Information Possible

story header world librarians

The story of the World Librarians Project begins, appropriately, with a book. 

The book in question, Using Energy, had been checked out by William Kamkwamba, a teenager in Malawi looking to improve conditions in his life and family home. Kamkwamba was unable to afford to continue his education, but after studying the diagrams in the book, he gathered spare parts and constructed his own working windmill. The results generated both power for his home and a spotlight from TEDGlobal, leading to support for large-scale energy projects in his village and funding for Kamkwamba himself to return to school. 

Kamkwamba’s success, recounted in an autobiography and a documentary film, continues to resonate with audiences across the globe, including his friend Carl Meyer, co-founder of the tech nonprofit ShiftIT, who became determined to give others in Malawi opportunities to have their own windmill moments.

“He was really the inspiration for our desire to deploy this technology,” says Meyer, “because if he could manage to change his life by just reading a single book, what could other children do if they had access to technology and a lot more information?”

route of information on globe image

Looking for ways to provide this access, especially to rural areas in Malawi without Internet, Meyer discovered Outernet: an open access offline data distribution system that could broadcast a satellite signal to any place in the world with a properly configured receiver. Together with ShiftIT’s solar-powered computer labs, consisting of refurbished laptops with their hard drives removed and Keepods—$7 personal computers running on USB drives—Outernet permitted users to connect offline and download broad-casted content to their Keepods anywhere in Malawi.

But what kind of content was being broadcast? That was the question that united Meyer with Professor Charlie Schweik of the UMass Amherst Department of Environmental Conservation and the School of Public Policy. Schweik first learned about Outernet from a speaker engaged by the UMass Amherst Libraries Office of Scholarly Communications; the startup’s foundations in his particular fields of study—online collaboration for open source software, open educational resources, and the production of “knowledge commons”—led Schweik to contact Outernet directly. 

“I eventually met Thayne Richard; he was working for Outernet as their content person,” says Schweik, “and I was raising this question that there should be some mechanism for people in the global south to request information that they want, not what we, the global north, think they want.”

Richard connected Schweik with Meyer, and the three of them began a nearly two-year collaboration to put such a system into practice.

Unfortunately, just as they were starting to figure out a workflow, they hit a major snag: Outernet’s technology changed from Ku-band to L-band, leading to a significant decrease in the amount of data they could broadcast and deliver over the company’s rented satellite space. Because it was much easier for the non-native-English-speaking requesters to understand data-heavy audiovisual material, the reduced bandwidth nearly decimated the project before it could even take off.

Malawi students and educators

It was then that Richard made a crucial connection with World Possible, a California-based nonprofit that, together with Intel, had developed their own offline data system. Rather than a digital broadcast, World Possible provides a physical device, the RACHEL—Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning—which acts as an offline content server through which users can browse OER2Go, a database preloaded with open educational resources that World Possible downloads and configures for remote access. 

Of course, although World Possible maintains and (through physical USB drive and Internet connection) periodically updates each location’s OER2Go, there are instances where users require more information than the database can provide, which is where the World Librarians Project comes in.

“In a library sense,” Schweik explains, “the RACHEL is equivalent to the physical library infrastructure; the OER2Go database that World Possible puts in is equivalent to the books or journals that the library subscribes to; and what we’re doing under the World Librarians Project is the third piece of what a library typically does: research support services.”

To be sure, the research support services offered by the World Librarians Project are a little different than those typically offered by libraries, especially because the majority of service providers are not librarians.

Above L to R: Jeremy Smith, Scholarly Communications Digital Projects Manager; Scott McCullough ’19; Charles Schweik, UMass Amherst professor of environmental conservation; Pamela Eisner ‘18; Nikhila Nandgopal ’18.
Jeremy Smith, Scholarly Communications Digital Projects Manager; Scott McCullough ’19; Charles Schweik, UMass Amherst professor of environmental conservation; Pamela Eisner ‘18; Nikhila Nandgopal ’18.

“The beautiful thing on this end is the students we’ve had involved in it,” Schweik says. “UMass students are fantastic. I introduced this project in a class, and once the students learned about it, they wanted to participate. In the end, we’re simply doing what UMass librarians do for patrons, only now our students are supporting information-have-not learners in other parts of the world, and in the process, are learning about them and connecting to them.”

Brought together by Schweik’s Honors College seminar, these students come from various academic backgrounds and bring their individual experiences to the World Librarians Project. 

Pamela Eisner ’18, a political science graduate currently working on her accelerated master’s degree in public policy, has served as the team’s student manager and first point of contact for the teachers and librarians sending and receiving research requests. Currently, these requests take the form of a Tweet on the part of a teacher or librarian in one of the RACHEL-serviced locations. While it would be far too expensive for these educators to search the web themselves for information via mobile phone, their data plans do support 280-character Tweets.

“Sometimes things can be hectic, as we never know when to expect information requests, and we can get a bunch of requests at once,” admits Eisner. “But these times are often the most fun and show the importance of our project.”

Once processed, these request Tweets are then treated like regular research consultations by biology majors Danielle Birmingham ’19 and Brittany Leland ’19. Under the guidance of Jeremy Smith ’94, Digital Projects Manager in the Office of Scholarly Communications, Birmingham and Leland search databases across the Internet for open access materials to fulfill the requests. 

What often surprises the searchers is the wide variety of topics covered in these requests, from growing plants through aquaculture and barrelponics to designing lessons in physics and astronomy. 

“We had an all-girls’ school ask us how to send helium balloons into space,” grins Nikhila Nandgopal ’18, the team’s recently-graduated finance major compiling data and workflow information into a World Librarians manual. “It’s exciting that they’re thinking about this, and that’s awesome; that’s women in STEM right there!” 

Once suitable materials are found, Scott McCullough ’19 uses his skills as a computer science major to “manage the technological workflow,” including the development of a new Salesforce/Heroku management app, and to make sure that the data is uploaded successfully onto a shared UMass Amherst-ShiftIT folder in Google Drive. 

From their workspace in Malawi, the ShiftIT team then downloads the shared files onto a Keepod and delivers it via “Sneakernet,” meaning a designated courier will, in most cases, physically walk the Keepod to the requesters’ location and manually upload the new content onto their RACHEL device. 

infographic of flow of resources

The response to the World Librarians Project has been overwhelmingly positive. In addition to the five schools and three libraries it currently services, the World Librarians team has received requests to expand the project to more locations, including the Malawi Medical Society’s rural healthcare clinics and, with enthusiastic support from the Manengouba Foundation and MBOG LIAA, school systems in Cameroon. 

“There’s a lot of interest in using these systems,” Meyer says. “Any kind of information is gold for these locations that are so disconnected and don’t have access to updated information on a regular basis.” 

With regard to these locations, Schweik has concluded that a single searcher node can successfully serve between 15 and 20 RACHEL hotspots— which means the World Librarians team will also need to expand beyond its borders. 

“We don’t necessarily want UMass Amherst to be the searcher for the world,” explains Schweik. “What we’re trying to do is develop a system and a workflow that could be replicated by anyone with Internet access who wants to do this.” 

Malawian educator holding Rachel device
Frank Kazembe, physics and science teacher at Saint Michael’s Girls, holding the RACHEL device signed by William Kamkwamba, is a huge supporter of the World Librarians Project. “It has assisted in my teaching career so much,” he says. “It has made lesson delivery easier than before. The school has also benefited quite a lot from the World Librarians. Using the information, students have performed outstandingly during national examinations, and the school emerged as the 2018 champions in the nationwide Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s Top of the Class Quiz Competition.” 

Fortunately, the World Librarians have had no shortages of people eager to help. 

Along with Schweik, McCullough and Nandgopal co-presented their work to a standing-room only crowd at the March 2018 UNESCO conference, “Mobile Learning Week 2018: Skills for a Connected World,” in Paris. 

“It was unreal,” says McCullough. “I never thought that as an undergraduate I would ever have the opportunity to present at such a large forum. Almost everyone we’ve talked to has been very excited about this project: we are teaching them about how much of a discrepancy there is between the digital content we take for granted and Nandgopal agrees. “It’s been exciting to see that there’s this proof of concept, and that what we’re doing is actually of value and can be scaled,” she says. “[In Paris] there were big companies that I had no idea had an interest in ICT [information and communication technology] as well as the digital divide issue, and tons of nonprofits and ministries of education who were also very interested. It was exciting because we knew what we were doing could make an impact, but seeing other people say ‘This is a great idea; tell us how we can help’ was pretty special.” 

Not surprisingly, among the World Librarians’ admirers is the very person who inspired the project. 

For over 30 years, Saint Michael’s Girls Secondary School at Malindi in the Mangochi District has worked tirelessly to educate and empower more than 500 young women in the region, and has been a World Librarians requester location since the early Outernet days back in 2016. When the switch was made to RACHEL, the school became one of the first three locations to receive the device. 

On the way to deploying the new technology, Meyer met his longtime friend whose TEDTalks had been preloaded onto the RACHEL and who gladly customized the device for the eager students. 

“I wish you all the best,” reads the message he wrote across the top in Chichewa and English. “William Kamkwamba.”