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Cliff Missen standing in front of a pile of computers ready to be shipped out.
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CLIFF MISSEN Using tools new and old, an information technology expert helps nations tap their resources.

Over the last decade, Cliff Missen has been digging deep to improve Africa’s access to two resources that the developed world takes for granted—the Internet and drinkable water.

On the digital side, Missen hopes to level the playing field by putting the power of information into the hands of his African friends. Then, they’d learn how to grow more successful crops, or discover more options for treating malaria. He says the divide between African countries and developed nations is not digital—it’s economic.

Missen is the director of the WiderNet Project, a service initiative housed under the School of Library and Information Science in the UI Graduate College. The project aims to improve digital communication in developing countries by identifying and promoting affordable technology.

“WiderNet’s a very Iowa project. It’s very practical,” Missen says. “We’re not going to save the world. We’re doing very basic, practical work to improve information access for people in developing countries.” 

So far, the 8-year-old organization has engaged more than 200 University of Iowa students to refurbish and ship more than 1,200 computers to Africa, trained about 3,500 technologists from around the world, and distributed about 200 eGranaries—digital libraries that simulate the Internet for those without adequate connections. Each eGranary contains 10 million regularly updated documents copied from the Internet with permission.

In addition to affordable IT equipment, WiderNet provides coaching and advocacy for universities from less developed countries, especially those in Africa. It also helps them find funding from agencies like the U.S. Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development.

Another of Missen’s projects employs a much older form of technology—ancient Chinese hand-powered techniques to drill wells affordably. In 1984, Missen founded nonprofit Wellspring Africa to help villagers become more self-sufficient.

Well-drilling may seem unconnected to computer networks, but to Missen they both are the means to the same goal: the development of a nation.

He defines his areas of interest—communication and development—as empowering disadvantaged people with tools that they can use to improve their lives.

The WiderNet Project began after Missen taught at the University of Jos in Nigeria under Fulbright sponsorship in 1999. Missen says some African universities spend $200,000 to $300,000 a year, a major portion of their budgets, for Internet connections, even though they may not have potable water on campus.

“It’s hard to see how a slow and unreliable Internet connection can be worth the equivalent of 20 to 30 full-time professors, but that’s the trade-off some universities are making,” he says.

Many in developing countries are left out of the global conversation that technology enables because they lack the skills and equipment, Missen says. Seven out of eight people in the world don’t have easy access to the Internet, according to recent World Bank studies.

“We’re the only species to tell each other stories. The human compulsion to communicate is a fantastic thing,” Missen says.

The hardest part of his job is finding the funds to keep WiderNet afloat. Missen has to raise enough money stateside to maintain one full-time staff member, 12 part-time student employees, and two graduate assistants.

Coming up with the cash is hard work, but Missen finds great satisfaction in its results.

“I don’t believe in altruism,” Missen says, when asked what payoff he gets from his work. “I used to think I could give away without expecting anything back, but when I do so I get back ten-fold.”

Story by Po Li Loo; Photo by Tom Jorgensen

Dec. 3, 2007