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Assessing the true cost of One Laptop Per Child

an image of Nicholas Negroponte and Kofi Annan demonstrating the OLPC laptop computerWhat one man giveth, another man often takes with both hands. So while the One Laptop Per Child project might look like a winner right from the get-go, the long-term consequences could be hidden costs and comment spam on the cheap.

This isn’t good news, especially on the back of criticisms of the OLPC project from Microsoft’s Bill Gates, of all people. So news of hidden costs are yet another blow:

Jon Camfield, a writer for OLPC News and master’s degree candidate in the International Science and Technology Program at George Washington University, says that once maintenance, training, Internet connectivity, and other factors are taken into account, the actual cost of each laptop rises to more than $970.”

Recently, I had reason to comment on the possibility of comment spam being outsourced to India, and the OLPC project could well facilitate and exacerbate this problem:

“As of writing this article, no one has yet managed to write a piece of software capable of reproducing the ability of the human eye to scan this ambiguous image [in reference to the ‘captcha’ (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart)] to retrieve the smattering of letters and numbers hidden with the image.

But what happens if there’s just no need to replace the human eye? Additionally, what happens if this particular human eye is for hire, and it’s a cheap one at that?”

One of Jon Camfield’s criticisms seems like an odd one to me:

“According to Camfield, one of the largest factors associated with the cost of the laptops involves training local educators on how to best use the machines in a classroom setting.”

While I know he has a valid point, I can’t imagine these laptops going right out into truly rural areas where people have never seen a computer before in their lives.

Surely we’re talking about places where computers already exist, but are serving a great number of people? So in this situation, the training needs have already been met and this portion of the cost has been mitigated.

“The concern over theft (and subsequent gray market resale) of the laptops is so prevalent among supporters and critics alike that the OLPC team has invited suggestions from the computing community at large on how to address the issue. Khaled Hassounah, OLPC’s director for Middle East and Africa, says, ‘The theft challenge is more complex than people believe, but not necessarily more difficult to handle. There are different dimensions to the theft problem, and there is a wide variety in the reasons why people steal, the sophistication of their methods, the ways in which they sell the stolen goods, etc. Given the complexity, multiple methods will be used to prevent theft.’”

It’s theft! Who cares about the subtle nuances involved in the different types of theft. Once the laptop has been stolen, it’s gone!

“According to [Chris] Blizzard [of Red Hat], ‘The best way to prevent theft is to make the machine useless if it’s stolen. So we’re looking at ways to make the machine useless if it’s taken out of range of a school for a certain period of time.’ Although making the machines available to the developed world at low prices would help minimize the laptop’s resale value on the gray market, Blizzard says OLPC has opted not to at this time.”

So while thought has been given to the problem, no action has been taken. I don’t know what to think about that. Yes, I’m sure there’s technological solution in there somewhere, as Chris Blizzard alludes to, but I’m sure the price-point stymied further, more detailed consideration.

“Placing a laptop in the hands of a child is one thing, but providing Internet access for maximum usefulness is another. In many countries where even basic electricity is lacking, establishing Internet connectivity can quickly cause the actual cost of a laptop to skyrocket.”

However, actual Internet access seems to be in the hands of SES, but doubts remain whether they will be: “able to donate bandwidth at such a low cost to a billion children.”

Let’s hope these problems are resolved either now or over time…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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