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Here's a photo of a directional antenna that can transmit Wi-Fi Internet several miles. Anyone can build one with materials from a hardware store; you can even download the blueprint online for free. Over the past 18 months or so, the antennas have been appearing around Jalalabad, a former Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. Of the ways in which it differs from a traditional wireless access point, the most profound is that it lacks an electronics company logo. It wasn't created by a government either, but it could become the new symbol of infrastructure rebuilding in Afghanistan and around the world.
The organization behind the antennas is Fab Lab, an international network of community workshops. Fab Lab helps residents install the antennas and, even more importantly, learn how to use them. These may not be the most sophisticated antennas, but they work. They're inexpensive and easy to repair, qualities more important in Afghanistan than a good warranty.
Originally an MIT project with a modest National Science Foundation grant, Fab Labs are becoming important resources in some of the most troubled communities on the planet. Individuals can come to Fab Labs to pick up computer and production skills in order to make themselves more employable or start their own businesses. Through projects like the Wi-Fi antennas, Fab Labs empower citizens to play an active role in building and rebuilding their communities. In this great TED Talk, Neil Gershenfeld summarizes the history of Fab Lab and suggests that the labs are democratizing technology by turning consumers into creators. I've been aware of Fab Lab for a few months now and I'm enamored.
In Afghanistan, the lab is actually part of a growing network of loosely-affiliated organizations and individuals taking a do-it-yourself approach to rebuilding. These people make up in creativity what they lack in institutional funding. Take, for example, the Taj, the only bar in Eastern Afghanistan (apparently a tiki bar, no less). A natural gathering point for military people, contractors, and NGOs, the Taj is an obvious place for people who might not otherwise meet to trade information. Dave Warner had the idea to set up a simple 1 TB hard drive in the bar for storing and sharing data. Now, the "Beer for Data" program has grown into a major source of information and collaboration for NGOs. In this talk, Warner explains how the program made it possible for a worldwide network of NGOs and activists to work together to monitor Afghanistan's 2009 election.
Vinay Gupta asked activist Smari McCarthy about Fab Lab, Beer for Data, and other innovations in an excellent long interview earlier this year. A question that comes up again and again is why these sorts of projects can't find more funding (Fab Lab Jalalabad's monthly expenses are a mere $1500). McCarthy posits that governments won't support Fab Lab because it makes too much sense, a joke with more than a hint of truth.
I find it inspiring to read about organizations doing profoundly important work with next to no budget. Technology in particular is an area in which it's sometimes hard to see past the price tag. But some projects don't require a grant or a large tech allotment; sometimes you just need a good idea and a trip to the hardware store.
Ashoka: Innovators for the Public are hosting Tech 4 Society, a conference exploring technology, invention and social change, in Hyderabad, India, in February 2010. Find out more about the conference here. This blog post is an entry in their competition to find the official blogger to travel to and cover the event.
Discuss Fab Lab, Beer for Data, and inexpensive innovations in this Emerging Technologies forum discussion.