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Making a difference one laptop at a time

Oct. 21, 2010 -- As a child, Professor Sameer Verma spent many days in Bhagmalpur, his mother's home in northeastern India.

A photo of Sameer Verma with an XO laptop.

Associate Professor of Information Systems Sameer Verma with an XO laptop.

Bhagmalpur is a quiet village with clean air and the ills that sometimes befall those in the developing world. The village has electricity just two hours each day and classrooms often lack blackboards. Classes are held outside under trees and parents send their children to school not for the education, Verma says, but because the children are given a free lunch.

Bhagmalpur is also one of the areas where Verma works with One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a nonprofit organization that oversees the creation and distribution of low-cost, low-power, durable laptops in the developing world. To date more than 2 million of the green XO laptops have been delivered in the developing world.  

"I didn't live in that poverty, but it was very close to me," said Verma, an associate professor of information systems. "I think of that as the demand side. I sit here in San Francisco with this supply of technology available, but the supply and demand can't meet because the pipeline is so long. The driving force for me is not the technology, but knowing where the technology should go and having an appreciation for how hard it is for those people."

He hopes that the access to information, made possible by the laptops, will help locals deal with problems like stagnant water near their homes, which could be solved through education. 

"If they only had a little more information, they could solve their own issues and not have to deal with poor health," Verma said. "That personalizes the problem for me. In my professional career, I don't think I've come across something that has grounded me so much. I really think this can work, and knowing how this can make a difference is what keeps me going." 

Verma first volunteered with OLPC in July 2007, and since then has become the chief organizer of OLPC San Francisco, a loose network of independent groups working on OLPC projects. Verma is involved with projects in India, Madagascar and Jamaica. The Jamaica project, which is run in conjunction with the University of the West Indies, received 115 laptops last week. The laptops run on an open source operating system and  come loaded with Wikipedia, books and other open-source software that allows users to develop new programs to suit their needs.

Before donating the laptops, Verma and OLPC volunteers conduct studies with local officials, taking stock of infrastructure, educational goals and other issues. More research, like the kind Verma hopes to carry out in India, must be done to quantify the effects of the laptops once they are donated. Verma and other OLPC volunteers will be at SF State's Downtown Campus Oct. 22-24 for the OLPC San Francisco Community Summit 2010, where OLPC volunteers will convene to share best practices and information about projects around the world. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has declared Oct. 23 One Laptop Per Child Day, in honor of the conference.

In addition to Verma's work, Assistant Professor of International Business Hamira Mahi is involved with a project in India, Professor of Computer Science Barry Levine and his students are translating software into Armenian and Associate Professor of Elementary Education Ali Borjian and his students are looking at the local impact of the program. XO laptops are also available for checkout in the J. Paul Leonard Library.

Verma's office has become a storage area for projects related to OLPC -- a solar-powered data center destined for sub-Saharan Africa, a mass laptop charging station made from PVC pipe and his own XO laptop hangs on the wall.

In the next few years, he hopes to turn his attention to underserved communities in the Bay Area that could benefit from access to the laptops. For now, he is moving forward with plans to bring laptops to Bhagmalpur in December.

For more information about the OLPCSF Community Summit, visit http://olpcsf.org/CommunitySummit2010/

-- Michael Bruntz


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