Crossing the digital divide

When Mark Gregory, Portland State’s executive director of information technologies, found that because of a change of law that Portland State was no longer required to send surplus computers back to the state, he began looking for opportunities to help people.


He discovered a need for computers in Central America. Enlisting the help of organizations such as Child Aid, Mercy Corps and other organizations with headquarters in Portland, Gregory and his team in the Office of Information Technologies extend the life spans of the computers and make them useable for village libraries in Guatemala. Last year, Portland State sent thirty computers to villages in Central America.


“You have to challenge yourself and make sure you help them in a way that when you go home you know they’ll be able to use the computers,” said Darrell Fuhriman, systems administrator at Portland State. Fuhriman and workers from Child Aid traveled to rural Guatemala last January to deliver the computers. Child Aid is a charity dedicated to providing health care and educational access to Latin American children.


Fuhriman made the journey, sometimes over mountains with non-paved roads, he said, to provide training and set up the computer labs.


“They need tools in order to work, live, compete, survive in a connected world,” he said, “It’s just another part of the picture in the same way that getting vaccines and clean water are important to future growth.”


Gregory said providing computers is not enough, that it is important to make sure that villagers know how to use the technology. “The key thing to me in this is we’re not going to bridge the digital divide by just giving them equipment. We have to teach them how to use it.”


What seemed disposable to Portland State was indispensable to these villagers. “These people had never seen a computer before,” Gregory said, “It was phenomenal.”


In many rural areas, internet access can be as high as $150 per month and is often unreliable. “Their local power isn’t stable enough to power the machines without occasionally breaking them,” Gregory said. 



Gregory and his team faced the challenge of making these computers functional for word processing and in some cases dial-up internet for rural villages where local power is unpredictable. “We’ve got to figure out a way to take a bunch of old computers and make them work better in bad power conditions,” Gregory said.


Often, the power supplies in the computers would break, unable to handle the low power supply in some villages. Right now the problem can only be solved by replacing the power supplies as they break. Gregory said he has been saving old power supplies from broken computers, and has been talking to vendors to see if there are power supplies that might work better with lower power. So far he has not found another solution.


Every year Portland State has 300 to 500 surplus computers and about 70 percent of those can be built into working, low-end machines. “There’s plenty of demand.” Gregory said. “It’s just a matter of connecting the demand and supply.” The demand for usable computers is both local and international.


Gregory remains focused on supplying computers to PSU student groups, local schools, and college-bound high school students in need, but is planning another trip to Guatemala.


“Until we run out of surplus computers, we can do it.” Gregory said.

Both Fuhriman and Gregory believe that providing technology is important for the advancement of developing countries.


“They want it and we’ve got it, and we were going to throw it away,” Gregory said, “It just seems like a no-brainer.”