Mission accomplished?

When I teach IT strategy, one of the first things I emphasize on, is that the mission is a more abstract, long term concept, and anything that changes the mission with changes to the market, competitors, collaborators, and other forces is probably not the mission to begin with. The mission is supposed to be like a lighthouse, guiding the ship through troubled waters and fog. Imagine your lighthouse changing coordinates every time the seas got rough! Your mission needs to be stable, so that you can hope to achieve it! If your “mission” changes that often, it ain’t mission; it’s just operational fidgeting. You’d be surprised how often organizations have trouble getting the operational mixed up with the strategic. Don’t believe me? Check out what Prof. Michael Porter has to say!

I use a simple tool in my class to describe driving towards a strategic goal, and how one can get derailed. The Mission and Core Competencies (MCC) matrix was published in the mid-nineties. It’s a comparison between the mission and core competencies of an organization. For simplicity’s sake, the author has divided the “mission” and “core competencies” scales into poor and good. This results in a 2×2 matrix, giving us four possible places we can be. We should be in a drive position, where the fit with both mission and core competencies is good. However, that’s not always the case. The organization can be in a drain, dilution, or distraction quadrant. While MCC was created as a tool for strategic management in organizations, it’s also a good approach for making decisions about everyday situations.

Mission and Core Competencies Matrix

Mission and Core Competencies Matrix

For instance, if the project at hand is a good fit with the mission, but we lack the competencies to get the job done, it becomes a dilution. In such a case, we usually hire new talent to improve competencies (long-term), or we outsource to an external agency. Working with open source software gives outsourcing a whole new meaning. Think about how much of the work at OLPC is “outsourced” (in a sense) to Sugarlabs, where volunteers build, test, debug and produce software for all the XO laptops worldwide. It’s a fascinating mechanism, but more on that some other time.

Of course, nobody wants to be in the drain quadrant. It’s a whole lot of fiddling and fidgeting, usually fuelled by hubris and/or groupthink. Once again, open source plays interesting angles here. Because open source encourages tinkering, (scratch an itch), getting focus can be hard, and hobbyist tinkering can do more harm than good, especially for getting the project out of the drain box. The early stages of XSCE comes to mind, when I think of this quadrant. Things have gotten much better, but we aren’t drive‘ing yet.

If the competencies are there, but it does not fulfil the mission, many organizations will take on the project to earn revenue (with a promise/commitment of doing so short term, until things get better), and then they slide down to modifying their mission to make it all fit. The dreaded distraction quadrant! This works short-term, but the trouble with this approach is that you end up solving the wrong problem. Lowering the bar (or raising it, if you are into limbo) makes it easier to “succeed”, but you may end up cheering the wrong kind of success.

Perhaps it’s simpler to think of it as a tale my grandmother used to tell us (aka streetlight effect). In short:

Once upon a time, a man got home late at night, and lost his keys while trying to open the door. It was quite dark there. So, he went searching for the keys by the lamp post. When asked why, he said “I know I lost my keys by the door, but the light is better here.”

For us, in the Bhagmalpur project, the mission is for the children to learn. The ways are via critical thinking and problem-solving, hence the focus on Sugar.  The computers double up as information delivery channels, hence our focus on offline servers and Internet access. That’s a plus, but it’s more of a consequence. If the critical thinking and problem solving parts go well, the community will be better at using the newly-acquired information to make better, informed decisions. Thus far, Sugar and XO laptops have been the most viable for us. Therefore, that’s the way forward. We are not really grounded/concerned directly about cheap tablets or Android, or next newfangled thingamajig, or even about “what Santa may bring for Christmas”. What we are concerned with, is that the upcoming generation learn to solve their problems locally and thrive.

Searching for these keys in the dark is going to be very difficult, but unless we get the correct set of keys, we can’t really open the door!

Onward and upward into 2014.

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Jugaad. The Indian way.

Jugaad (जुगाड़) is the Hindi word for figuring things out. It’s been the Indian way for a long time now. Lack of resources push people to figure things out. I remember, when I was in high school, I used to ride three different buses for over two hours, so I could go to an electronics repair shop and get my hands on a broken motor.  All for the love of science experiments, of course, unsanctioned by my parents! Now, I live a short walk from Radio Shack, but it’s not the same. Hack, make, fix. It’s all jugaad.

I just got off the phone with folks in Bhagmalpur, and they were all beaming. The kids had figured out something. While visiting Bhagmalpur in January, I had copied a whole bunch of music for them. Some of these were in MP3 format. I know the XO is not geared to play MP3 out of the box, but I had little time, and I figured they’d skip it and move on to the Ogg ones. Guess what? They sure did play the Ogg files, but for the MP3 ones, they got a microSD card reader, copied the files onto the microSD card, moved the microSD card to someone’s mobile phone, and got to play it there! Did I teach them about copying files? No. Did I show them how to copy files from the Journal to an external card? No. They figured it out on their own!

Next, they’ve gotten onto Facebook, but the XO-1 is slow to load, and Facebook can make the network connection slow. They spotted on some visitor’s mobile phone that if you tack on a “m.” in front of facebook.com it loads faster. Now, everyone is browsing Facebook using the m.facebook.com address!

Give the kids an inch, and they’ll take a mile. I hope they go far! Welcome to the new jugaad. Same as the old jugaad, only better :-)

m dot

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Hello world! from Bhagmalpur… part-2

Following on from the first visit to Bhagmalpur, a second round of software development, bugfixes and finally deployment took place in the ensuing three weeks or so. There were some lessons we had learned watching the server in action:

  • Power is a huge issue. A server needs to come across as a reliable ‘always-on’ kind of appliance, and the situation in the village was not helping on this. While there are efforts to install solar panels to provide uninterrupted power, I took a UPS containing two 7.2 AH batteries, enough to supply continuous power for 12-14 hrs on average.
  • Since the server (xo-1.75 laptop) was not installed in a readily accessible place, as would normally be the case, it was important it would turn itself on as soon as AC power was supplied. Thanks to Richard Smith for helping get around this.
  • The server shouldn’t go into suspend when the laptop’s lid is closed. A simple setting change sufficed.
  • If for any reason, some of the services being hosted by the server go down, they should be brought back up automatically. For this we experimented with a tool called monit, which proved itself to be quite useful. Monit can be smartly configured to restart many types of services.
  • The service that converts the collected statistical data into usable information needs to run on the server itself, so we don’t have to transfer large amounts of data to do a proper analysis.
  • A reliable method of updating and installing new server software. Since doing a vanilla install while present in the village was a cumbersome task, we had to come up with a mechanism to install all these updates/fixes in a robust, fast and repeatable manner. We used a tool called ansible to carry this out. (Hint: you will hear a lot more about ansible in future XSCE releases).

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We also installed power backup to a second ubiquity picostation working in repeater mode to increase the available server uptime. The picostation consumes about 5W, so a single 7.2AH battery provides decent backup. In the evening while we were testing the range of both the AP’s, unknown to us, a bunch of kids gathered on the rooftop of Dr. Verma’s house, and started collaborating through various sugar activities and the internet.

Earlier during the day, some kids brought in a broken screen, and asked me to replace it. However, being the constructionist project that OLPC is (and the lazy person that I am), I told them to figure it out on their own. One of the kids already knew how to fix the screen, so he taught the other kid all by himself to remove the battery, unscrew the relevant parts, gently remove the display and it’s cables, plug in the new one, screw everything back in and voila! Instant joy. Just for the fun of it, a few more kids got into this hardware debugging exercise.

One byproduct of constructivism, which is often ignored is the inculcation of qualities like grit, determination and confidence, which Paul Tough has explored at some length. Having been to the village 3 weeks ago, and a year ago, I could see the change in the way the kids went about themselves and around the laptops. We will only be able to see the true effect of such changes in learning methods a few years down the line, however, we hope to carry out research analyzing the data we collect. (and discussed at length in a soon-to-be-published blog post :-)).

At night, I took a few moments to pause and reflect on a job well done, and the part everyone played to perfection. Sameer, with an accurate assessment of what was needed, and his expert insights; Santi, Nitika for handling the technology side of things, the XSCE community for providing us with a stable base, Upendra and Tripti-ji without whose everyday effort, the deployment wouldn’t even exist, the parents, who encourage their little ones to learn “the computer” even if they don’t themselves understand it’s implications and finally; the never-ending passion and curiosity of the children of Bhagmalpur. To me, the true power of democratized, community driven efforts made itself as conspicuous as the brilliant shimmering stars in the sky that night!

The Milky Way galaxy (or akash-ganga/आकाशगंगा) visible from the crystal clear night skies of Bhagmalpur

The Milky Way galaxy (or akash-ganga/आकाशगंगा) visible from the crystal clear night skies of Bhagmalpur

The following morning, I had to get up early and leave for the airport, since I was unable to find a train reservation on the way back. The newly spruced up airport named after Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri  at Varanasi was a 2.5 hour bus ride away from the nearby town of Shahganj (which is also the nearest railhead to Bhagmalpur). It was interesting to note that there was no functional WiFi internet at a national airport, while we had quietly empowered the kids in a remote village unknown to the rest of the world. Saludos, Anish

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Hello world! from Bhagmalpur… part-1

This is a long long overdue post about the trip made by Kartik Perisetla and your’s truly to Bhagmalpur in an effort to install a new school server in the village.

To give you a background, the XSCE or the School Server Community Edition project has been gathering momentum over the past few months, and it has gotten to a point where pilots in remote places are conceivable. So, as a part of my summer internship, Dr. Verma graciously agreed to let us do a pilot of the server in the village (heck, I’d still have gone there if it wasn’t part of the internship).

Anyway, I roped in Kartik, who has been very interested to contribute to OLPC efforts in India, and both of us decided to head to the village around the last week of May (yes, that’s how long overdue this post it :-P). This plan took shape just before one of the periodic XSCE community sprints (this one was held at Adam’s parents’ home outside of Toronto). Working with Santiago Collazo (aklis) and Nitika Mangal from Activity Central we setup a roadmap for developing and testing the server before the actual trip to the village happened. We based our platform on the under-development 0.3 version of the XSCE and went about making sure that everything worked well out of the box and reliably so. After many conversations with Dr. Verma, we created an identical testing setup to the one which was in the Village.

May 22 came, and it was time to make it all happen in the real world. After surviving the Indian Railway’s ticket booking website and the actual train-journey itself, we made it to the village the following morning. Dr. Upendra Verma (Sameer’s uncle) was there to receive us and their son Utkarsh (traveling from Banaras). We knew the weather was going to be hot, but it was quite a bit more humid than we had expected. To top it off, there was no power in a major part of the village (including Upendra-ji’s house) for the last month or so, because a local transformer had burnt out and Indian bureaucracy was taking it’s usual ‘forever’ to fix it. Thankfully, sweet cold water from a hand pump in Upendra-ji’s house brought much needed respite!

After exchanging pleasantries, we soon got down to business and went about installing the new XO-1.75 based server replacing the old fit-PC based one. This was the most critical part of our trip and Upendra-ji turned on the diesel-powered generator so we could carry on with our work. We double and triple checked everything since if anything went wrong with the installation, the whole trip would be in vain. Also, we were facing problems getting the 3G modem↔TP-Link setup working, but thanks to Utkarsh’s smart thinking we got past that hurdle. The rest of the server installation went very smoothly. I can’t thank Santi and Nitika enough for their work in making sure we got past all the problems in our testing environment so we didn’t have to face any while in the village.

Soon, we were online, and sure enough, the server “called-home” to Dr. Verma’s openVPN server in SF. A server’s way of saying “Hello world!”

Following this eureka moment, we transferred all the 25 GB or so of content (ebooks, music, ted-talks and more…) into a 64GB pen-drive plugged into the XO-1.75 laptop. Then we placed the laptop neatly inside a briefcase along with all the other hardware. Working through the night, we installed software updates on all the available XO laptops (+ the five I took along with me, thanks to Arjun Gupta). Next, we registered them to the school server, so they could start sending journal backups. Another important part of the XSCE is statistics collection, where software running on the laptops records anonymous usage statistics and synchronizes them with the server. This data can then be researched to make useful analyses about usage patterns, software defects, and so on. 

After we were done with most of our tasks on Day-1 itself (phew!), we took a stroll through the village, this time during the night. My trusty sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens was a wonderful companion and took some great pictures, which can be seen here. While we were walking back to Upendra-ji’s home, we saw some lights blinking on their rooftop. He explained to me that those were the LED’s on the Wireless Access Point connected to the server. He told me a little story that when it was initially installed, the villagers were a little afraid of the strange blinking night-lights, and thought that it was some kind of a time bomb. Well, that time-bomb has now exploded! When they see those strange blinking lights again, they’ll know that internet is in the air, with all it’s wonders and wonderful content cached locally for their learning and joy. Talk about a shift in perspective!

School Server in a briefcase!

School Server in a briefcase!

Updating the software on the XO laptops.

Updating the software on the XO laptops.

Look at the top left corned of this image. Those LED's blinking on the rooftop indicate that the local access point is switched on, and the server is powered on.

Look at the top left corner of this photograph. Those LED’s blinking on the rooftop indicate that wireless access is present, and the server is powered on.

The following morning, we gathered the kids from the village so they could get their first taste of the internet and the new server. It was interesting to see some of them requiring a slight bit of hand-holding while others taking to it like a duck to water. Mostly, we left them alone to figure it out and learn from one another. An interesting fact: we had to buy a new, much bigger data plan just after a couple of hours. An interesting trend that started to emerge was kids downloading local content (already present on the server), and researching bits of it on the internet. Before all of this happened, though, we had to address concerns of their parents about being exposed to malicious content, so we had already setup dansguardian.

Note: The server has been online for some two months now, and there will be another blog post deeply analyzing the usage and the benefits it has brought to children’s learning and the village in general.

Stay tuned for part-2 of this post and other updates from the village!

Stay tuned for part-2 of this post and other updates from the village!

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A chat with the Delhi team

The OLPC Delhi team ran a hackathon a few weeks ago. As part of this hackathon, they ran a series of Google Hangouts. Here’s one I did with Anish Mangal and Kartik Perisetla. Martin Abente joined us from Paraguay.

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Trains, planes, automobiles

I had quite the whirlwind trip to India for a four week period across Dec 2012-Jan 2013. After coming back, I presented about it at the OLPC San Francisco monthly meeting in January ’13. Then, in the hubbub of my spring semester at SF State, I promptly forgot to write it up. So, here it is, a few months late:

I landed in Mumbai (I still like to call it Bombay) right after Christmas eve, and promptly took off for Ahmedabad, Gujarat. After a few meetings with some friends and acquaintances, I ended up presenting to the governing board of CHARUSAT University, and subsequently to their student body over a two-day period. Across several meetings, I had the opportunity to talk about children, education, OLPC and Sugar to their faculty, staff and over 1200 students. It was a tiring visit, but a good one. CHARUSAT has a social responsibility component, and may look to support such a program in some of their neighboring villages.

Next, I went to Bhagmalpur. This was a trip on a series of trains and taxis. Bhagmalpur isn’t easy to get to. The nearest train station is Shahganj. Other options are to fly to Varanasi or Allahabad, and take a bus or rent a taxi. I ended up taking the trains to Lucknow, and then renting a taxi through the back country to Bhagmalpur. Such trips afford a window into the lives of common people.

I have been running a small project in Bhagmalpur. This is my family’s village. We have several XO-1 laptops there, mostly donated by people who got these during the G1G1 phase. My stop in Bhagmalpur was for less than a week, which I documented here. It was largely a collection of setting up the Wi-Fi AP and a repeater, conducting wireless site surveys, some street mapping, installing 1300+ TED talks, 100+ books and 10GB of world music. We couldn’t set up Internet access because even though the equipment was there, the parents were wary of the things that lurked on the Internet, and wanted us to run a child-friendly filter.

After Bhagmalpur, I flew across the country from Varanasi to Mumbai, where I met up with Harriet Vidyasagar and a few other people who have worked with India’s first OLPC pilot in Khairat. With Harriet’s help, I plotted out a trip to Goa. There, we met up with Salil and Gayatri, who have been helping run the Goa projects. We met several people who are interested in increasing the footprint of OLPC in Goa. We also met with the people who run the current pilot locations. In Goa, I had the opportunity to present to the students at Goa University and at the Goa State Central Library , thanks to Frederick Noronha for organizing the meetup.

Then, we took an afternoon aside and Salil and I went through the details of the XS School Server version 0.7. This version relies the rock-solid foundation of CentOS 6. We set up a XS on his laptop using VirtualBox. My intentions were to use the VirtualBox version as a learning tool, but given that we were short on usable machines, we ended up using the virtual XS for backing up XOs at various schools.

One afternoon, I managed to get some time and visited my dear friend, Chebi Sabbah. It was easier to visit with him in Goa than it is in San Francisco!

With Chebi Sabbah in Goa

From Goa, we took a “sleeper bus” back to Mumbai, and met up with the team at Homi Bhabha Center for Science and Education. There, with the help of Nagarjuna G and his student Rafikh, we went to Khairat. This was my second trip to Khairat. The first was back in 2008. It was great to see Sandip Surve, the champion of a teacher, who has been running the village school and now working with a second cohort of children with the original XO-1 laptops! Some of the keyboards have ripped. Some of the plastic has cracked, but amazingly, they still work. The children have found ways to use pencil erasers to push at the keyboards where the keyboard rubber has gone missing. They love their TuxMath, their Maze, and some have taken to Etoys quite nicely! Sandip Surve is still plugging away. We spend the afternoon talking to him about the overall progress, his needs with repairs, and of course newer software. I had a XO-4 touch with me, that the children used to finger paint and draw objects in Physics. That afternoon, we used one of Salil’s virtual XS machines to register and backup all XOs at the Khairat school.

We headed back to Mumbai that afternoon, and after spending a couple of hours at the guest house at HBCSE, discussing future plans, I headed back to my cousin’s place in Mumbai, and flew back the next night to San Francisco.

Did I mention, it was a whirlwind of a trip?

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The little kid that could

This is Sumit, a little kid who lives next door from us in Bhagmalpur. I took this picture casually, as I walked the streets of the village back in 2003. I was amused by the tripod of a walker. It’s locally made, probably bought at the local faire, and it works well for what it’s supposed to do. It’s not something you’d find at your local Toys R Us, but then again, if you did, it would be in the retro throwback section, and would cost you a fortune!

Sumit and his tripod

Sumit and his tripod, circa 2003

Coming back to Sumit, I saw him again in January 2013. I didn’t know his name was Sumit, or he was the same kid in the picture! He showed a lot of interest in the XOs, the repair sessions, the reflashing, and installing new software. I asked him to help me with some minor tasks, like running a command, but he wanted to know the “why and how” of it. So, I explained to him how the datastore backup happens, and why it takes a random window of 30 minutes to backup (those who know ds-backup would know!). He was curious. He wanted to learn. This was surely not in his curriculum! Nor in a lesson plan! He had gotten the bug of curiosity, and that’s something I can relate to.

Eventually, Sumit helped me with installation, backup, running Python scripts, bash commands, rsync and such. He did a site survey of the village and helped us with installing the Wi-Fi access points. He took apart his XO laptop, repaired a WiFi antenna cable that had popped out, and put things back together. He learned how to access the server, install new Sugar activities, install the Hindi Wikipedia bundle, browse for a ton of offline TED talks, books and music, all  locally hosted on the server. In fact, given that I had a very short window to get a lot done, he became my point of distribution of information to the rest of the kids – a student assistant of sorts, and a fine one at that :-) Then, one day, he told me that the photo of the kid with a tripod was really him! How cool is that?!

Sumit helping with a Wi-Fi site survey

Sumit helping with a Wi-Fi site survey

Sumit repairing by flashlight

Sumit repairing by flashlight – we had no electricity.

Could any of this be possible, if we didn’t have OLPC laptops there? Probably not. The local private and parochial schools have “computer classes” where the computer is always broken, and the teacher never shows up, and the parents still pay for all that’s not delivered. A little green laptop is making a difference where it matters…and Sumit is the little kid that could.

sumit-2013

Sumit repairing a broken screen, circa 2013

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