Tag Archives: internet

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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Filed under books, children, education, hardware, network, school, software, tech

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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Filed under education, general, hardware, network, software, tech