BY GERARD BEST
When Dr. Gustavo Cervantes Montero got the good news, he didn't celebrate, not at first.
“At first, I thought it was a mistake,” he said in an e-mail interview.
For the last 10 years, Montero's team from the Universidad de Oriente de Cuba, a 70-year-old Cuban university, has been quietly working on a special project to develop digital educational materials for some of the country’s rural communities, precisely where it's most needed.
In September, Montero was checking his inbox when he saw that the project had been selected by the Regional Fund for Digital Innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean—commonly called FRIDA—as a top prize winner. In addition to a $5,000 cash award, the project also copped a sponsorship to attend the Global Internet Governance Forum in Switzerland. The news took a while to sink in.
“I was so sure that other projects would win, especially another one from Cuba which had national scope. In fact, I closed the e-mail and turned off the computer, then I came back and reopened it and read the mail again. I was confused, and I really couldn’t believe it,” he said.
“Eventually, I sent the mail to my son and my boss and just closed it. I couldn’t even click through to the online results until the next day, when I was bit more collected, and was able to actually process and celebrate the results. From the time I read that email up until the time that I actually saw the results online, I was just walking around with that excitement inside me. As in, I didn’t tell my wife until the following evening. And it wasn’t until the day after that that I started to think about all the work done by my team for more than 10 years. That’s when I started to reach out the research team, work colleagues and supervisors to let them in on the great news,” he added.
FRIDA jurors who selected the Cuban project, called Armonía, highlighted the fact that it uses technology to create educational materials in direct response to challenges faced by rural communities, in the context of the Cuban Internet.
“Communities like Mangá, Sabanilla, Boca de Mícara, Soledad, Concepción, Aeropuerto, were among those with the best results,” Montero said.
The initiative ran in more than 20 sites, and saw the production of websites and e-books in primary schools and higher-level learning institutions.
“In the committee's opinion, Armonía's efforts to incorporate technology in the school system and rural environments despite existing limitations are exemplary,” a release on the FRIDA website said.
Montero said he was “deeply grateful” for the support and input of a wide range of collaborators, including government representatives, education officials, teachers and citizens.
Cuba's was not the only Caribbean project to win a cash prize for designing technology-based solutions to a serious challenge facing the region.
A Dominican proposal to use open data and the Internet of Things (IoT) to help deal with severe weather events emerged as the winner of the most technical category—Innovation for Internet Development, and was awarded $18,500. FRIDA jurors singled out the experiment for responding to the challenges of climate change and Caribbean countries’ exposure to natural disasters.
Called Schools’ Internet of Things, it proposed to build weather stations in local schools using hardware such as Rasberry Pi, Arduino, climatic sensors and cameras to capture data on local weather.
“This will require students to develop knowledge in Python, PHP, and web server technology, as well as other Internet protocols,” said a release from the National Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (NTRC) of Dominica, the organization behind the proposal.
The team proposes to make the recorded meteorological data freely available online, using mainly open source software. According to the proposal, students, teachers and volunteers will work together to record the local weather data at each school site, then pool their data in an open format online.
“NTRC Dominica is thrilled and overwhelmed to have been selected as the winner of the most technology innovative project,” said Craig Nesty, Executive Director of the NTRC, in an e-mail interview.
“We are very excited to move towards the implementation phase. We believe the exposure gained by the Dominican children and the Dominican public from different and varied backgrounds, will impact their lives significantly and hopefully transform their perspective on the use of the internet and plant the seeds for further innovation and creativity,” he added.
The proposals from Dominica and Cuba were selected among 312 initiatives received this year from 23 different countries. Since 2004, FRIDA has distributed more than US $1.67 million among more than 120 innovative initiatives and projects in 19 countries throughout the region, contributing to the promotion of Internet development in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the program website.
FRIDA is one of several capacity development programs coordinated across the Caribbean, Central and South America by the Latin American and Caribbean Regional Internet Registry, known as LACNIC.
Gerard Best is an independent multimedia Development Journalist covering human interest stories around technology-related issues across the Americas | blog: www.gerardbest.com | twitter: @gerardbest
CAPTION: A group of participants take part in a digital education workshop as part of Project Armonía in Cuba. Photo courtesy: PROJECT ARMONÍA