Crowdsourcing Innovation: Cliff Missen, Widernet

Crowdfunding sites are offering a new path for inventors with original ideas. We talk to inventors looking to gain the public’s favour...

Crowdfunding sites are offering a new path for inventors with original ideas. We talk to inventors looking to gain the public’s favour...

[image_library_tag c5df4b1d-a8c5-4593-96ee-696a84bdf9e6 270x167 alt="100-5866" title="100-5866" width="270" height="167"class="left "] Name: Cliff Missen

 Job title: Director, WiderNet Project.  Professor, Information and Library Science

 Organisation: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

 Location: Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  USA


Product:  eGranary Pocket Libraries

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What it does & how it works: 
Custom collections containing 100,000 educational resources for people who lack internet connectivity. Built-in search engine and Web 2.0 tools.

What makes it special? 
Five billion people lack adequate access to the internet (or a library for that matter.)  These chip-sized collections turn any hand-held device or laptop into an education station.

What’s your background, and what inspired you to come up with the idea? 
I’ve lived and worked across Africa since 1982, in some of the most remote areas as well as urban universities. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve met brilliant people with few resources to grow on.  Fifteen years ago I invented the eGranary Digital Library, which has grown into an off-line collection of 2,700 Web sites containing 32 million resources (Wikipedia, MIT OpenCourseware, the Gutenberg Project, Khan Academy…) It is now installed at over 1,000 sites worldwide, including some U.S. prisons.   eGranary Pocket Libraries are a natural extension of this concept that will enable us to reach billions of people using handheld devices.

Why choose IndieGoGo?
Indiegogo has a reputation of attracting people more interested in supporting social good rather than new gadgets.  Our project is more about building social capital and training librarians in the developing world. 

Is Crowdfunding good for innovation? How so?
We’re discovering this now.  It provides a platform that has a broad reach and certainly helps to focus our staff and volunteers on the fundraising process.

Reactions from users on IGG so far?
Most of our reactions have been from friends and family… folks already on our email lists.  Despite articles on Mashable, in the Christian Science Monitor, and tweets from heavyweights like Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, we have yet to make a big impact.

What lessons have you learned from your campaign?
It is not for the faint of heart.  In our first small campaign a couple years ago, fundraising for the Dalai Lama’s college in India, we wound up raising money from the usual suspects: friends and family.  Now we’re trying to reach a wider audience.  We’re getting plenty of advice from old hands on tricks to the trade.  It’s not as simple as putting up a site and making a convincing pitch.  From what we’ve discovered, most of the sites that go viral already have solid campaigns, every bit as complicated as a conventional fundraiser, planned and paid for before the IGG campaign even starts.

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What sort of information is stored on eGranaries, who do they provide for, and where are they located?
eGranaries are all over Africa, India, and Asia (especially Papua New Guinea!) , in secondary schools, universities, hospitals, libraries, and clinics.  They contain 250+ open source journals, the entire Wikipedia (including the media), thousands of videos, full-length movies, radio programs, textbooks.  Over 30,000 books have been catalogued so far and there are hundreds of pieces of downloadable software.   They also contain tools that allow users to make their own Web pages, upload local content (in any language), and create Moodle course modules.

What are some of the challenges in providing information to under-serviced areas and what kind of difference does access to this much information make to people’s lives?
The poorest schools can’t afford technical staff and their electricity is very unreliable.  So we have to make the eGranary as bullet-proof as possible and we’ve developed battery-powered solutions.  First time users cannot believe two things: that so much information exists AND that they can use it for free.  In Zambia, medical students got used so used to the eGranary at their medical college that they had to install one at all their rotation sites as well. Dr. Bonny Norton of the University of British Columbia has written several papers on how Ugandan students’ self-perception is dramatically improved when they have access to information and they spread what they learn around their communities.  One testimonial about the eGranary: two-thirds of those who purchase an eGranary have already installed on and are coming back to install more.

How has the rise of mobiles, tablets and mini-computers affected your mission?
Most people with phones in developing countries have “feature phones” that can only place calls and do text messaging.  Only about 15% of the devices are internet compatible and only the wealthiest people can afford the very expensive internet connectivity charges.  We see lots of need for hybrid information access for the long term.  There are millions of new tablets, laptops, and smartphones being sold into developing countries every year.  Still, most people who buy these devices face “bandwidth blackmail”: they can only have access to information through very expensive and economically extractive systems.  We bridge that gap by storing the seeds of knowledge (hence the eGranary) right in their hands.

What’s your thoughts on companies like Facebook and Google working on projects to under-connected regions? Do these kinds of projects compliment what you’re trying to do?
If (and that’s a big IF) any of these ideas actually come to fruition, it’s unlikely that the shareholders of these companies would forego the profits of serving the very rich (every country has them) and instead give away their services to the poor.  They wrap their pipe dreams in the mantle of “serving the poor” when they have NO track record of doing this, even in their home communities.  Nobody I know is getting their internet from a balloon or a drone.  Dozens of proposals for low-orbit satellites have been floating around for years. What most of these projects do is suck the oxygen out of the room.  The 800-pound corporate gorillas plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of local officials who abandon their more practical plans for some “magic bullet” from a foreign corporation that vastly underestimates what it would actually take to wire up a continent like Africa (which is larger than the U.S., Europe, and China combined.)

If, by some miracle, these groups actually do deploy something useful, we’d be the first to sign on and leverage their services.

Possible business use/advantage?
We’re librarians. We listen to our patrons, do our best to understand their needs, we organize things to make them findable, and we teach people how to access and use information.  In all the centuries libraries have existed, they have provided an invaluable service… but not made money.

On the other hand, those who use libraries take their newfound knowledge and turn it into business opportunities. Information and library services add value and create opportunity.  Education empowers. That being said, we work with young, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy people in developing countries to empower them to make a living promoting and installing eGranaries, providing valuable hands-on and culturally appropriate trading to their communities.

What next for the company and the product?
Our non-profit’s key focus is improving information access for billions of underserved people.  In many of the places we work, this is now taking the form of training information scientists and librarians to make similar collections for their communities and language groups.  We’re training teachers to use digital information to expand their students’ universe.  And, as always, we’re working with content providers to encourage them to share their information more broadly with those who cannot access the Web.


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