UI project brings whole new world to African nation

UI project brings whole new world to African nation

Sao Tome and Principe, a small island nation straddling the equator off the west coast of Africa, is about the same size as Champaign County and has a population similar to the county's as well.

But the county and the former Portuguese colony, which gained independence in 1975, now have more in common than land mass and number of residents.

New computer labs at Sao Tome's national library and airport are in place thanks to equipment donations by Parkland College in Champaign and Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana – and the setup work of staff members and student volunteers from the University of Illinois.

A UI architecture student is designing a new terminal for the airport, and some of his fellow UI students are to work on a master plan for the airport property and a design for an education and research center.

UI and other local technical gurus may build a wireless Internet access system in the country, reaching even its remote villages and perhaps using a system created by the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network, which has covered a big chunk of downtown Urbana in a similar fashion.

"What would be really super is if we could blanket the whole island," Prairienet director Paul Adams said recently.

Prairienet is the community computing network in East Central Illinois affiliated with the UI Graduate School of Library and Information Science. The Sao Tome project stems directly from Prairienet, the library school and the UI's East St. Louis Action Research Project.

For years, the three, with UI students helping on the labor, have set up public computer labs in churches, community centers and other locations in East St. Louis, a city so hard-pressed economically many residents don't have access to computers and the Internet otherwise.

One of Adams' graduate students, Jorge Coelho, worked as a technical coordinator for the East St. Louis labs and helped organize a collaborative of residents there striving to bridge the digital divide faced by the community.

He also happened to be from Sao Tome and Principe.

"He was constantly encouraging me to try and set something up in Sao Tome," Adams said.

The former UI graduate student now is an alumnus – and president and managing director of Sao Tome's national airport. In other words, one of the country's big wheels.

Which is how Adams, Vicki Eddings, coordinator of the East St. Louis Action Research Project, and students Beth Larkee and Jake Odland from the library school and Brett Bridgeland from the UI School of Architecture ended up in Sao Tome for a test project last month.

Eddings was along in particular to assess the landscape of organizations the UI might work with long-term in Sao Tome, using the same model it has for East St. Louis, where local partners drive the projects taken on by university staff and students. The UI's East St. Louis effort celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

Various campus units contributed, outside the East St. Louis project and other existing projects, to the group's travel expenses. Coelho arranged accommodations, in-country transportation and an interpreter. Adams and his cohorts hope to find funding to continue and expand the partnership, including a second trip later this year that might set up computer labs in some schools. The project still can use donations of computers and flat-screen monitors.

Adams said the idea of partnering with Sao Tome fits with the UI's current push to internationalize, including the Global Campus Initiative aimed at making the university a premier provider of online educational programs.

Moreover, it is a chance to make a difference to an unusual extent, given the small size of the country, and it presents rare opportunities for UI students. Adams pointed to Bridgeland's work on the national airport terminal.

"Where could a master's student ever think," he said, "of doing a project on that scale?"

Said Odland: "It's an amazing experience for students to be able to do the hands-on work and to see what they do make a difference."

All that work – they took just one afternoon off in the course of a week – didn't keep Odland and Larkee from appreciating the beauty of the island nation. Sao Tome might not be wealthy or well appointed where high technology is concerned. But the country makes up for it in friendly people, pristine beaches and rain forests, and fresh fish and fruit, among other things.

"It's just gorgeous," Odland said. "The people are very nice and welcoming. It's starting to be pushed ... as a tourist destination. I'm glad I went there now."

"I could walk down the beach at night and not have to worry about a thing," Eddings said.

Setting up computer labs in the country isn't quite as idyllic. They packed plastic utility tubs with computers, monitors and equipment and hauled them along as luggage on a four-flight, nearly three-day odyssey to reach Sao Tome, the capitol city with the same name as the main island itself.

"It's not like there's a Best Buy," Odland said.

The UI group came expecting to set up one lab in the library but split it into two labs, one at the library and one at the airport for personnel training, when local officials requested the change. That while contending with power differences (Sao Tome uses the European standard, and European plugs) and a power system balky at times and suddenly off line at others.

"We brought a bunch of fuses and blew all but one of them," Odland said.

"You go with the flow," Larkee said. Like Sao Tome residents, whose reaction to power outages was on the order of "it'll come back on. No big deal," she said. "Here, we'd all be on the phone."

In the end, they left behind two labs ready to be plugged into Internet service the country's telecommunications company will provide.

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