COMPUTING

Bridging the digital divide for developing countries

The BingBee, a touch pad which was developed four years ago to help bridge the digital divide and give poorer communities access to computer technology, is a success at the site where it was established in Grahamstown say its creators.

BingBee was the brainchild of Rhodes Computer Science professor Peter Wentworth. The idea was to provide an information kiosk designed to improve literacy and numeracy skills in children through entertainment.

The "computers" are installed behind a secure window in the kiosk but children can operate it from outside the building through a touch pad. This means it can be used in areas where such equipment would normally be susceptible to vandalism or theft.

Four years ago, the technology was billed as cheap. The touch pads cost just R7 and, unlike most school computer labs, a BingBee site can be left completely unattended.

It remains available at all hours, it automatically turns on or off on a programmable schedule, and is centrally manageable via the Internet.

It was meant to provide broader access to information technology resources, especially in areas where such access was non-existent. Has it worked? Centre for Social Development (CSD) director Cathy Gush gives an unequivocal: "Yes". But it hasn't been smooth sailing. "We have had our hiccups. But it is really needed and utilised in the community and we fully intend keeping it going."

The BingBee was launched in partnership with the CSD and the site of the first information kiosk with 10computers was the Raglan Road Multipurpose Community Centre (MPC). The MPC has a pre-school and serves as a training centre for the surrounding community.

Unfortunately, the kiosk hasn’t been as vandal-proof as hoped and those determined enough have managed to do some damage. But the CSD and its partners are not giving up. "We have recently again revitalised and resuscitated the BingBee with the help of Professor Wentworth," says Gush. "We are also working with him and the Rhodes Education Faculty to develop new material."

She said it was vital to get the community to buy into the project to cut back on the vandalism that has sometimes bedevilled it.

And there are plans to expand the BingBee concept to a multi-purpose centre in Bathurst if funding can be found.

"It is a great concept and deserves all the support it can get," says Gush. "It has had its problems but all the stakeholders are doing their bit to make it sustainable."

The children clearly agree. The facebrick kiosk at Raglan Road is always a hive of activity with numerous children playing on the 10 computers.

The Raglan Road MPC manager Thembakazi Seyisi says the children love it.

And teachers in schools in Fingo Village also take their children to the kiosk to play and learn with BingBee.

"It's such a useful tool for us," says Seyisi. "Children get tired of being in the library or in the classroom learning about computers without seeing them. This is practical.

"They come here where there are interesting games to play and things to see on BingBee."

Gush said Unicef and the provincial Department of Social Development were due to visit the Raglan Road MPC this week and would also be looking at the BingBee.

Daily Dispatch

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