwide event," said Untangle's Fife. There are some logistical considerations, Fife said, since it wouldn't make sense to have a huge volume of computers from around the country shipped to California, then sent back out to their states of origin. "If we're able to get all the logistics in place, what we'd like to try to do is try and coordinate with local Linux user groups and local schools to try an keep those machines locally and then [aim] for much, much bigger numbers."

Open Source Efficiencies
Burgett said the idea is not just to give kids growing up in poor school districts access to the same technologies that are available to students in wealthy districts. For Burgett, that would be aiming too low.

"We're going to do better," Burgett said. "The technology that's going into schools is not the most innovative technology out there. The conventional wisdom is not the most beneficial to the community. And what's actually happening in wealthy schools is...expensive and inefficient solutions are being adopted. We're leaner; we're meaner; we're a whole lot [more] targeted toward the students...We'll actually be putting better computers...in some of the underprivileged schools than the more affluent schools are currently buying."

The equipment may be old and too outmoded to run high-overhead software that's designed to force new hardware purchases, but with low-overhead, yet modern, systems -- particularly the likes of Ubuntu -- old machines can perform at the same levels as newer machines running commercial operating systems for common personal, office and education-focused software. ACCRC machines are presently in the 800 MHz range (technology from the late '90s to early '00s). You wouldn't want to render 4k image sequences on them, but you can easily use them for writing, browsing the Web, compiling presentations and so on with no trouble, especially with an OS that's designed to excel on minimal systems.

According to Burgett, about a third of computer donations come through the front door as casual dropoffs. Another third comes from contracts with state and county agencies. And the final third comes from ACCRC's haul-away service, which sends trucks out to collect electronics from local residents and businesses. He's currently looking for donations from "everybody who's looking at throwing a computer away right now." (Those interested in donating can visit accrc.org for more information.)

Too Cool for Some Schools?
Once the machines are ready to go, Burgett keeps them handy for a few days to ensure that they're in proper working order. Then they begin to be distributed. Schools interested in receiving the computers merely fill out a form, and then they're put on a list, with priority going to the more needy of the applicants.

"I have a list of schools going back over the last three years. We're looking at what we've got, and we're looking at how the machines fit in and going from there," Burgett told us. "I know of right now five classrooms that are receiving machines, and we've got the books open to see what else fits in right now." It will work out to up to 100 computers per month deployed.

Schools currently signed up to participate include Ascend School, Bella Vista Elementary, Casa Grande High School, KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy, Lockwood School, Mission High School and Whittier Elementary School, all in Northern California.

Teachers and students, of course, appreciate the technology donations (especially given that teachers often spend a considerable amount of money on classroom tools out of pocket). But it doesn't always fly with administrators. Burgett cited one example of an administrator causing problems. He'd finished a complete classroom deployment, bringing computers in and setting them up at no expense to the school. Then an administrator walked in and put the kibosh on the whole deal and "[stuck] the whole thing in a closet."

"There have been obstructive administrations, IT departments that seem to think that if they deploy free software they will lose chunks of budget," Burgett said. "The 'if its free, it can't be any good' school of thought is also popular. We also, in my opinion, have teachers who have been so traumatized by our school system that they are unwilling to think outside the box or even acknowledge that the box exists.

"On the other hand," he continued, "we have teachers and admins who are willing to try something new rather than embrace an old and ongoing failure. These interestingly enough tend to be on both extremes of the financial spectrum while thin in the middle. Wealthy schools can afford to make mistakes, and very poor ones have nothing to lose."

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