Installing Linux in a rural community center

I just got back from a weekend trip to Socca, Puno, Peru, where I helped install Linux in the computers in this community center.
Raul Noriega, Irma Alvarez Ccoscco and Aymara CcopaccatyRaul Noriega, Irma Alvarez Ccoscco and Aymara Ccopaccaty in front of the Socca community center

When I arrived on Saturday, we found a pile of 15 old computers (Pentium III and IV) which had been donated by a Puno school. I planned to install XFCE, since most of the machines only had 512MB RAM and I wanted a lightweight desktop manager which had a traditional menu which would be easy to use by people accustomed to Windows. David Cruz and Raul Noriega from EscuelaLab-Puno wanted to install Xubuntu, but Canonical only offers DVDs to install Xubuntu. All of the computers only had CD-ROM drives and their BIOS was so old that they couldn’t boot from a USB drive.

In the end, we were forced to download the first installation CD for Debian 7.1 with XFCE. Since I already had the Debian 7.0 Live DVD for XFCE, I thought that we could save time by downloading the ISO using Jigdo, but it turned out that we had to download roughly 900 new packages just to construct the ISO, so we got nothing done on Saturday. We were very lucky because Aymar Ccopacatty had a good internet connection, so we got 30kbits/second download. Still, we had to leave my laptop downloading all night.

Nonetheless, Aymara and Irma served us great food, with lots of quinua and potatoes from Aymar’s chakra, so I wasn’t too disheartened by the lack of progress. On Sunday, Irma made us egg and veggie tortillas for breakfast and we went back to work on those old computers. We discovered that Debian was unable to correctly detect the video settings on a number of the computers, so we had to do the manual install with expert settings. This is not an option for the faint-hearted, since Debian asks you a whole bunch of detailed questions that only an uber-geek can love, but we manged to get 7 of the machines up and running.

XFCE is super speedy and we found that it takes so little RAM and processing power, that even memory hogs like LibreOffice and Iceweasel (rebranded Firefox) were able to run nicely on those old computers. It is such a joy to be able to use free software (i.e. open source) to install a modern OS with the latest software on an old computer. If we were doing this in Windows, we would have been forced to install Windows XP which is full of security holes and ancient applications (like MS Office 2003 and Internet Explorer 7). With Linux, we can lock down everything and won’t need to worry about maintenance, since it is so much harder for kids to introduce malware and screw up the configuration.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to complete the installation, before we had to rush back to Puno (after an excellent lunch of course). Irma and Aymar were great hosts and they invited us to come back in two weeks to finish the installation.

The local town government has given the community center internet access, but we also want to set up a local network with one machine to have a local copy of Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg so people can access information without using the internet. I can’t wait to see the network up and running with all our software in Aymara (AbiWord, GoldenDict, TuxMath, TuxType and TuxPaint). The best part is that the local school also wants to install all 30 of their computers with Linux as well. I am convinced that local control over schools is a very important factor in preserving indigenous languages, because it gives communities the power to make decisions like this one which can help promote the language among their youth.

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