A Peace Corps for the tech set
Geekcorps volunteers help developing nations move closer to technology's leading edge.
(Business 2.0 Magazine) - Matt Berg spent his first few postcollege years like any other geek: coding software under the glow of fluorescent lights. But today the 28-year-old rigs makeshift radio towers near the sands of Tombouctou. As a volunteer for U.S.-based Geekcorps, he's part of an IT-savvy army that's bringing technology infrastructure to developing nations around the world. "I have always been interested in how technology can make people's lives better," he says.
Since it was launched in 2000 by Ethan Zuckerman, a co-founder of the Tripod community website, Geekcorps has become a sort of Peace Corps for young tech workers. A division of the International Executive Service Corps, the nonprofit has deployed more than 80 volunteers to develop software in Vietnam, assemble computer networks in Romania, and help the Lebanese IT industry increase international exports. Volunteers typically take four-month sabbaticals from their jobs, and Geekcorps provides housing, airfare, and a stipend for meals and incidental expenses.
Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Geekcorps works with corporations such as Hewlett-Packard (Research)--which recently chipped in a $1.5 million grant--to identify global problems and turn them into projects. In Ghana, for example, Geekcorps learned that the IT industry lacked technical and business acumen, so it launched the Accra Skills Transfer Program in the nation's capital to mentor promising firms.
Geekcorps's biggest ongoing project is in Mali, where as many as 18 volunteers have worked to put the country's 14 radio stations online. In the past, radio journalists often had to ride two days by bus to deliver cassette tapes of important interviews to their stations. But when the project is complete, breaking news will travel at Internet speed. "We're building the ability for the community to be informed," says Geekcorps director Wayan Vota.
By offering such meaningful work, Geekcorps itself is growing. According to Vota, about 70 percent of all volunteers have expressed interest in additional four-month stints, and the organization is always looking for more adventure-seeking geeks. Says Berg, who's currently on the Mali team, "We get the chance to use our strong technical skills to address real developmental issues." Nothing geeky about that.To send a letter to the editor about this story, click here.
From the March 1, 2006 issue