No Hotel, Tent:
The International Children’s Digital Library Goes to
Human-Computer Interaction Lab
Computer Science Department
I am sitting in a room with 35 people. We are launching the
Mongolia READ project – Rural Education and Development, funded by a grant from
the World Bank. The room is in a camp of 10 “gers” (similar to “yurts” found in
other countries) an hour drive from Ulaan Baatar, the capital of
The International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL – www.childrenslibrary.org) is in
I arrived in camp here for the project kick-off meeting last night some time after midnight – after flying for 18 hours on 3 planes that took about 24 hours of real time and 36 hours of wall clock time – ending in a surreal fast midnight drive into the Mongolian mountains. It was somewhat unsettling because I had been expecting to go to a hotel in the city. But the driver that picked me up said “no hotel, tent” and proceeded to drive right through the city and he kept going, and going, and going – all without speaking another word. Although he did stop at a small market to buy soda, vodka and cigarettes.
We arrived after midnight in 50° weather to a camp of gers – round nomadic tents about 15 feet in diameter. I was led inside to a toasty wood-stove heated beautiful interior to see Charlie and Cristobal sound asleep, two of my colleagues from the World Bank. I was led to a bed in the dark. I lay down in the profound quite and exhaled. I continued to hear the buzz of jet engines and travel ringing in my ear – and the imagined images of the Mongolian countryside, which I had yet to see due to the dark as I drifted to sleep.
This unlikely collaboration between an academic computer
scientist and this international development project actually makes complete
sense. I am one of three leaders of the ICDL project, along with Allison Druin
and Ann Weeks also at the
About 9 months ago, the World Bank called us. We shared experiences over several meetings and finally were able to figure out how we could create and deploy a Mongolian version of the ICDL as well as train Mongolians to scan books, enter metadata about the books, and use the library creatively in elementary classrooms. And the Mongolian books would also be added to the world-wide version that we would continue to host.
Deployment of the ICDL, naturally, is complicated. Not only
So, here I am at the kick-off meeting. There are 35 people
from the government, the rural “aimags” (provinces), education specialists,
NGOs, the World Bank, and me. Squeezed around tables at the edge of the room
looking at PowerPoint presentations in Mongolian with a translator
painstakingly and slowly translating from English to Mongolian (and
occasionally the other way). Mongolian is unlike any language I have heard –
except Inupiaq, the language of the Inupiat, the Alaskan Eskimos – a group I
lived with for a year in 1986. They also look somewhat like each other – which
isn’t really that surprising in retrospect because the Inupiat walked over the
Siberian land bridge about 10,000 years ago when more water was frozen and
ocean levels were lower. And
Despite going to sleep well after midnight, I woke up at
5:30am. I restarted the fire to warm up the now freezing ger. Charlie was awake
too, and so we went for a walk up the foothills surrounding the camp. With my
first real view of
Breakfast was “tsai”, cream of wheat, and a sandwich of liverwurst and coleslaw. The tsai was a tea I had never tasted – made with milk and salt, but no sugar. Revitalized, I was ready for a day of meetings in Mongolian with eagerness to learn more details about the broader project. When lunch came around, I learned that Mongolians really like to eat. I was full after a meat plate and steamed dumplings followed by rich beef and vegetable soup. And then lunch came – a huge plate of steamed lamb dumplings and fried breaded beef patties. We joked about the high quality beef which was hormone-free, antibiotic-free, free range, natural grass fed – as is all meat here.
I gave my talk about ICDL in the afternoon, including a demo of the Mongolian version (running off my laptop). The disruption of translation made it hard to stay in the flow, but it seemed to go well. The digital library is a very small part of the larger project which focuses on improving rural literacy with a 3-pronged approach:
The schools being targeted have a dropout rate of about 60% by 5th grade, compared to near 0% in the capital. So while the goals may appear basic, they are in fact of fundamental importance.
They also bring to light the challenges of deploying a digital library. Yet there is real interest in pushing forward technological solutions alongside the traditional. The audience included 2 aimag governors, and several governor aides. There were a number of questions and discussion about the ICDL. Perhaps the most interesting of which was to ask if we had songs in the ICDL since children universally love to sing. I sadly had to say no – but it is a great idea.
When it was finally acceptable to go to bed (around 9pm), I was beyond ready. Deeply asleep seconds after lying down, I was more than a little disturbed to be awoken at 11pm by loud disco music. Thinking it was perhaps the camp staff, I got up to ask them to turn the music off. But I found instead nearly the entire camp dancing and drinking in an energetic party. My point of view that 5 people traveling clear across the world to help this country who needed some sleep was clearly going to have no influence there – so I went back to bed and listened to the beating music in bed waiting impatiently for the revelers to tire. It turns out that the youngest World Bankers (Katie & Cristobal) joined the dancers, but us older ones (including Charlie and Carol) just waited for quiet.
A good sleep (after the music ended) brought this day into focus with a smile. Perfect weather with a crystal clear blue sky, bright sun, and time before breakfast brought me to my feet – and I went on a beautiful hour hike up one of the ridges that led to innumerable wild flowers and unsurpassed views of the Mongolian countryside with valleys and low mountains as far as I could see.
Today’s meetings were about the “implementation” of the
project. The distinction between the design and implementation phases of World
Bank grants is important. The Bank works with the recipient country to design
the project which in this case involved 1.5 years of meeting with stakeholders
throughout the country and building on several earlier years of economic
analysis and study. The grant of US$4 million was then given to the country
which implements the project. While the bank still supervises the project and
will provide advice, the country is responsible for making the project happen.
This means that the ICDL contract is with the Government of Mongolia, not the
World Bank. This contracting process was not easy as neither I nor the
The day alternated between PowerPoint presentations in the one room used for work, meals and dancing – and tea breaks outside. This morning, I watched the waitress galloping across the fields on a small Mongolian horse. As I enjoyed the romantic beauty of this image, I watched in horror as she lost her balance. At that moment, she rode behind a ger, but didn’t come past the other side. I ran around the ger to find her lying on her back not moving. Many people ran to her help, and she was taken to the city by one of our drivers for medical care. She came back later in the day with an apparent rib and leg injury – and looked pretty miserable, but at least was walking. With a bit of shock, we continued our meetings among concerned whispers.
We finally finished the project launch meeting and went to visit a rural school on the way back to the city. The school was relatively well-off, being within an hour’s drive to the capital, but I’m afraid that wasn’t saying much. It served 350 students in 1st through 11th grade (there was a separate kindergarten) that came from the surrounding “bagh” (small town) of maybe a couple thousand people. The town had a very modest economy consisting nearly entirely of government jobs, herding animals, and a few small shops. There were houses and gers surrounded by a make-shift non-continuous wooden wall – with a surprising block of apartment buildings eerily reminiscent of the ones that make up Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan (where my wife & I adopted our children from). It turns out that this was an abandoned Soviet military camp – which also explains the bizarre old fighter jet on a pedestal.
The 3-story concrete school, which was closed for the summer and under some renovation, was being painted. With closed windows, the smell was painful. Each floor had a long hallway with small rooms to the sides. All were in pretty rough condition. There were 4 people working there at the time who were very gracious and showed us around. We saw a few rooms of interest. A science storage room had a shelf with some chemicals, a plastic body demonstrating human musculature, and a closet of books in no apparent organization. The small library we saw had 2 walls of books, packed double deep. We were told that there was no catalog, but there was a librarian and books were available for loan outside the school. The books seemed to be mostly textbooks with no apparent fiction and no children’s picture books at all. There was one big red obvious book labeled “Karl Marx” (in Cyrillic).
A computer room consisted of 5 Pentium III computers that were donated 5 years earlier by a political candidate. They were disconnected for the summer, but we were told that they ran “Windows” and were used to teach IT. When asked for more detail, they said this consisted primarily of how to use Microsoft Office. However, there was no network or CD drives, and the printer was broken, leaving me to wonder how much could be done with these computers. There was one working printer in the school attached to the one other computer which was in the school head’s office. We asked if children were allowed to use the computers on their own after school and we were told that they were, but none ever do.
Wow – just what challenge awaits us to deploy the ICDL? The school has a budget of roughly US$2 per child per year for supplies – and this school is better off than most. The project calls to deliver 25 computers with a local ICDL server and network to each of 5 schools. I’m glad we have some time to figure this out!
Finally, we made it back to the city and hotel where I was
able to take a shower for the first time since leaving the
This day represented the transition from the excitement of a new project to the reality of working with fragile technology in a difficult situation. The morning was very interesting. I had two meetings set up with local technologists that we thought might be able to help the project. Because the Bank is not allowed to be directly involved in the implementation of the project, we thought it best if they not join me – and no one from the Ministry of Education was available, so I went myself with the driver taking me around town.
The first meeting was with Mr. Sukhbaatar Enkhjargal, the
Executive Director of an NGO (non-governmental organization) called MIDAS (www.ict.mn/midas). The meeting was in the
Mr. Enkhjargal studied IT in
The second project was to explore the use of technology in the rural “soum” schools. They gave a modern laptop (Dell D505 Latitude) with an extra battery and an LCD projector to each of 37 schools with the goal that the teacher would be able to use those 15 CDs to lead classroom activities. He also gave some laptops to dorms with groups of 6-10 children so they could use the machines directly. He said it was going well, but I did not hear much specific description about how they were used. I asked about security issues, and he said it was not a major problem because the schools were so rural with only 1 or 2 cars passing through a day that there a close awareness of who did what. He said that one laptop was stolen, but that it was quickly recovered.
I then met with Mr. D. Enkhbold, the head of the Information
Technology Department at Khan Bank (www.khanbank.com),
the largest and best networked bank in the country. This building was much
nicer, and had a beautiful exhibit of Mongolian art throughout the lobby and hallways.
I happened to meet Mr. Enkhbold in the lobby, and he ran up the 5 flights of
stairs as I struggled to keep up. His office had a beautiful huge map of
The last two meetings were with local ISPs to help the Ministry decide which company to contract with to provide hosting and maintenance services for the ICDL server I brought with me. Both companies were quite modern and appeared to have sufficient technological experience and capability to make this work, so we can safely make the decision based just on price.
With the confidence of a successful day and growing understanding of what it will take to make this project work, I met Charlie’s request of us checking the ICDL server with naïve optimism. But I bowed to his caution and started it up to find to my horror and quickly growing panic that it wouldn’t boot, and the disks were apparently fairly badly damaged in transit. This led to a late-night session with a friend of Saruul, the ever-friendly self-taught bank IT person in heels. Her friend conveniently worked at a major ISP. He had a matching Dell PowerEdge server, and so with a fair amount of trouble, we found that while the machine wouldn’t boot, the data seemed to be ok, and we were able to back up the disk. With no dinner and growing concern, I went to bed around midnight this time sleeping all the way to 5:30am with a long day ahead of me.
What does it take to fix a server that won’t boot while traveling
I spent the first big chunk of time trying to recover the disks and setup – learning about the redundant disk configuration (RAID) as I went. The point of this setup is to help in exactly this situation – when a disk goes bad. But it appears that there was something wrong with the RAID configuration itself in addition to some disk trouble. So after the data was backed up safely and I gave up on restoring the setup, I decided to start from scratch.
With CDs for Enterprise Red Hat Linux 4 and a subscription to Red Hat’s service in hand, I took a big gulp and formatted the disk. I disabled the RAID setup and returned to a regular one disk setup with the disk that seemed to be good (although not bootable). I kept the partition layout leaving the data partition alone so I could avoid transferring the data from the backup disk – and learned how to install Linux. Fortunately, Red Hat has come a long way since I last tried this, and the process was relatively smooth – and most importantly, I had no disk trouble.
Our software configuration gave me a fair bit of trouble
because I couldn’t use all the software that Red Hat distributes since we
needed specific versions of some things. So I had a fair bit of fighting to do
to avoid conflicts between the way we needed Apache, Tomcat and Mysql set up
and the way Red Hat does it. But in the
end, with heroic long-distance help from Anne Rose back in Maryland on the
phone – while she would try commands on our staging server before I executed
them (reminiscent of Apollo 13) – we got everything enabled, and auto-starting
on boot. This last step was crucial
since while the IT staff in
One last hurdle remained before I could actually install the
server, and that was a contract with the ISP, MobiCom. With this being my last
First, though, I was scheduled to make a presentation at the
Open Society Forum, an intriguing local foundation funded by George Soros. The Forum (www.soros.org.mn)
has a goal of promoting openness in Mongolian society, government and policy
decisions. With significant corruption in
Finally it was time to install the server. We picked up Bayanzul, the network engineer
at MobiCom and drove to their server center. MobiCom is a major communications
Once the server was in place, we plugged in power, a network cable, and a temporary monitor, keyboard and mouse for testing, powered it on and … it worked! Our software (relying on Apache, Tomcat, and Mysql services) all started up smoothly, and with a few configuration tweaks, we were done. We removed the monitor, keyboard and mouse, attached the faceplate over the server, took a picture, and closed the door. Once the contract is signed and the domain name is in place, the first ICDL mirror anywhere will be ready for the public at www.read.mn. With my major technical goals of the trip accomplished, I could finally relax and enjoy the last meeting of the trip.
I went to the Children’s
And with that, my work was over. The challenges of deploying complex technology in developing areas are significant. But the need is real and there are many organizations eager to help. Despite limited infrastructure, local knowledge about IT is growing with competence in Windows and Linux (although I didn’t see a single Macintosh). I’ve started down a path that is challenging, but extremely rewarding – and fun. I’m looking forward to coming back for the next steps.
That ends my week in