Rescuing computers from digital oblivion
The TT Computer Society (TTCS) is a largely informal group of computer enthusiasts who gather to discuss ICT issues, computing trends and to champion open source solutions for technology problems.
The group has updated a resource of open source software across a range of needs over the last decade, starting with a DVD, then a downloadable image of that DVD and now a website (http://ttcsosswin.ttcs.tt/) explaining the software it has curated.
With the onset of covid19, according to current secretary of the group, Dev Teelucksingh, the group mobilised around the difficulties that schoolchildren experienced accessing online classes because of a lack of computers.
On May 21, the TTCS undertook, in an online Zoom call, to work on a structured refurbishment of old computer equipment.
During that call, Dharamrajh Ramdass of Restore a Sense of I Can (RSC), a network of secondary school computer clubs offered a cache of computers donated by Republic Bank through its Power to Make a Difference project.
The systems are mostly Dell Optiplex business desktops. Most are equipped with Intel Core Duo chips, but a few have older Pentium processors. All are roughly a decade old and a few were running Windows XP.
The TTCS team agreed on an orderly and systematic programme of upgrading and verifying the systems for use.
The systems are cleaned and sanitised, the hard drives (most had none for security reasons) were replaced with faster solid state drives (SSDs) and where required and the hardware was available; the RAM on the computers was upgraded. Some of the oldest computers had their CMOS batteries – a tiny battery on the motherboard – replaced.
“In testing,” Teelucksingh said, “the SSD improved the responsiveness of the machines and was just adequate for office work and Internet browsing.”
“We're prioritising the refurbishing of newer computers and considering a Linux (operating system) distribution for the older machines when time permits.”
SSDs were purchased/donated by TTCS members (disclosure: the author contributed to this part of the project) and ISOC TT donated several SSDs last week.
Windows 10 Education version is installed on each machine to allow the RSC to offer systems that can be activated using the Education Ministry’s group license for the software.
Teelucksingh, keen to establish order in an inherently complicated project, documented the refurbishment steps along with the status and final dispensation of each of the computers received by the TTCS.
Simon Fraser and Teelucksingh have taken the lead in the refurbishment of the computers so far, returning 40 computers to service. Two other TTCS members have since volunteered to work on the project.
Once the systems are opened for evaluation, the chaos increases exponentially.
The reality of the project is a quite startling clutter of dusty computer towers, small LCD monitors and keyboards all over the place.
For a photo, Fraser opened a computer and hit the interior with a blast of compressed air, raising a plume of dust several feet into the air.
Fortunately, the computers from the bank were in relatively good condition and were configured uniformly.
“(It takes) about an hour to open, blow out the dust, install a hard drive and then install Windows and a few applications,” said Simon Fraser.
“The Windows installation takes the bulk of the time.”
“At the beginning of the shutdown, I was surprised to learn how many children didn’t have access to the tech needed for them to go online,” he said.
“I knew that there were tens of thousands of obsolete and damaged systems no longer in use so though it would be a good idea to refurbish and get them to where they are needed. ICT is now a critical educational tool, and it saddens me to think that many children don’t have access.”
The RCS normally presses the older systems they collect into exploratory use for young students interested in working on computers.
During the coronavirus crisis, with schools in abeyance, the computers will be distributed, Ramdass explained, to schools, NGO’s and families recommended by organisations.
On Tuesday, computers from RSC were scheduled for delivery to Maraval RC school.
The refurbishment project is only a subset of the RSC tech clubs, an ambitious project that Ramdass has exported to Costa Rica as well as many local schools.
He hopes to be able to assist organisations and students with devices, build tech capacity in the school system while reducing the e-waste that is dumped into landfills.
Teelucksingh has created a page on the TTCS website (http://ow.ly/dvLi30r3ILi) which has netted the group nine computers and three laptops from one organisation and memory modules from one of its members.
Teelucksingh wishes the TTCS could do more.
“The older machines don't have WiFi (they have wired Ethernet) so this could pose challenges when it comes to Internet connectivity in a home,” he said.
“Also, we're thinking that students would need webcams, surge suppressors, headsets which we aren't able to fund.”
Fraser isn’t hopeful that classes will resume in September or that things will be back to normal in schools for some time.
“The government and people of Trinidad and Tobago need to prepare to continue with online classes,” Fraser said.
“So collectively we will need to equip thousands of students with technology and Internet access and train thousands of teachers how to effectively teach online. “
“The TTCS is helping out on the client side. I’d be happy if we could hit a target of 500 machines by September, but we will need help, especially in funding to keep buying drives and WiFi adapters.”
Mark Lyndersay is the editor of technewstt.com.
"Rescuing computers from digital oblivion"