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Ask Slashdot: Geeky Volunteer Work? 229

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the lend-a-hand dept.
An anonymous reader writes "I plan to be in-between jobs for 1-2 months later this year and use part of this time to do some volunteer work in Africa. My naive question: what to do and where to go? Is it possible to make good use of the skill-set of a typical geek? Any interesting projects worth supporting on-site?"
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Ask Slashdot: Geeky Volunteer Work?

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  • What can you do? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    What is a "typical" geek? Are you a programmer? Do you work with hardware? Can you do science? Are you an environmental engineer? A teacher? I don't know much about Africa, but someone who does is going to need to know more about you.

    • by JamesP (688957)

      Some suggestions:

      Water filtration/purification techniques (think of decanting using solar power)
      Wiring generators, lighting systems, or similar
      Making old computers usable again

      Depends on the problems they have at the region, if you don't have to dodge bullets that's a start

      • It really matters where in Africa you are going which you didn't mention. Your computer skills will probably do little good in the middle of the Kalahari desert where engineering skills are more useful for things like water irrigation. After all Africa is big place.
        • by gilleain (1310105)

          To be fair, the question included "where to go"...Also:

          • Syria : near civil war
          • Libya : actual civil war
          • D. R. Congo : recent war
          • Somalia : famine

          in fact, it's a rare country in Africa that doesn't have some kind of terrible problem that computer skills probably won't solve.

      • by cayenne8 (626475)
        Hmm...considering it is Africa...I suppose you could come up with a computerized fly flicking device...

        When I see footage of Africa, that's what I see the most of...flies all over the people there, so maybe the auto-flyflicker thing would help out.

        :)

    • I am aware of an organization you may want to check out for this kind of thing:

      The Tanzania Development Support Organization...
      http://tdsnfp.org

      I have been thinking of volunteering for a couple years now, but haven't gotten it together.
      Apparently there's a need for teaching computer skills, and getting older [donated] machines
      up and running in classrooms.

    • Sounds like he's a snotty brat with a superiority complex.

  • Geek Corps (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:25PM (#36872024)

    Depending on your skill set Geek Corps might have something for you:
    http://www.iesc.org/ict-and-applied-technologies.aspx
    http://www.linux.com/archive/feed/58011

    • by Anonymous Coward

      This is something I have done, and I think you will find that 2 months is not enough time to make an impact in any domain, much less a geeky one. One thing to remember is that volunteers are not tightly supervised; their labor is free and therefore a lot of managers just let them float. You will have to manage yourself, which means getting to know the organization, its needs and its weaknesses, and then initiating your own project to work towards these. This takes time, my best guess is a year or so. Wha

  • Figure out if any open-source software is widely used in Africa, and contribute to it. A month should be easily enough time to implement a new feature or track down a few bugs.

    • by larry bagina (561269) on Monday July 25, 2011 @01:03PM (#36872590) Journal
      Ubuntu was founded by an African. Helping out with Ubuntu is probably the best way to help Africa. I recommend installing Ubuntu on your computer, as well as any other computers you have access to (your friends, parents, library computers, etc). And spread the word on blogs, forums, mailing lists etc.
      • Ubuntu was founded by an African.

        A man may be born in a stable, but it doesn't make him a horse
            -- Arthur Wellesley

  • by PC and Sony Fanboy (1248258) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:29PM (#36872074) Journal
    But don't take skills away from the community. If you're going to contribute, don't replace someone who is already doing the job, and don't remove the need for the community to engage someone locally to do the job.

    Going in to train others to do some sort of techincal work is good, but you have to remember that their values and yours won't really mesh, and you can't force people to learn C++ when they really want to use Basic.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:35PM (#36872170)

      The best work I ever did in Africa (Kenya, Ghana, Zambia) and Haiti was to train local staff to do the job I was being asked to do. When it comes down to it, a system that can't be maintained shouldn't be set up in the first place. Whatever you do, train someone there to keep it up.

      • by pluther (647209)
        Yes, absolutely.

        I don't have any mod points currently or I'd use them here. But, having some experience in this area, I cannot stress enough the importance of training someone local in maintaining whatever system you help set up, whether it be water pumps or a computer network.

    • Right - to elaborate, some of the volunteer-tourism folks will, say, go over to Africa and do some carpentry work for free. Great, other than you've just put a local carpenter out of business because he can't compete with your free labor.

      Go teach some proverbial men to fish, or do something else were you are sure there isn't local labor available to do the work.

      You might think, "oh, but there is so much carpentry to be done in Africa". That's a natural reaction, but it doesn't seem to actually grow econom

      • Go teach some proverbial men to fish, or do something else were you are sure there isn't local labor available to do the work.

        It's so true! Build a man a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life!

      • Right - to elaborate, some of the volunteer-tourism folks will, say, go over to Africa and do some carpentry work for free. Great, other than you've just put a local carpenter out of business because he can't compete with your free labor.

        The tourist can't compete with $2 a day labor. Africans who have the money will hire an African.

        Going over to Africa and volunteering your time that way is an inefficient use resources but does not harm the local economy. You are building projects that would never have been created without your resources instead of competing with the local labor market.

        • Well, I'm not making that up - I heard it on a radio program (NPR?) from an African development guy who said these volunteer work vacations were really hosing up local African economies. It's not just your two weeks - there is somebody booked after you, and somebody booked after him. And there are several such people in a given week.

          I found it surprising, but I have no better information.

    • by grcumb (781340)

      Going in to train others to do some sort of techincal work is good, but you have to remember that their values and yours won't really mesh, and you can't force people to learn C++ when they really want to use Basic.

      I've been living in a Least Developed Country for nearly 8 years now. I've seen a lot of well-intentioned people trying all sorts of things, most of which end up in a shambles within months of completion.

      If you're going to be a tourist, just be a tourist. Don't pretend you're anything else. If you really want an authentic experience, there are ways to get that. The simplest is to go to out-of-the-way places. If you want to lend a hand in small ways while you're there, just ask what needs doing. People will

  • Why Africa? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SiliconJesus (1407) <siliconjesus@gmail.cCOUGARom minus cat> on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:29PM (#36872076) Homepage Journal

    There are plenty of good projects wherever you happen to be right now. Schools (public and private), libraries, senior centers are all always looking for volunteers to help make their environments better places for those who use their services. Sure its not as impressive as going overseas to do some work, but it also has many headaches that the overseas visit will not.

    • by eln (21727)
      There are lots of reasons to want to go to Africa. I'd love to go to Africa, because there are lots of interesting things to see and the culture is so very different from my own.

      To answer the original question, I would say go over and do what's needed, which is probably not computer stuff for the most part (unless you want to volunteer some place that already has somewhat functioning infrastructure). Digging ditches for sewage systems, installing toilets, or digging wells would probably be more useful.
    • by atticus9 (1801640)
      "Sure its not as impressive as going overseas to do some work, but it also has many headaches that the overseas visit will not."

      That sound like a glowing endorsement to go overseas ;)

      You can always help out here in the US, and you don't need to take time off to do it. With Africa you're getting out of the country and will have a potentially life changing experience while doing good for others. Both of are good reasons to go.
    • by Kittenman (971447)
      Good point. Between contracts once in Ireland I helped sort out the PCs at my daughter's primary school. Trashed the virus stuff, installed a AV, fixed up hardware errors, reinstalled whatever where necessary. But Ireland's not as political as the States.

      The school principal gave me a cut-glass decanter which I still have (somewhere).

  • Whatever they need (Score:4, Insightful)

    by chinton (151403) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [todhsals-100notnihc]> on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:32PM (#36872128) Journal
    Don't go into it so narrowly focused -- do whatever they need you to do. Who cares if they are running open source if they need fresh drinking water.
    • by wakim1618 (579135)

      Let me second this sentiment. As a smart person - you should go outside your comfort zone, work with the locals and try to come up with innovative and sustainable solution to whatever problem they have (access to water, sharing access to the internet, getting their goods to the market). You will gain a meaningful experience (and possibly skills) out of it and so will they. I have been working on projects throughout Africa for the past 3 years and can assure you that they need smart people to complement the

  • by sconeu (64226) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:34PM (#36872154) Homepage Journal

    Go ahead and volunteer outside of your comfort area. You might find that you like doing something "different". At a bare minimum you'll learn something new.

    • by boristdog (133725)

      YES, this.

      What most of the "needy" world needs is clean water and proper waste disposal. The fact is a proper septic system is very easy to construct and will eliminate 90% of the water contamination problems in many areas.

      Study how to build simple septic systems, wells and water purification systems. That's what people really need.

      • by pluther (647209) <pluther@us3.14a.net minus pi> on Monday July 25, 2011 @01:42PM (#36873212) Homepage
        There is a lot of need there, it's true.

        It is, however, not the only need.

        There are lots of places where there is existing infrastructure where the people still need computer systems set up and training in how to use and maintain them.

        Africa, especially, in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, has lots of orphanages, where they have sources of clean water and electricity (if only for a few hours a day), but a few computers, especially if you can find a way to connect them to the internet, and some training in their use and maintenance, can go a long way to improving the lives of a great number of children.

        The non-profit I work with gets a lot of requests from Africa - more than we can fulfill with our limited resources. If you're serious and have time and resources to get yourself and some equipment there I can help you get in touch with somebody.

        • by chinton (151403)
          I would submit that if they only have power for only a few hours a day, they probably need to use it for something more important than an internet connection.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by LWATCDR (28044)

      Exactly. I did Habitat for Humanity build with my church. I was slinging sod with a lawyer, rocket scientist, and a microbiologist while several of our other members where doing the skilled job of putting in windows. It was a lot of fun and we since we did two weeks worth of work that day. Because of our efforts a single mom and her two kids got to move in on Mothers day weekend. Why just use the skills you have when you can gain more skills, Do you know how to hang dry wall, lay tile, install cabinets, or

      • Exactly. I did Habitat for Humanity build with my church. I was slinging sod with a lawyer, rocket scientist, and a microbiologist while several of our other members where doing the skilled job of putting in windows. It was a lot of fun and we since we did two weeks worth of work that day. Because of our efforts a single mom and her two kids got to move in on Mothers day weekend. Why just use the skills you have when you can gain more skills, Do you know how to hang dry wall, lay tile, install cabinets, or frame a wall? Now is the time to learn. The skill of being a geek is the ability to learn. So use that skill. Find out what needs to be done where you live and do it. I could be helping in a school, Big Brother/Big Sisters, or a local food bank. Not as glamourous as going to Africa but then you may be needed down the street now. Just find a cause your interested in and say, "How can I help?"

        +1!

        I was going to post exactly the same thing. I volunteered for Habitat through my employer's philanthropy scheme. I learned a lot of useful homebuilding stuff. In addition to the skills you've mentioned I learned how to install hardwood flooring and exterior wall insulation.

        There're plenty of geeking opportunities: in addition to the enormous number of extremely dangerous power tools you may use, there're hundreds of hand tools, lots of Pythagorean mathematics, different materials' properties, stress/str

      • by Larryish (1215510)

        Was your single mother an effective person who raises her children and keeps some sort of job, or was it a fat welfare heifer hooked on fake fingernails and the Jerry Springer show?

  • A friend of mine in med school wanted to help out with the building/early staffing of a hospital in Ethiopia, but she wasn't selected for the program (so she went to Cambodia instead to do other humanitarian work). I know nothing whatsoever about the details, but I have to imagine any hospital built today, anywhere in the world, would have some sort of technical infrastructure. A network with WiFi or perhaps even some sort of program that manages and sorts patient data... all these sound within the skill se
    • I've seen many "Hospitals" (more like tiny clinics) which don't have any tech infrastructure. Many places in developing countries want to address huge issues like famine and curable diseases quickly, and are not particularly concerned about patient records when distributing food, vaccines, or doing disease tests.

      • by vlm (69642)

        distributing food, vaccines, or doing disease tests

        You'd be surprised how handy it is to have infrastructure to handle the inevitable logistics problems. You don't want to "have to" start reusing needles, for example.

        It depends where you are... "city" means the dr already has a cell phone to handle logistics so they simply don't need you. Doing vaccinations deep in the wilderness its really convenient to order more "stuff" over a radio rather than having to hike "home" and back out again. Pretty much if there's a road, they don't need help, but if they d

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:36PM (#36872174)

    I spent three years in Africa (South Africa and Zambia) doing geek work. Here's the deal, you can't do something "important" in one or two months, so don't plan on being the knight in shining armor coming in to help. However, if you go in with an attitude of humility and a desire to learn, you can be helpful.

    My suggestion, based on my experience: Most of the NGOs I worked with had crappy old donated computers running some pirated version of XP, full of viruses. You could be a great help by finding a local (i.e. Africa run, not international aid agency) NGO and helping to clean up their computers, install anti-virus, get their printers working etc etc. Good computer support is in short supply, so folks do what they can but it's not easy. If you are thinking about this, also bring along a box of CDs or DVDs with latest versions of software, because getting on the internet is either impossible or slow or really expensive, so doing on-line updates is a pain.

    I tried teaching people to use Ubuntu with limited success, everyone wanted Windows with Word, because that was what everyone else was using, and that was what was "known". It's a good solution, but without support falls down like everything else.

    Good luck, let us know how it all worked out.

  • I think an always-on, human-sized internet video connection between a refugee camp and one or more "Western" schools or public locations would be of dramatic help in humanizing the refugee crises of Africa. I'd love to see the Times Square jumbotron showing a refugee camp instead of an advertisement.

    • I'm sure if you pay whoever owns said jumbotron enough money, they will show whatever you want.

    • Of course you'd have to get an Internet connection with enough bandwidth for live, hi-res (you want life-sized) video into the refugee camp first...

    • by idontgno (624372)

      Oh, great, bring ubiquitous video surveillance to people already already in desperate straits.

      Don't forget to tell them it's for their own good, like every other police society project.

  • Nigeria... (Score:5, Funny)

    by stretch0611 (603238) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:37PM (#36872208) Journal

    You can teach the poor downtrodden deposed ex-kings how to get through spam filters.

  • by fliptout (9217) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:37PM (#36872212) Homepage

    http://www.ewb-usa.org/ [ewb-usa.org]

    I have not had the time to join the local chapter, but I'd very much like to learn more.

  • They apparently need more help with their spamming and scamming. I have seen a lot less of that lately and have missed it a great deal.

  • by fallen1 (230220) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:38PM (#36872216) Homepage

    Why not try them? They had been focusing primarily on Mexico and Central America with a secondary focus on Africa. Couldn't hurt to drop them a line and see what activities they have going on.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geeks_Without_Borders [wikipedia.org]

    Good luck!

    • by WhiteDragon (4556)

      Why not try them? They had been focusing primarily on Mexico and Central America with a secondary focus on Africa. Couldn't hurt to drop them a line and see what activities they have going on.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geeks_Without_Borders [wikipedia.org]

      Good luck!

      Another useful geeky aid organization: Télécoms sans frontières [wikipedia.org]

      • by grcumb (781340)

        Another useful geeky aid organization: Télécoms sans frontières [wikipedia.org]

        Er, no.

        Don't get me wrong, the work they do is great, but Télécoms sans frontières is a first-responder disaster relief organisation. You need to be on call for extended periods, and you need to be able to get on a plane and be on-site within 48 hours. Plus, you need to be expert in the particular systems they're using.

        Again: I love these guys and what they do. I'd be volunteering for them already if I didn't live in an inconvenient location (South Pacific). But they are emphatically no

  • Of one's skills is finding an endeavor that people need done so much that they are willing to pay for it.
  • by Nkwe (604125) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:50PM (#36872362)
    Africa is kind of a big place. There are something like 50 countries there, all with different kinds of people, politics, and needs. it might help if you indicted where in Africa you were planning on going. Once you pick a country, are you planning on going to a large metropolitan city, a medium city, a small town or village, or what? Does the place you are going to have an industrial or economic base or are the people there just subsistence living? Like other places in the world Africa has a mix of all of this.

    Without further information I would give the same advice that I would give any geek looking for volunteer work anywhere in the world (or at home): Find activities that inspire others to be smart, inquisitive, and have a passion to figure out how stuff works. Focus on the young.
  • by spinkham (56603) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:50PM (#36872370)

    Hackersforcharity.org [hackersforcharity.org]

    I highly recommend reading the blog, and maybe contacting Johnny. Reading their blog gives a good feel about what tech charity work in Africa can and cannot do, from someone who gave up their career to do it.

    For those who want to volunteer closer to home, http://www.nten.org/ [nten.org] has national and local resources. Their local affiliated NCtech4good group seems to be doing good things in my area, I've only found them recently myself.

  • One charity drive I got involved with thanks to a teacher in university was to take old, discarded hardware and form it into something useful for schools. We would get computers that were to be thrown away by the government delivered to the university instead. Then we would salvage as much as we possibly could to make working computers out of them, set up a network that shouldn't require much in the way of maintenance, and educate teachers about how to use it. We'd even appeal to ISPs to get them hooked up
  • One of the local clubs may have a contingent going somewhere internationally to help set up fresh drinking water, or fighting polio, or building a bridge, or starting a library (my club is doing the last two). It's a good way to help without having to get exceptionally bogged down with the administrative and political details of international assistance.

  • by lunchlady55 (471982) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:56PM (#36872470)

    Please talk to your doctor ASAP about starting your vaccination courses. Some can take up to 6 months to hit maximum effectiveness. I wish you good luck on your journey.

  • by 16Chapel (998683)
    How about the VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas): http://www.vsointernational.org/ [vsointernational.org] For a while I was thinking about apply to work in Nepal as a computing instructor / network guy
    • by grcumb (781340)

      How about the VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas): http://www.vsointernational.org/ [vsointernational.org] For a while I was thinking about apply to work in Nepal as a computing instructor / network guy

      I spent 3 years volunteering with VSO. Of all the volunteer organisations, I found this to be the best,

      Tragically, that's not saying much. A small majority of volunteer placements consist of little more than busy work, providing a useful bit of revenue for the host organisation and - sometimes - an extra pair of hands. Think of it as a slightly higher class of internship.

      Unfortunately, VSO probably won't even consider a stint of less than 2 years. There are a few exceptions for business volunteers, but I be

  • Come to Uganda! (Score:3, Informative)

    by batje (818323) on Monday July 25, 2011 @01:07PM (#36872640) Homepage
    Here are some ideas.
    • We recently did a mapping party in Uganda [mappingday.com]. That was in Kampala. Uganda is much bigger, so you can travel around and show people a bit about GPS & Openstreetmap.
    • If you want to code, there is no CDN targetted for Africa, though bandwidth here is insanely expensive. If you want to help us build a trial, you are more than welcome.
    • If networking is your thing, check out http://www.hackersforcharity.org/ [hackersforcharity.org] ran by Johnny Long (he is in Uganda & in Wikipedia)
    • And you can always find a computer with a virus that needs to be removed.

    By all means, do come to Africa. It's an experience that will change your life. It did change mine. Am stuck here for 6 years and enjoying every single day of it.

    And drop me a line when you want to join us for hacking or a beer.

  • I don't have anything to bring to this discussion that hasn't already been said, but I do want to say that I wish you well and I think it's admirable what you're doing.

  • Depending on your skill set, some of the volunteer positions with Mercy Ships might fit the bill: http://www.mercyships.org/content/home [mercyships.org]

    Positions available: http://www.mercyships.org/positions/P0/ [mercyships.org]
  • The various solar power projects need technical people.

    http://www.google.com/search?q=solar+power+volunteer+africa [google.com]

  • by Jerry (6400) on Monday July 25, 2011 @01:32PM (#36873026)

    With the USA rapidly transitioning from a 1st World to a 2nd World country you could volunteer to do a wide variety of Geeky activities in various locations there. And, you'd speak the language perfectly and understand the culture as well. Help rural people far from major population centers to connect to the Internet (which is no longer a luxury but a necessity), install or repair radios and TVs and their antennas, or repair mechanical or electrical devices. Ditto for bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles. Help poor families set up solar or wind generated electric power to run various low powered communication devices, lights and fans. Recycle old desktops and laptops by repairing them and installing a Linux distro on them, along with any business, education or entertainment applications they might need or want. For the $1K-1.5K cost of a round trip air flight to Africa you could buy a lot of laptop and desktop parts and 4GB USB sticks. Remember, charity begins at home.

    • With the USA rapidly transitioning from a 1st World to a 2nd World country you could volunteer to do a wide variety of Geeky activities in various locations there. And, you'd speak the language perfectly and understand the culture as well. Help rural people far from major population centers to connect to the Internet (which is no longer a luxury but a necessity), install or repair radios and TVs and their antennas, or repair mechanical or electrical devices. Ditto for bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles. Help poor families set up solar or wind generated electric power to run various low powered communication devices, lights and fans. Recycle old desktops and laptops by repairing them and installing a Linux distro on them, along with any business, education or entertainment applications they might need or want. For the $1K-1.5K cost of a round trip air flight to Africa you could buy a lot of laptop and desktop parts and 4GB USB sticks. Remember, charity begins at home.

      Volunteering in the USA doesn't have the same cachet as volunteering in Africa. Obligatory slashdot car analogy: OP asks how best to buy a Prius. You reply explaining that he can get the same mileage from a small, modern diesel.

  • ...are worried about the state of their LDAP servers.

    Just kidding.

    Become familiar with OLPC system administration and go help set up some school out in the bush.

  • by J05H (5625) on Monday July 25, 2011 @01:39PM (#36873146) Homepage

    Go to the tech college in Takoradi, Ghana and install a FabFi mesh network. The students have to go to an Internet cafe for network access. They were one of the Fab Academy labs this year but had trouble keeping up due to lack of access.

    This might not be as basic as digging wells or whatever but is much more technical.

  • Did that Nigerian prince ever resolve his problems?

  • Not an answer to your question but here is a suggestion: if you are going south of the equator get yourself every shot you can and read up on all the different parasites and diseases you may encounter. Obviously there are exceptions but when it comes to such things the northern hemisphere is often an amazingly safer place to live than the southern hemisphere. More so if you have never been south of the equator before.
  • No reputable agency will let you sign up for just one or two months for service in a really foreign place. Preparation courses alone take already more time than that.

    I suggest you find something useful to do locally.

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