In true Wikinomics spirit, every year Microsoft’s Imagine Cup challenges students around the world to dream up new ways to use technology to solve some of the planet’s toughest problems. Participation in the contest has soared from less than 1,000 student competitors when the competition began in 2003 to more than 325,000 students in 2010.
All of the winners from this year’s competition display tremendous creativity, but one of my favorites is the OneBeep software program from New Zealand. The clever code was the work of four final-year undergraduates of the University of Auckland, who are studying computer systems and electrical engineering. The group focused on the goal of universal primary education, and developed a way to send educational data over standard radio waves to far-flung, impoverished communities. For example, a 10-page Word document could be distributed to 5,000 students scattered across Rwanda in less than 10 minutes.
The genius of the program is that it exploits the existing radio station infrastructure that can be found almost anywhere in the world, including the remotest regions. The program works with any digital data, ranging from simple text files or an Excel document, through to images, videos and software. The software converts the digital data into audio “beeps.” Any radio station that can transmit sound (be it at HF,UHF,VHF,FM,AM) can use the system. On the receiving end, the user plugs a portable radio into a computer using the receiver’s earphone jack. The software on the laptop converts the audio signals back to the original digital data.
The system is designed for countries that have little or no connectivity, such as broadband, internet or satellite links. Programs such as Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child initiative can get laptops into remote communities, but without being able to go online it is exceptionally difficult to keep the laptops’ content updated. OneBeep offers a cheap workaround. Since OLPC laptops have local wireless connectivity, one updated laptop in a community can update all the others in that location.
With the software in place, it is much easier for local governments or NGOs to distribute material such as native language educational content. And the system can be used to raise awareness and provide solutions to tackle some critical health issues such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and typhoid.
Until computers in remote regions can go online, OneBeep is an inspired stopgap measure to give isolated communities a window into the digital world.