A University of Iowa project helping universities in third-world countries reduce “information poverty” has gotten a 225-thousand dollar grant from a private foundation. Cliff Missen, director of the University of Iowa’s WiderNet project. “The overall purpose of the WiderNet project is to assist our African partners to build out their first computer networks at their universities and sometimes even get connected to the Internet,” Missen says. He says most of the schools the U-of-I projects works with don’t have an Internet connection. If they do, the connection is “really, really slow” according to Missen. “What we do is we take millions of documents from the Internet, with the obvious permissions, and then we move them inside the universities so they can use them quickly and easily without having to be connected to the Internet,” Missen says. It means WiderNet posts all those electronic documents on the university’s internal computer network. “It’s inside the university. It’s on their own system and they can open up the webpages 5000 times faster than they could off the Internet,” Missen says. The ultimate goal of the WiderNet program is to get as much information into the hands of third-world scholars and doctors as possible. “You know, only one in seven people in the world use the Internet now and a lot of really critical information for educators and physicians and others is Internet-based,” Missen says. “This is an opportunity for us to deliver millions and millions of documents to their fingertips at a very low cost.” Missen knows what it’s like in developing countries. He taught for a year in Nigeria, and in one course he had the only book. Missen passed it around to the students to read. The WiderNet started working with Nigerian universities but has expanded to 50 installations in a dozen African universities as well as schools in Bangladesh and Haiti. Missen says the WiderNet is unique because other projects focus on getting universities hooked up to the Internet. ‘We’ve looked around and there’s nobody doing quite what we’re doing,” Missen says. He says a number of projects are creating digital libraries and telling people to go to their website to get the information. But according to Missen, getting on the Internet is a “daunting task” in the third-world because the electricity isn’t always on and telephone lines are old and really expensive. “We’re changing a lot of people’s minds about how to deliver information to the developing world,” Missen says. If you’d like more information about the five-year-old WiderNet project, find it on-line at www.widernet.org.
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