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A Brief History of Uconnect 1996 T0 2020 By Daniel Richard Stern- Building Out The ICT For D Ecosystem By Pioneering Improved  Internet And Demonstrating E-Learning

My wife, Lisa, and I  are educators.  We have  worked in Uganda through the educational NGO, Uconnect.org, for 22 years, pioneering E-Learning methodologies in coordination with Ministry of Education officials, for which Uconnect was given offices at the ministry headquarters where we demonstrated e-learning to teachers, head teachers, and ministry officials, using the Internet. 

I had been a founder member of the Internet Society ISOC in Geneva, under the leadership of CERN 's Dr. Ben Segal  a nuclear physicist, with a lot of faith in a young intern that some of the institute's leaders thought to be a bit wacky, and thus Ben became mentor to Tim-Berners-Lee, who was in the process of creating HTML that would  enable the first browsers, and thus Tim could be credited with having created the Internet as we know it.  

I had  a lot of respect for Ben, and one day when we were walking toward his Porsche, I told him I had a wacky idea of putting together an Internet project in Uganda, Ben said he thought it was a great idea. That was all I needed to hear. And thus Uconnect was born, and its results in gave the following year gave support to our budding DEV SIG

I led the creation of the Ugandan Chapter of ISOC, which is still going strong, and played a role in building out the ecosystem, through demonstrating various emerging wireless technologies. I was also the lead for Uganda's Internet exchange Point, a key component of the nation's growing need for faster, more affordable Internet, which I and my small team had put together alongside Richard Bell,  who was building the Kenyan IXP. Bell was a Kenyan Legionnaire’ and Director of the Great Lakes Internet Group.(The  Last I heard of him Bell was Wananchi Telecom CEO.)  A Gilat engineer had told me not so long ago that Uganda's IXP was one of the best he'd seen; the Uganda IXP was handling a lot of Internet traffic; Kyle Spenser was doing a great job as its Director.

Uconnect “Winging It” By Building The Education Ministry Network With no Contract

I got unofficial permission from a high ministry official to build a network to connect all the education officials in their two office buildings in Kampala. The team starting at five PM each workday. They  got to work, drilling holes through concrete walls, laying conduit to be filled with Ethernet cable. It had taken months of hard work, but at the beginning of the year 2000, the network was up and running, connecting 45 Ministry officials, including four ministers. It was the first ministry to be networked in Uganda. On a Saturday I showed one of the officials on the seventh floor how to use the network. I had left my laptop connected to the network in my office in the smaller building below.  Iasked the official to turn up the sound on her computer and showed her how to navigate to my music folder containing a copy of a Mississippi  Delta Blues album. Doreen clicked on one of the files' and the office came alive with Elmore James singing his heart out accompanied by his famous slide guitar. Her visitors were not sure what to make of it, and I showed her an Italian opera album on my laptop via the ministry’s network. 

The following week I ran an errand up on the 7th floor and when I got off the lift I could hear music from those two albums coming from most of the offices down the hall.  The officials obviously were beginning to come to terms with using the new Education Ministry network; Glory be!

We had had no contract, with the ministry, yet the ministry rewarded our faith, delivering to Uconnect a check for several thousand dollars for our pioneering work. Richard Bell’s Internet company partnered with Uconnect,  donating a huge amount of Internet bandwidth to enable Education ministry officials to enjoy the full the benefits of the Internet,  through the Uconnect server located in our small office at the ministry that was connected to the Internet wirelessly.

From E-Learning By Internet To e-learning By Offline HTML, the RACHEL Digital Repository 

In 2008 Salmon Khan, introduced us to WorldPossible.org. They gave Uconnect a copy of the RACHEL, an extraordinary e-learning repository. The RACHEL contained thousands of Khan Academy youtube videos, and over fifty up-to-date, beautifully illustrated science and math textbooks, Hesperian health guides, and more.

The Uconnect team distributed the RACHEL to hundreds of Ugandan schools, where the e-learning content was  available to students and teachers without having to connect to the Internet -  and all the e-learning content was under  Creative Commons licensing, and therefore could be freely copied from one school to another school.

Could Sir Tim- Berners-Lee Be Interested In Visiting Uganda ?

I had been invited to  give a talk at an EU conference in Brussels, in which I  shared anecdotes about the glories of offline 

E-learning that enabled greater inclusivity for teachers and students in remote areas of a developing country.

No Electricity? No Problem !

Relatively Very few Ugandans have mains electricity.
I had just come from spending almost a month in small towns located a thousand, five hundred meters up in the West Nile, where we were going to install solar panels on the rooves of secondary government schools.  Our intrepid son, Jedidiah, and I would arrive at a school in our small 4x4 with the roof rack piled high with solar equipment, computers tucked away inside the car. Jed would show students which eucalyptus trees would be suitable to be cut down for making ladders, and how to cut them with a saw, and how to hammer the rungs together with the heavy-duty nails, we’d brought from Kampala. Jed showed them how to carry the large fragile solar panels to the rooftops without damaging them. He could then climb up with one or two students to show how them how to secure the solar panels with locking frames so they could not be stolen.

After connecting solar panels to the controllers, and from the controllers to the huge deep-cycle batteries. We could now connect the low energy computer network we had installed in one of the classrooms to the power. Now it was time for the “Moment of Truth :The head teacher was shown how to turn on the Server. The servercame to life , and then nine thin clients lit up. We were so happy that we could now show the teachers, 
Headmistress or Headmaster, and students, how they could use the computers that Uconnect had supplied to the schools for e-learning.WOW !! ( A Berlin film company heard the story and flew down a crew who made documentary film of the schools a few months later. On our way back from filming while driving at night we nearly had a head-on crash – with a huge elephant standing in the middle of the road. At 80 km if we had not braked in time it could have been fatal.)

Leap Frogging From Chalkboard To Digital Color Illustrated Science Textbooks

Libraries in some of the better schools in and around Kampala had only a very few outdated science textbook's; more often than not, a school would have only one Chemistry or a biology textbook used by the Chemistry and biology teachers, who would copy from them  andwrite with chalk on a blackboard for students to copy into their lined notebooks. After installing the solar systems, and turning on one of the computers and opening up the offline CK12 textbooks or offline Khan Academy youtube videos in math or science, teachers were amazed; they could hardly believe their eyes!  They and their students would, from this moment on, have immediate access to thousands of videos, dozens of beautifully illustrated up-to-date textbooks, on the sciences that they could easily navigate to, and find readily, by virtue of the intuitive nature of the HTML browsing experience.  

They would soon find themselves bridging two worlds; one was the virtual paradise that surrounded them in this remote wilderness,( and I’ll leave it to your imaginations  how interactions between the enlightenment afforded  by  new windows on how the world works in terms of science and math, now readily available to students and teachers through access to the RACHEL Repository might turn out to be. The learning experience was quickly growing to be more interesting, a revolution in learning  in the making.)

It was beginning to become a regular part of our work: When a teacher or headteacher came to Kampala from an upcountry school on an errand to the education ministry an official would often recommend that they visit Uconnect’s office to get a demo of the RACHEL.  It happened more than once that while we were giving a demo to a chemistry or biology teacher, that during a demo showing videos or color illustrations from one of the digital textbooks, we would notice tears welling up in a teacher’s eyes; they were so overcome by what they had witnessed that they were speechless.

The headmistress of one of those West Nile schools would occasionally visit Kampala, usually on an errand to the education ministry and she would ring us to let us know she was around, and we would invite her to stay with us at our home for a few days, during which she would update us on how her teachers and students were benefitting from using their copy of the RACHEL for e-learning. And the last we heard from her, not so long ago,  on a phone call, she reported that  those old computers, solar panels and huge deep-cycle batteries had been carefully managed and were working fine.

Sir Tim- Berners-Lee Visits Uganda

Please excuse the hiatus; now Back to the EU conference in Brussels. At the end of my presentation,  I was greeted by one of the delegates who introduced himself as a member of Tim Berners- Lee's WC3 team in Cambridge Massachusetts. We had a good long talk over tea, during which he suggested that Tim might be interested in visiting our projects in Uganda. Long story short, I followed up. Put a team together that could organize several events centered around Tim’s visit to Uganda in November of 2009 that would include  a TEDx  of events t to Uganda, TEDx talk by Sir Tim to be given at UNICEF HQs’ upstairs conference room, A Press Conference and cocktail party at Sheraton’s Ruwenzori Room for journalists, University Vice-Chancellors, and most of the Ambassadors representing their country to Uganda. And to top it off, there would be the Key-Note Address from Sir Tim to University lecturers and students, that eventually drew almost four thousand students and lecturers from all universities in Uganda and some from neighboring East Africa universities.

 I was obliged to introduce Tim to the PM, at his office in Kampala .Tim gave the PM a talk very similar to a talk he had  given a week or so before to the UK’s PM, Gordon Brown, on the subject of “Open Access”, by which country’s ministers would be encouraged to open their secret data silos to the rest of the world. Tim confided that he had just begun to speak, when Gordon Brown cut him off, crying out, “ Stop”! and he called for is PA, and gave instructions to bring each of his Cabinet ministers into the room they were in at Number10, announcing that not another word would spoken until everyone had arrived. And, looking back, One could safely conclude that the PMs actions may have resulted in the UK’s having been one of the first governments to open their ministries[ data silos to the world. I don’t know much about how Uganda's’ PM ‘s response to Tim’s talk, but during our chat, he asked me why the Ministry of Trade was hosting Sir Tim’s visit to Uganda instead of  ICT. I told him frankly that I had written to ICT about Sir Tim’s pending visit, with no response, and visited the heads of ICT at their offices with no response. Needless to say, he was not happy and I have to confess, I was struggling to keep up with Tim’s endless inspirations, and I later regretted having turned down his invitation to join a dinner ; I was at the end of my tether, totally exhausted.

Apropos of Tim’s visit, during which I accompanied Tim and his companion, Miss Leath, just a couple of years ago the WC3 sent me on a mission to a UN conference on Open Access that would be held held in Addis Ababa. I found myself in a five star Hotel Penthouse Suite.  That shot my self-esteem through the ceiling. I have fond memories of  Addis. I love the traditional music and dance, some of which goes back to the time of the visit by the Queen of Sheba to Solomon in Jerusalem. (I’m told the Crown Plaza Hotel is economical and has some of the best traditional dancing and music.). 

MoMo Hackathons Entrepreneurs Mentoring Future StartUps

I had co-founded the innovation hub, Hive Colab.org, and in 2010 I founded MoMo Kampala, organizing over forty events over the following six years in which thought leaders working with mobile apps, solving problems with Out- Of The- Box solution gave presentations about their experiences, testimonials, anecdotes, stories of failures and successes .on providing access leading to affordable education, travel, healthcare, job creation, etc., both locally and internationally. 

Presentations were followed by Q&A after which we had informal networking with drinks and snacks, during which delegates could mingle with presenters, entrepreneurs could get together and form start-ups.   Each event drew over a hundred delegates, mostly university students, sprinkled with telecom managers looking for techie app creators start-up company leads, and their mentors. Most MoMo events were covered by Uganda national TV. Mobile Monday acted as acatalyst for innovation, disrupting the status-quo; inexperienced youth were finding better ways to do things that needed to be done, using mobile apps:  make way for the new inventors.

( I’ve got a film  of a healthcare apps MoMo made by one of the television journalist, but have not found the link, and may get round to uploading to youtube one of these days ; it’s quite good. )

I enjoyed organizing hackathons at various venues in Kampala, and also the Agrihack held in Kigali Rwanda a few years ago.( You can see an interview I gave to Rwanda TV  on youtube using  this link below. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nO2o3J8e0t0


  Chloroform Burglary Sends Uconnect to Work from Dar

 The MoMo we held in 2016 turned out to be our last. Lisa and I had invited our daughter to visit us at our home in a gated community in Kampala. Maria had been taking photos and was filming some of Uconnect’s e-learning projects. The three of us woke up one morning to find most of our valuables had disappeared.  It was weird; neighbours came to alert us that our back door had been left open. We were struggling to make sense of what we were seeing. Is this really our house? What has happened? Lisa came to me and said, “We’ve been robbed. We were not quite awake. We had been put to sleep with Chloroform. We were in a Daze. Our heads ached. More than a dozen Uconnect e-learning Laptops were gone. Maria's iPhone and expensive laptop that she used to make her films with had been under her body, and we suddenly realized that the thieves had to turn her over in her PJs to take those devices. Maria was in shock.

 It took us months to fully recover from the trauma, the of it all, perhaps it took as long as a year, by which time we had moved from Kampala to Dar es Salaam. And, looking back I think we can more easily than most, identify with the predicaments of the migrants, the disruption, subliminal feelings of loss. But then, aren’t we also given a chance to rebuild, which is what we are doing.

You will want to visit uconnect.org to find the latest E-Girls flier.

We were now working on a new project training young girls from low-income communities how to use computers for e-learning, and to share the learning experience with one or more peers. When a new girl had acquired a certain level of competence they were recruited to be an E- Girl. E- Girls could be trusted to train other girls and also help to manage the project. (If you visit Uconnect.org you can see the E-Girls flier in English; The Kiswahili version has been printed in colour for the E-Girls to be able to distribute to their teachers, parents, friends and relatives). They may also sell computers containing the RACHEL e-learning repository to teachers who can pay a modest down payment, and sign an agreement to pay so much each month, after which they may take the computer home. (If they miss a payment they will be warned, that the computer could be taken away from them)

BTW, Uconnect Uganda is currently located on the fourth the floor of Legacy Towers, where, during our absence,  a small team is, led by Project Manager Mr Alex Mukama. Alex has been supplying copies of the RACHEL Repository to teachers, and students.

History of the Internet by Internet Society  (external site)


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