Design for Isolated and Inexperienced user base

Dan McGarry it.psl at
Fri Mar 17 04:28:23 UTC 2006

[A few notes from someone who's doing exactly this in the neighbouring 
country of Vanuatu....]

Jonathan Carter wrote:
> Which model Thinkpads are those, btw? Have they been sourced yet? I
> would also suggest a laptop with a smaller display- since it would use
> slightly less power. Slower hard disks will help too, and making sure
> that the cpu scaling works is also important (Edubuntu should do it
> fine, but just make sure).

Sorry I didn't reply earlier in this thread, I've been out on the 
islands myself for a little while....

Laptops can be a significant problem in remote areas, especially where 
turnaround times in repairs can sometimes be months. The Pipol Fastaem 
(People First) network in the Solomon Islands uses refurbished laptops, 
and treats them as more or less disposable commodities. One dies? No 
problem, Chuck it away and send another.

Dust, ants, heat, humidity, geckos, rats and people are all hazards 
where this hardware is concerned. Plan for very short life times, and 
ensure that the line of (re)supply is reliable.

Also laptops are, er, portable, which often encourages certain 
individuals in the village to bring it home for 'safe-keeping'. It's 
then kept so safe that no one ever sees it again. 8^/

Personally, I've been leaning toward refurbished Mac Minis. Price is 
reasonable relative to the quality of the components, and power 
consumption is about 20 watts per unit (plus monitor) - which means they 
can be run very efficiently off alternative power sources.

>>Populating the desktop is a key question, what should go there (I'm
>>leaning toward home directory, gcompris, tux-math,

In practice, new users have very few problems finding their way around 
Ubuntu. The real obstacle is people who think computer == Windows(!). 
Making a few UI concessions based on that assumption will help smoothe 
the 'transition'.

>>From what you've explained, there'll be a high user to laptop ratio in
> the areas these laptops will go into. I think it's likely that the
> productivity tools will be high in demand, OpenOffice will probably be
> quite highly utilised. 

Our experience is:

1) Email/Webmail
2) Web
3) Music/Video
4) Word processing

[... big gap ...]
5) Spreadsheet
6) Graphics (See below)

The reasons for this are fairly straightforward. The promise of 
broadened and improved communications in an island environment (where 
mobility often equals opportunity) is universally compelling. Task 
automation is also seductive, but experience and sophistication with 
computers is limited, so every task consists of 'writing a letter' or 
'writing a public notice', etc. In other words, the analog/paper world 
pervades modes of thought.

> Something like Scribus might be of importance for
> community newsletters, etc. I would also include Inkscape, and of
> course, some documentation/turorials for all these packages. 

Our experience is that these two are very rarely used spontaneously. You 
might need to provide significant training to assist with building the 
spatial cognition skills that software like this sometimes requires.

As a general rule. Documentation is mostly ignored in Vanuatu, no matter 
its quality and the degree to which users are encouraged to use it. 
Learning is mostly oral/visual/ostensive here, and literacy levels are 
often very low. We've found peer learning is the best resource. Show a 
few people how to do things, and then sit them down, two to a computer, 
with their friends.

> I don't
> know what the mandate of the sponsor is, but if the communities have
> full autonomy over the use, I would assume that they'll address their
> primary ICT needs first. Will they have cell phones with GPRS
> connectivity? (that would be fantastic)

Internet is not bad at all in Fiji, at least on the main islands. 
They're on the Southern Cross fibre network. I suspect that all bets are 
off in the outer islands, though. For reference, Vanuatu has 19 Mb total 
for all voice and data, and Papua New Guinea has 10 (for a population of 
several million!).

>>I'm a bit concerned that the well meaning folks who've proposed this
>>donation haven't thought through how to really make use of the
>>resources we're handing out.   I'm hoping they have, but given my
>>rather vague marching orders... 

I'm afraid that's generally the case, from the highest levels right down 
to good-hearted people who pack boxes and pay for shipping themselves. 
I've spent two and half years trying to frame what ICT is all about in 
Vanuatu, and I'm only just starting to get traction. It's really 
frustrating sometimes seeing a dozen computers come off the ship and 
knowing that they'll all be dead or stolen (or both) within 6 months.

>>Worst case maybe I'll need to fly out to Fiji to run additional
>>training, there are worse things.

Training to new users in administrative support for computers in remote 
locations has been found to take between 3-6 months per person. I can't 
overstate the importance of this training, too. Where possible, train 
redundantly. Try to train 3 people for every position. On any given day, 
one will be away (or discomposed), and one will be sick.

Most of the problems encountered with computers in rural areas of 
Vanuatu are support-related, generally linked to little or no 
troubleshooting skills. I've taken a 3 pronged approach to coping with this:

1) Two-day troubleshooting workshop for *every* computer user. Compulsory.

2) Intensive training in simple repair and maintenance procedures for a 
few selected people who have demonstrated particular aptitude and 
interest in computers. Usually, these people are selected from the 

3) Cultivation and nourishment of the local IT community, with 
significant effort invested in instilling a sense of community spirit 
and peer support. (Note that this runs counter to common notions about 
learning and wisdom in Melanesia.)

Happy to chat at more length if you think it might be useful.

Dan McGarry	it.psl at

IT Consultant
Community Communications Project

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