Resource-efficient rural schooling - Mother of Pearl

TL;DR: Mother of Pearl is a scalable initiative producing critical skill sets and information
flows in a resource efficient way, where conventional approaches fail or are not enough.

It relies on cheap digital audio players, and content can easily be multiplied, adapted, or curated as needed. It is intended to work under extremely severe circumstances, and can be implemented out of a day-pack.

Intro: This is a project I have mulled over for years, then shared here, then shared it there - where, all of a sudden, it really clicked.
And at that point we mostly dropped of the radar…

But only because we now got really busy – building it on the ground, with all the little but important details such as getting stuff through Cameroonian customs, civil unrest, curfews, lock-downs, kidnappings left and right, organizing volunteers, producing local content, and thousands of IDPs all the while competing for priorities.
In short: All my half-idle armchair musings got exposed to a hefty dose of “experience in the field” through the ever resourceful, ever hopeful, very well connected, and indefatigable @gentlewest and his ingenious sidekick brother.
There are of course dozens of lenses through which one can look at the broader context and the intervention itself. I will only touch on two that fascinate me to no end as tiny asides (Our planet and The Gutenberg Parenthesis) before we get down to brass tacks:

In the harshest of conditions humans rely on the spoken word.

The combination of this most ancient technology with modern audio players
and memory technology is a key enabler on a broad set of issues.
1. Affordable: Our approach uses very compact and affordable audio
players (0.8 to 2 EUR) and allows spreading accurate, up to date, and
appropriately customized information to a target audience that may be
illiterate, struggling, and remote.
2. Minimal capex, custom opex: There are no front heavy investments
such as building, staffing, and attending of conventional schools. The
syllabus can be tested, tailored, and refined to actual needs and
capabilities continuously.
3. Bootstraps out of a backpack: It can be launched with minimal logistical
demands in a crisis situation with all relevant information pre-loaded
and requires minimal management, because it is literally self-explaining.
4. Practical: Importantly the devices are compact and robust enough to be
used during housework, fieldwork, relief work, guarding, or menial tasks,
and can even be operated by pre-school age children. Unlike broadcasts
it can be re-listened, paused, and scheduled on demand. And unlike books do not
light or quietness, and sophisticated storage.
5. Data rich: Being inherently digital this approach allows for transparency
and accountability, with little risk of misuse. With minimal overhead it
becomes possible to improve or translate content locally and allow for
extremely detailed two-way information flow, uninhibited by literacy
Once these networks are established they can relay literal information
(ebooks) with very few limitations.
6. Learn from Failure: Catastrophic failure of the devices is rare. Care,
operation, and repair familiarizes the users with key concepts of battery
care, solar charging, and electronics at minimal risk and cost. It is also a near perfect platform to “educate the educators”.

Our pilot project demonstrated the viability and feasibility using (focus) groups in Cameroon (also known as Africa in miniature). The groups are:

  • (young) women
  • prison inmates
  • internally displaced persons
  • orphans

We are now in the process of properly incorporating, ideally within the ER ecosystem, and warmly welcome ideas, volunteers, replication, reflection, and sponsors.
We’ll write below some more detail on what we’ve done, who we’re talking with, and what some of the next steps could be. @gentlewest will write more on how things work or don’t work in the field, and what we could use some help with.
And we’re also very open to discussing the wider topic, how this can be sustainable, if it has potential for language conservation, or any other “harebrained scheme”, what risks we see, what it says about EdgeRyders approach, how it can be relevant to you, etc. etc.

About the name:
Mother of Pearl, or nacre, is the result of an intricate organic process that creates a useful, beautiful, and strong (if somewhat brittle) material from some of earth’s most abundant elements - calcium.

In many organisms it is used to contain crises from spreading and will at times yield pearls
that rival the most rare of materials in their diverse beauty.


@emile I was wondering if we should consider a roving LoRa station for this project as well. Eric’s brother has some IoT skills (and also has a Lime SDR on site). And if yes, which one you would recommend for the region around Bamenda, or other spots in Cameroon.

The idea is that this whole project really the most powerful if you use it in a distributed manner, in far flung rural contexts, perhaps similar to these:

At some point in scaling up the material may diversify to such a point that bringing everything with you all the time becomes problematic, or you may want to broadcast basic educational lessons with local adaptations.

And of course lacking mail or an internet subscription, it might be interesting to complement the “canned one-way information” with a certain window of low latency and two way info flow (e.g. for “taking a test”). So I just want to put out there, that -even though we word on a “0 net basis” - we have some enthusiasm for going beyond that where it can be argued for.

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@trythis Thanks for the inquiry!

The first pass I’m doing with this is to make a radio bridge between scuttlebutt nodes.
Unfortunately, scuttlebutt is a bit resource intensive, but items/projects from it could match. A team in brazil, lead by (@)Luandro worked on a voice messaging app, with this result:

I’ve been focusing my work on indigenous communities, initially to apply it to communities around the Brazilian territory, but haven’t got around to that yet; instead we’ve had an opportunity to work with the San people from the Kalahari desert, who are of oral tradition, live in harsh environmental conditions and have no access to electricity even.
We created a voice messaging Android app based on Manyverse, to run on low end 50 USD phones. The app initially seemed it would work, but after having 5-7 phones replicating it started crashing. The main problems we faced with this experiment were the difficulty of testing the software with the hardware that would actually be used in production. The low amount of available RAM on them was key, that’s why I’m looking forward to #sunrise-choir and the Rust implementation.

and explains:

What did you use Manyverse for with the San? Just general social networking or specific exchanges?

It was based on Manyverse code, but built from scratch as a voice messaging social app. You can download it here if u want. We intended to use it so that a rangers could drive from village to village, and carry their messages to other villages. But it couldn’t handle it…

how much RAM these devices have?

@Christian Bundy, they acquired 38 of these phones with 512 of RAM… really low. Still hoping #sunrise-choir will give us something more performative.

This post was a week ago; and highlights the need for better DTN (Disruption Tolerant Networking) that would bridge the gap here I’m trying to get to 30km from the 300m range I have now.

That said, is very low speed, 20kbps, so there are opportunities there for troposcatter or nvis multicast type networks.

For further information regarding dtn, this paper explains a bit.

We have had running discussions on applying these technologies in underserved areas. Some of the challenges highlighted include:

  1. Some of the NGO content from did not match client demand — “No one wants to listen how to grow crops or about elections they want to hear from the latest Bollywood actors”
  2. Manyverse was designed to match the facebook UI to be socially acceptable

This is a bit to chew on… and I’d love to make direct contact with the team with boots on the ground to see if there are any collaborative efforts we could attempt. Luckily, the team in brazil by documenting their efforts help minimize rework :smile: — and I suspect they’d love to help out also.

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This is of course also an issue I am concerned with. But since we have “the information monopoly” in our case for the time being, it is more an optimization problem. Get the edutainment ratio right, package it right for the target audience (my preference here are kids approximately aged 5.5 and up - “Bollywood Stars” exist, but aren’t all that dominant in that context). And then it is a matter of gradually reinforcing focus on the people the people that make it stick, and multiply it.
Of course with 2 EUR per player one has that luxury a little more - even if it is conceivable that they’d manage to replace the original material with a bunch of music (which would still not be an exactly horrible outcome).
I think often times if one can get people to really concentrate for a few hours at a time - that can often enough be a good bit of progress.
But 50 USD phones are of course a different league, and with that much capability people will want to play more as well.

On a high level my first thought is more brutal compression, perhaps combined with a earphone (better) microphone combination could help things along. I guess speech to text and then back to speech is not an option because the languages aren’t common. Otherwise that would be super slim in terms of data.

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I am impressed to no end. The video is super powerful. @gentlewest, @trythis: thanks for doing this. Let us know how we can help.

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If you read this and have contacts to an organization that might endorse this, or would like to use it to support their regular operations - please get in touch and let us know!

We’d love to set up an adapted version to their and their stakeholder’s needs!