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Making IT Where There Is (Almost) None: More On Haiti

Back in April of this year, I was part of a group that went to Haiti to work with a Haitian educational institution to rebuild its IT operations after the January 2010 earthquake that devastated the country. What I discovered is that there isn’t a lot to rebuild, and the creation of an IT environment largely from scratch is what is really needed. In a couple of weeks I’ll be returning to the island nation with three pallets worth of gear and a mountain of challenges to overcome that we typically don’t deal with in the comfy IT spaces of the developed world.

Before we talk technical, a quick overview is in order. I’m working with a multicampus higher education organization in Haiti that has about a dozen sites in the greater Port-au-Prince area. The city of Port-au-Prince can be thought of loosely as half of a bowl, curving up from the sea to the mountains above the city. When the quake struck, the bowl was horribly broken. The contents of the bowl--including people, buildings, vehicles, and a fragile IT and communications infrastructure--were hit hard, with tremendous loss of life and property.

Back to my mission. During my first visit, I learned that the many campuses that make up the Haitian organization that I’m working with had very little IT to begin with. There is no resource sharing among the sites, and across the sites a chaotic patchwork of 1-Mbps-or-less Internet feeds provides small pockets of Internet access to individual offices or very small learning labs. Being an ISP is big business in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and WiMax seems to be the preferred way of delivering network. Most links feed from an impressive tower site above the city down toward the lowlands, where smaller towers and masts are literally everywhere. To the eye, the sprawl of antennas and towers is visual chaos, and it is hard as an outsider to understand why there are so many low-speed links.

The organization that my group is working with realizes that the status quo is not only an obstacle to getting its educational mission back on track, but also keeps it from the efficiencies of shared resources and modern educational tools and network-enabled distance collaborations.

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