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Computer Aid bridges the Digital Divide

Reducing security risks from open source software

Last year it was time for The Register to move offices. Lying in a small box-room were half a dozen or so redundant computers, unused since our previous move. We decided to get rid of them, but a colleague, John Leyden, had a better idea: he contacted Computer Aid International, the UK's biggest computer recycling charity, which promptly collected our unwanted PCs. This removed our disposal headache, and gave us a warm fuzzy glow.

The Register was one of hundreds of PC donors to Computer Aid in 2005. The list includes many public sector and charities. Prominent supporters from the private sector are thinner on the ground but include huge names such as BA, Shell, Swiss RE and Allied Domecq.

collaborative thinking. It brings together the need for organisations in the West to safely and legally dispose of obsolete but still-working PCs, with the needs of organisations in the developing world for affordable PCs. Computer Aid is not the only UK organisation to do this, and possibly not even the first, but it is by far the biggest.

Computer AidFrom its headquarters in London's Holloway Road, the charity supplied 16,000 PCs in 2005 to dozens of educational and community organisations all over the developing world.

Recipients include the British Council Eritrea, which has installed computers refurbished by Computer Aid to every public library in the country. The project is now rolling out to every school library in Eritrea.

In Rwanda, Computer Aid is sending thousands of refurbs to secondary schools, complementing the Government's budget which has financed 4,000 new PCs for the sector. It is also rolling out 2,000 Computer Aid PCs to health institutions across the country.

This year, Computer Aid aims to supply 25,000 PCs. It estimates that each PC provides 6,000 hours of access, so 2006's batch will deliver 125m hours for ICT in education and ICT for development.

And very affordable they are too: Computer Aid can supply PCs for as little as £39 each, plus shipping. It charges a handling fee to cover costs, but recipients rarely pay: typically, the tab is picked up by intermediaries such as government agencies, charities and other NGOs, or sometimes even corporates.

Off the Shelf

Computer Aid International has 16 staff on its books and another 16 volunteers and people on work experience. This comprises techies, fundraisers, and foreign language specialists. The organisation also has two programme officers, in South Africa and Kenya, who liaise with local non-profit organisations seeking affordable PCs.

Computer Aid's London HQ is, appropriately enough, a refurbished warehouse. The charity occupies 10,000sqft, most of which is taken up by three workshops. The first is filled with PCs waiting for inspection; a second room is filled with PCs being data wiped using Blancco software. The software also captures the PC specification, making it easy for Computer Aid to decide where it should go next. New software is also added at this point.

The third "workshop" is in reality the warehouse. This looks like much like any standard PC distribution outlet: it is packed to the gunwales with computers, monitors and keyboards, mostly boxed and ready to ship. Along one wall, the racks are filled with rejects - broken equipment, sub-spec PCs - destined for clean disposal.

The PCs sits on industry-standard racking and are moved by forklift - both donated by distribution companies. And the computers are not bad workhorses, either - at time of writing, the minimum spec is Pentium III with 128MB RAM and CD-ROM drives as standard. Most are pre-installed with Microsoft software, supplied by the software giant at the knock-down price of £2 per licence. Computer Aid can also provide PCs with free and open source software.

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