There's a crowdfunding project on Indiegogo called Keepod Unite which is hoping to deliver $7 Thumbdrives loaded with a secure, user-friendly Linux distro to a slum in Nairobi, in partnership with the local NGO LiveInSlums. The Keepod idea is a bit broader than this project, with the mission to
"[...] bridge the Digital Divide and provide Personal Computing to 5 Billion people all over the World."
The project is taking a beating in the comments over at HN, mostly due to the fact that it is 'not a PC' (it relies on throwaway systems), there's no supporting infrastructure, etc. While this is true that the projet is making some big claims, I'm willing to defend the need for a platform like Keepod.
I've worked for non-profits doing development work in hostile, poor areas. The key for a lot of these projects is training and facilitating local staff to do tasks that, in other parts of the world, are done by people with a lifetime of exposure to education and technology. Recording, testing, treating, and monitoring HIV/AIDS is a task normally reserved for nurses, but is accomplished with quickly trained local staff by organizations like Aids Healthcare Foundation. Other organizations are focusing on logging and monitoring environmental damage, or empowering small-scale farmers with tools to record and improve their yields and resource usage. Many of the initiative can (and do) benefit by including digital tools in the project.
Unfortunately, I'm still waiting for a cheap tablet with intuitive custom apps and magic mesh-network enabled internet access. In the meantime, a frequent scenario is that a laptop is delivered, trainings are given, things enthusiastically move along, and then... the device is stolen, the screen broke, someone broke the Windows installation, etc. Or worse... people are put in harms way simply by having the tech on them (a research to bring technology to rural farmers recently generated the following gem: "If you give someone in rural Honduras a tablet, you should also supply a gun").
While I don't see USB sticks and recycled laptops as the revolution that will bring the fruits of technology to the word's poor, I do see a lot of advantages of Keepod as a platform in developing countries.
In many areas, the challenge of arranging access a computer is not the biggest one; keeping it working is. A well-engineered linux thumbdrive lets someone switch systems when there's an issue, eliminates the painful Windows firefighting, and allows users to keep their own OS and data separate from everyone else's.
Traveling with your data no longer means putting your PC (or yourself) in danger. It can be left at home, on the farm, or in the internet cafe. The data is secure, even in the event that the device is lost, which is key if the device contains medical data, financial information, or records relating to human rights. In the areas that Dropbox has yet to reach, getting data back home securely can be as simple as mailing your USB drive.
But for me the main takeaway was the following,
"NGOs can tailor the OS according to their communities needs and deploy it to many devices simultaneously."
Non-profit organizations can disseminate interactive USB keys for educational purposes, with all of the nice side-effects that come with the Keepod distro. Locally hosted apps and websites for expectant mothers, farmers who wish to know how to treat a particular crop ailment, or learning games for kids. They can safely plug their key into any available semi-functioning system, and not have to worry about affecting the underlying system at a shared computer location.
While it's true that bootable USB keys are not exactly new tech, I applaud Keepod for trying something to enhance what little access to technology may be available. Until every kid has a laptop, it's a start.