Keepod has designed a $7 personal computing system. Can it bridge the digital divide?

Many of us have become so reliant on computers and smartphones that we can’t even remember how to do certain things on our own. Can you find directions without using Waze? Research a paper without consulting Google? Or keep up with the news without reading it online?

Moreover, try getting a college degree or starting a business without a computer in today’s day and age.

Those goals seem virtually impossible, and yet there are about five billion people in the world who don’t have access to a computer or the conveniences that come along with these devices. And without that tool, roughly 70% of the world’s population has little chance of using their creativity to enter into the global economy.

Getting a personal computer into the hands of those five billion people is impossible due to expense, but Israeli startup Keepod has found a different solution to connect the world’s computerless population.

“Is it possible to provide a computer per child? It’s impossible,” Nissan Bahar of Keepod said in an interview with Geektime. “Instead of trying to bring a personal computer to each person, we need to bring personal computing.”

Credit: Keepod

Credit: Keepod

Personal computing on a stick

Keepod has developed an operating system that fits on a USB device and can turn any old computer into a fast, up-to-date computer. With this operating system, multiple people can use the same computer, as everything is saved right on the USB. At $7 a piece, getting the USB operating systems into the hands of every child around the world is a little more realistic.

Keepod recently tested out its project in Mathare, the second largest slum in Nairobi with more than 500,000 people, most of whom live on less than one dollar per day and face a very rough daily environment where gang violence and HIV affect almost everyone. The project was funded by an Indiegogo campaign, set up in January, that raised $40,801 – beating its $38,000 goal – from 713 investors by March 1.

Later in March, Keepod, in partnership with Italian NGO LiveInSlums, started its first mission in Mathare, bringing 40 to 50 USB operating systems and five refurbished computers to the WhyNot street school. The Keepod team gave the teachers and students about an hour of training on the computers and the USB device and then left them to play with their new equipment. Within two hours, Bahar received the first email from the Keepod device.

That means in just a few hours, students who had never seen a computer before were able to connect to the internet, setup email accounts and type mail, mostly intuitively. Due to this overwhelming success, Keepod intends to dispatch 1,500 more USB devices to Mathare this summer. And it is not stopping there.

In July or August Keepod wants to bring 3,500 Keepod devices to Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, home to an estimated one million to two million people.

And Keepod projects are continuing to grow fast, Bahar said. Already projects are being started up in South Tel Aviv, India, China, Italy and the U.S. Bahar said that Keepod hopes to have deployed tens of thousands of USB devices by the end of the year.

Credit: Keepod. First days in Mathare

Credit: Keepod. First days in Mathare

Dispatching the device

Keepod is the creator of the device, but any organization that wants to start a Keepod project and bring the devices to a community is able. Keepod also gets old computers that would otherwise be thrown away and wipes them clean, takes out their hard drives and outfits them to be able to operate with the Keepod device. According to Bahar, about 85,000 computers are thrown away every day in the U.S. alone, and while these old computers may not be compatible with Windows or Linux, they can be programmed to to be compatible with the Keepod device. Keepod gets its computers from refurbishers and donations from big companies like Deloitte Israel that toss old computers away when upgrading their systems.

Keepod wasn’t always focusing on bridging the digital divide. The company was started by Bahar and Franky Imbesi in Italy about three years ago. The original aim was to sell operating systems to banks, telcos and other large companies, but about a year ago the founders decided to change the focus of their startup. While researching what they could do with their little device, they agreed that they were no longer interested in doing enterprise business and wanted to put principle ahead of profit.

The founders then spent some time redesigning Keepod for its new purpose, and finally this year they were able to begin their dream of using our junk computers to help those who still think of an apple as the round fruit you eat.

Bahar said they were amazed by the way their pilot project worked in Mathare. If the people there could send emails in just two hours of tinkering with the devices, imagine what they could do with months of access to personal computing.

“They are very thirsty for information,” he said. “We just provide the tool.”

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