The People, 1. Digicel, 0

Last week, I vented about Digicel blocking Skype and other VoIP applications, explaining how it’s not just that it’s inconvenient for me, but they shouldn’t be able to get away with what they’re doing.They don’t own the Internet.

Luckily, the Haitian government agrees with me! Conatel, the national telecom regulator, ordered them to open everything back up. Conatel didn’t go so far as to say, “Don’t block services on the Internet.” All it said was, “We’re the only guys allowed to decide which services on the Internet are blocked.” But hey, I’m counting this as a win.

Before Conatel stepped in, I had to turn to one of Jeanide’s friends, Thompson. He works in the big Digicel tower, on the same floor as the Haitian CEO, so I figured he’d have a solution. His recommendation? Download an “illegal” app, Hotspot Shield, to sneak around Digicel’s wall.

View from Digicel tower.

View from Thompson’s office.

Now, I don’t need the hotspot anymore. But I’m not deleting it from my phone yet. You never know when it might come in handy. Half of my job here is making the Internet work, and you always want to have as many things as possible in your bag of tricks.

More to See

The work continues here in Bois D’Avril. Every morning I have to pause for a moment on my way to the bathroom and just gape at the surrounding mountains. I wonder if the people here are as constantly struck by the beauty as I am – or if they’re too busy trying not to twist their ankle walking up the rocky road to look up and admire. Maybe the villagers feel the same way about technology. For me, it’s just something that wakes me up in the morning (cell phone alarm) and keeps me up at night (talking to other volunteers on Skype). But for them, it’s a new marvel.

Things are really too beautiful here.

Things are really too beautiful here.

Anyway, despite the distraction of the scenery training continues. Children have began participating in classes along with the teachers, which means the lesson sometimes has to pause for a moment while we help the younger ones find a menu option or something. Luckily, the teachers have started stepping in at those moments to assist with telling the kids where to click, and in the end I think that experience helping them can be valuable. Another thing that helps is seating the children in groups so that when you show one all the others follow. Still, we’re trying to structure the day now so teachers arrive an hour before and get some more advanced learning in before the kids arrive.

Ruben explains what we're about to do.

Ruben explains what we’re about to do.

Let's see if the students can do it on their own now.

Let’s see if the students can do it on their own now.

IMG_0195 (Medium)

We end the first day of training with a special treat: spaghetti.

We end the first day of training with a special treat: spaghetti for everyone!

Jeanide and Ruben are both from the city, so being up here is a new experience for them. I know Ruben’s enjoyed the chance to talk with a fellow school director about the difficulties of getting an institution up and running. They were joking the other day about how much of a pain getting registered is. Christelle said, “I don’t want Martelly to come down here and tell me what to do.”

Hot water bottles keep Ruben's bed nice and toasty.

Hot water bottles keep Ruben’s bed nice and toasty.

Jeanide’s been giving Christelle her own recommendations for the school, helping her prepare a list of guidelines to parents. And when the kids struggled with a basic geography game, she sat down after class and hand-drew a map of Haiti, labeling all the departments.

Jeanide traces the outline.

Jeanide traces the outline.

More help arrives as the teachers join in.

Teachers see what she’s doing and start helping out.

Meanwhile, I’m just trying to soak it all in. I’ve always been interested in spending more time in small, isolated villages like this here in Haiti. It’s a struggle to bring technology here – people lack experience and exposure to even basics like cell phones, and there’s certainly no electricity, and the young professionals we’d like to hire as teachers have already left for the city. But I think if we can get a computer program to work in a place like this, we can get it to work anywhere. Of course, Bois D’Avril has a few advantages the other schools don’t because of Deb and John’s generosity. Here, for example, the cycle’s been reversed – Deb and John provide the teachers with a living space, enabling them to leave their homes down in the capital to come help the community here. Otherwise, it would be insane for them to just move into a random village where they didn’t know anyone – these places are so tightly-knit that an outsider would have a lot of problems and worries.

Off on an adventure.

Off on an adventure.

Terraced farming on the slopes.

Terraced farming on the slopes.

See the scarecrow?

See the scarecrow?

These guys passed us on the road.

These guys passed us on the road.

Random house on a hill, all by itself.

Random house on a hill, all by itself.

Coming in to the village.

Coming in to the village.

I’ve still got a lot of learning to do about all the diverse places that make up this country. That’s one job that will never be done.

Patchwork countryside.

Patchwork countryside.

Delmas 28 Launch

We just got done launching our second project with Ken Bever and Hope for Haiti’s Children at the College Chrétien de Delmas. This school has 580 students, from pre-K all the way up to the last year of high school, and nursing students also use the space to meet. Now, it’s also home to 25 XO laptops and our Internet-in-a-Box system.

Jeanide, Fefe, and I ran training together, and now Fefe’s going to be responsible for keeping the program going. Fefe already has three months of experience giving the XO course in Cazeau, so I know everything’s going to be in good hands. Jean Tirard, director of the school and church, is really excited about this new opportunity, and I am, too.

Laptop "seminar" participants

Laptop “seminar” participants

Jeanide goes over the parts of the computer.

Jeanide goes over the parts of the computer.

The fact that the school includes a wider range of ages means it’s easy to find apprentices – teenagers between 14 and 17 years old who really have a passion for technology. Around the world, the best programs are the ones that give these young enthusiasts the chance to mess around and inspire others. Resources like Internet-in-a-Box can also be useful for professionals like these nursing students who want to do research. Overall, I think the laptops are going to be used really heavily here, in a wide variety of ways, and I’m looking forward on hearing about the results.

It’s always a pleasure to work with Hope for Haiti’s Children. They support local directors like Jean Tirard with the resources they need, but also give them the freedom they need to get things done. I know from experience it’s a tough balancing act, and I’m always impressed when organizations manage to get it right.

The Hills Are Alive

Today Ruben, Jeanide, and I headed up to Bois D’Avril, a small village in the mountains outside Port-au-Prince, near a town called Kenscoff. We’re staying with the Currelly’s, a Canadian couple who have been living here for thirty years. The local school here is receiving 10 laptops, and we’re also setting up Internet-in-a-Box. Shoutout to Nancie Severs, who was the first to realize this is a good home for our machines and got everyone together to make it happen.

Adam’s stayed here before and described it as a Swiss villa. I figured he was just exaggerating like always, but now that I’m here I certainly do feel a sudden urge to start belting out, “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” Up here at 6,000 feet, you get quite a view. Also, John and Deb have done their best over time to make things comfortable for visitors and the many animals who also live here.

This wouldn't be an Internet site without at least one cat picture.

This wouldn’t be an Internet site without at least one cat picture.

101 Dalmatians, minus 100

101 Dalmatians, minus 100

Jeanide meets Bony.

Jeanide meets Bony.

Check out the winding road on that mountain.

Check out the winding road on that mountain.

Another view of the compound.

Another view of the compound.

We’re also smack-dab in the middle of a cloudbank – at times, you can’t see any of the surrounding countryside because it’s blocked by fog. Less sun and a higher altitude also means the temperature’s below 70 here. That’s the coldest Jeanide and Ruben have ever been. I’ve been cracking up seeing them wandering around in bulky coats.

Ruben all bundled up.

Ruben all bundled up.

Fog rolling in.

Fog rolling in.

So far, we’ve just tinkered around with the server, walked around the village, met the directors and teachers, and given people a brief introduction to the XOs. Wait, I guess that was actually a lot of work after all.

Teachers getting familiar with the computers.

Teachers getting familiar with the computers.

Setting up the server.

Setting up the server.

Internet troubles are less frustrating when this is the view from your workstation.

Internet troubles are less frustrating when this is the view from your workstation.

Not Just An Inconvenience. An Outrage.

Last night, I was sitting in a local park, preparing to connect with the leader of our Lascahobas team on Skype first, and then our intern who’s coming down in September next. I was looking forward to the chance to get updates from everyone and answer their questions – it was going to be a long and valuable night of talking.

I’d had difficulties with Skype on my phone before, but I wasn’t expecting any problems now. I had borrowed my friend’s USB modem to stick inside my computer and bought a new SIM card for it: I was using the recommended equipment in a place that had a good connection. Email, Facebook, and all my other web pages were loading fine.

So, when Skype wasn’t letting me log in, I clicked on the “Forgot password” link, thinking it might be something with that. The page didn’t load, so I just typed in skype.com. That page didn’t load either.

I told my boss we’d have to talk on Google Hangouts instead of Skype, since the service seemed to be down for me. We tried to start a conversation, but every call was interrupted by a “network problem.” Google recommended that I check my firewalls.

A friend had recommended ooVoo, a low-bandwidth chat service. On a hunch, I decided to try downloading it. But again, not even the ooVoo webpage would load. Even Facebook videochat services “were not available at this time.”

“Digicel hates all forms of voice communication,” I typed to Adam. He said it made sense – no Skype for me means more money for them. If I can’t use VoIP services to make calls using the Internet, I’d have to pay to do the same thing with my phone.

Natcom, the other telco, has been giving me no problems whatsoever on the same computer. I joked with my friend that I was ready to start preparing the protest signs against Digicel’s new policy of not letting me talk to anyone, but I wasn’t quite ready to cry conspiracy until I happened to glance at an article in the tourist newspaper I picked up in the airport last week, Lakay Weekly.

“Digicel blocks VOIP applications running unlicensed in Haiti,” the title reads. The article mentions Viber, Tango, and Nimbuzz as some of the services targeted, conveniently leaving out more popular things like Skype. Apparently, “this measure was taken in order to recover the millions in lost tax revenue.” The president of Digicel, Maarten Boute, tries to explain it in a way people would understand: “A consumer does not expect to go into a supermarket and pick up the goods for free on the shelves, so these VOIP operators should be forced to pay their share.”

Except, Digicel doesn’t own the Internet. I pay them $25 a month in order to connect using their towers. That’s all the money they should be getting – website owners and applications shouldn’t have to pay so that I can access them on Digicel’s network. These licenses are bogus. Are Facebook, Google, and Youtube paying for the privilege of not being blocked by Digicel?

This has gone far beyond the point of me just complaining about an inconvenience. Here’s the thing: I understand and accept that my Internet signal won’t be strong everywhere I go. That’s just life. But when I do have it, I naturally expect to have full access to services, without them or me having to pay extra. Explaining it to my friend last night, I said, “I work for an organization called Unleash Kids. ‘Unleash Kids’ basically means give children liberty. That means I value freedom. Digicel’s taking away my freedom.”

One time, I was interviewing with a really liberal college and the guy across the table called the work I do “social justice.” I explained that’s not really how I see what I’m doing. My brother’s the political one in the family. He’s concerned about the government; I work with “nongovernmental” organizations.

In my last post about things not working, I tried to be light-hearted about the technical difficulties I experience here in Haiti. Bumpy roads and delays are just part of the experience. But now that I’ve been involved here for a while, the sense of adventure is wearing off. Putting up with it, saying “that’s just Haiti” and shrugging, that won’t work. It’s time to start pointing fingers. It’s time to fight circumstances instead of just adapting to them. Revolution, not evolution. The money is there to fix the roads. Digicel shouldn’t ask for money to make Skype available. Someone’s at least partially responsible, and certainly accountable, for everything that’s going wrong here.

But I’m just the crazy white girl who comes here and tries to make things happen. If there’s going to be real change, Haitians have to move from “Oh yeah, Digicel’s been giving me problems” to “Digicel shouldn’t be blocking access to services.” They can’t make that transition if they don’t know what’s going on – I only know this is happening because I happened to grab that paper in the airport and glance at it this morning.

In the end, poverty and everything that goes along with it is truly, partly an information problem. Before people can start to care, they need to know.

Special Report: Thomazeau

Back in 2008, One Laptop Per Child decided to launch pilot projects in four Haitian towns: Kenscoff, Lascahobas, Jacmel, and Thomazeau. I’ll be working with a school that received laptops in Lascahobas in a few weeks. This is the Thomazeau report.

Thomazeau’s a small village that would technically be a suburb of Port-au-Prince if the road wasn’t so bad that it takes an hour and a half to get there. As you can see, it’s between two huge lakes, one salty and one fresh, but otherwise the climate is extremely dry, since the mountains block the rain. Walking down the rocky road to the village, we pass cactus and almost stepped on lizards several times.

Path from the orphanage to the town.

Path from the orphanage to the town.

Cactus specimen.

Cactus specimen.

Right after we pass underneath the “Bienvenue” sign, there are three walls on the left painted with the names of the schools behind them. My escort, Jean, points to two right next to each other. One is the national school, EFA-CAP. The other is a private one run by a church, appropriately named L’Ecole Batiste Conservatif. EFACAP is closed, but the director of the other one, Msye Nerva Occus, just happens to be grabbing a soda from the shop next door.

I have Fefe, one of the Cazeau programs teachers, with me, and together we attempt to explain who we are and why we’re here. Msye Occus is happy to talk about his experience.

“The kids were so happy to start out with the computers. One Laptop Per Child used to send their people here, to do training, but that stopped after a few months, because they weren’t getting paid. So everything ended.”

Fefe’s listening closely. “You must have felt abandoned.”

The director nods, and explains that his own teachers never learned how to use the machines. One Laptop Per Child just worked directly with the kids, which was fine until they didn’t come anymore.

That’s when I jump in and explain how Unleash Kids does its best to provide all our teachers with training and materials for support. I suggest that we could do a few sessions with his own staff.

Msye Occus is skeptical at first. “And we won’t need to pay for this?” I explain that nope, all we want is for the teachers to work with the kids once they’ve mastered things themselves.

The next morning, Ken Bever drives the Hope for Haiti’s Children truck down and we load the computers up so I can take them back to the orphanage to fix.

38 boxes, 1 truck.

38 boxes, 1 truck.

“You’re going to take all of them?” Msye Occus asks. I explain that we want to fix as many as possible. “I don’t think there are any that need to be fixed – they’re all working,” Msye Occus tells me. I just sit back and watch as box after box emerges from the school’s storage room. I knew to expect at least 100, but even I’m a little surprised when they just keep coming.

I attempt to explain to the group of kids who’ve gathered to watch that we aren’t taking the computers, just bringing them to the orphanage to fix because that’s where we’ve got a constant supply of electricity. Msye Occus mentions that some of them wanted to take computers home for the summer, but he’s worried the laptops would get lost or damaged. He hitches a ride in the truck up to the orphanage, to make sure they’re protected the whole way. Despite lots of rope securing everything and two people riding in the back to keep an eye, one of the boxes falls off and a laptop’s handle breaks.

As we’re unloading at the orphanage, I go over more details with Msye Occus about the training, our customized software, and our course guide. At the very end, he thanks me for what I’m doing, and then heads back down the hill. I turn to the wall of laptops. I’m amazed he managed to trust me so fast to take care of all these machines. I’ve never actually seen so many at once.

I get to work, and over the next 2 days, with some help from Fefe and Jeanide, we manage to unlock all 265 machines. Msye Occus has taken good care of them – every single one can turn on all by itself, and only 10 chargers are missing.

Jeanide and I hard at work  on our assembly-line.

Jeanide and I hard at work on our assembly-line.

Walking back into town to drop Jeanide at the bus stop it starts raining. Jeanide pulls out an umbrella and tells me about how her doctor told her wearing wet clothes makes her sick. I let myself get soaked and marvel on the way back at the plants and animals coming to life. Jean tells me it only rains every three months here. I ask how anything can manage to grow with such infrequent hydration. He explains that every time they get a little taste they grow a little, then they just sit and wait for the next storm.

I’ve planted trees in the desert before, and I know how hard it is for things to last. So many steps are required. The assembly line of all those laptops we just fixed actually reminded me a lot of all those seeds we planted. You keep trying, but it’s so difficult to introduce something that’s not suited to the environment.

But it’s not always dry here. Ironically, on occasion they need to evacuate people from the desert due to flooding. The two lakes overflow and spread across the plains. That was One Laptop Per Child’s solution to introducing technology to places like Haiti: inundation. Literally give one laptop to every child, so that no one’s left out, so you can make a big splash.

I walk into the village to add minutes to my phone. Along the way I try talking to people on the streets about the project, I don’t get the responses I’m expecting. People remember seeing students with the green and white laptops in their hands, but most don’t have an opinion about the project. One woman drinking coffee in the market smiles and starts dancing. “Back when the kids had the laptops, I heard some great songs coming from them,” she says with a grin.

We think that the things we’re doing here make such a big difference – but even 265 laptops won’t be anything more than oversized iPods unless someone commits to sustaining them as much as you’d commit to keeping a tree alive in the desert.

Sustainability is a buzzword that’s so easy to throw around. Here, more and more I’m seeing that it means moving slowly, letting things develop naturally a little bit at a time. That’s how people are used to doing things here, after all. When I finally find a guy who can help me put minutes on, he apologizes that he’s not able to accept my 500-goud bill (about $13 American). No buying in bulk here. On my way back up, I pass a whole neighborhood of unfinished houses. They’re a common sight here. People build them up one brick at a time.

Half-finished house.

Half-finished house.

When I reach the top, I stare for a long time at the lakes, the lights of Port-au-Prince in the distance, and the mountains rising. Then I go back to work. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a USB drive to do software updates.

Correction: Originally I stated that the pilot projects were launched after the earthquake; in fact they were launched in 2008 and a team from MIT visited again to check up on things in 2011.

When Things Don’t Work

While I’m working in Haiti, I use an unlocked Moto G smartphone to make calls and connect to the Internet. There’s two big telco companies here, Digicel and Natcom. Digicel’s the larger one, and it’s actually probably the largest company in Haiti. People joke that if they could run for president, they’d be elected (the Haitian government might own large chunks of the country anyway – at the very least, they’ve got connections).

All the vendors on the street take shelter under bright red Digicel umbrellas, and on every corner you can find a “Pap Padap” vendor. “Pap Padap” roughly translates to “Don’t get cut off” and you can recognize these guys by their red Digicel aprons. You hand them some money, they put it in their apron and type your number into their phone, and the money shows up in your account (minus a little bit for taxes).

Yep, it’s pretty nice to have access to all my contacts, maps, emails, and webpages in the palm of my hand…as long as it’s all working. In terms of Internet, I don’t have 3G coverage in all parts of the country – sometimes it’s just a little slower, and sometimes it’s so painfully slow that I don’t bother at all. I know, it’s pretty miraculous that I have a connection at all, but when you depend on the Internet to communicate with others working on the project and to test your equipment, it can get really frustrating when it’s not there.

Even more frustratingly, over the past week or so I’ve been having issues with my phone. Crossing over the border from the Dominican always gives issues, of course (you’re changing from the roaming network to the proper Haitian one); when I went over last week and calls weren’t going through I just blamed it on that transition. But hours later when I was still having problems (I made calls, but the people on the other end couldn’t hear me), I tried putting my SIM into someone else’s phone. Things worked fine then, so I knew it had to be a problem with my phone itself.

Sure enough, a few minutes later I got a vague message about how I had to accept updates for service to continue. A few minutes later, I actually received the updates. Now, I’ve got multiple APNs: one labeled “Internet” with the familiar “web.digicelha.com” but another for wap (“wap.digicelha.com”) and one more for MMS (“wap.digicelha.com” again, this is the Haitian version of SMS).
I just keep the dot on “Internet” and everything works fine, but it can be really scary when something so essential to all our operations, my phone, inexplicably ceases to function. It’s not like life would end if I lost it, dropped it in a puddle, had it stolen…I’ve got phone numbers memorized and written down, and all my contacts would just have to learn a new number, and I’d have to buy Internet again. But since this thing is with me all the time and is my one link to anything and everything, I’ve gotten pretty attached to it.

Addiction / dependency is just a side effect of technology use, I guess. Last trip, my computer screen broke, just in the corner, and I got a little taste of what it would feel like to lose the thing I use to write blog posts, do research, etc…

I had another scare just a few days ago, when I was testing out some of our Internet connection equipment. I put my phone card inside one of the routers, since it’s also an Internet card. Then when I tried to take it out, I discovered it was stuck inside.

Cue stressful search for someone with a special screwdriver that could open the weird screws on the box. After checking with auto and motorcycle repair guys, we finally found the guy on the street in charge of fixing cell phones. It wasn’t easy, but he managed to get the screws out, open up the box, and get the SIM out – without damaging anything either. I paid him $2.50 for his work and gave a big sigh of relief.
The quest isn’t over – after buying a new SIM card (my phone one was too small and the converter just got jammed inside) we’re still having issues getting this router connected to either the Digicel or Natcom Internet. I’ll be trying some more ideas over the next few days. Now that I’m not using my own personal SIM for testing hopefully this won’t happen again…but as people joke with me often in Haiti, “pwoblem pa janm fini.” I’m sure I’ll have more problems and solutions to report later on.

Anyone who thinks technology is going to make life easier…yeah, okay, you’re still right, but someone had to go through a lot of trouble first.

xkcd.com does a good job explaining it