Computers against Covid
A bunch of dedicated geeks gave thousands of Singapore school kids access to home-based learning during the Covid pandemic. Read More
2,000 refurbished laptops in only two months: A small group of Singapore volunteers launched an initiative to support under-privileged school children during the Covid19 pandemic. Their instant help reached impressive numbers in almost no time at all.
It’s the end of May, and Singapore is in Covid19 lockdown. Few people rush through the streets; the city has become empty and silent, and so has the football stadium at its heart. Well, almost empty – except for the two floors of office space occupied by a bunch of young people and piles of discarded laptops. The atmosphere is different in here; there’s bustling activity and joking all around. The red stadium seats are folded up against the walls and technical equipment of all sorts covers the floor. Hand-written posters have been stuck up on the walls of the fancy VIP lounge. Some things have changed during the Covid19 pandemic: geeks have taken over the football arena.
While sports events remain suspended, the stadium has become the temporary home to the “Computers against Covid” initiative, a rather spontaneous network of volunteers that sprung into action during the Covid pandemic. Since the day the schools had to close down, they’ve spent day and night refurbishing discarded laptops to offer school children the equipment needed for home-based learning.
With over 100 volunteers, they delivered almost 2,000 ready-to-use laptops to families in need in no more than two months. They collected the donated devices from private households and small businesses, repaired the hardware, updated the software, and handed them over to NGOs working with families in need. And while the number of discarded laptops they have managed to revive is astonishing on its own, what is most astonishing about the initiative is probably its instant mobilization.
So just how did the initiators manage to set up a network of around 100 people almost from scratch, and get them working together so effectively without ever meeting in person?
And how did they get people to donate hundreds of used laptops in almost no time at all?
Geeks in the stadium
“It was not planned, we just used what we had access to at the time,” engineer Saad Chinoy, who has been involved since the very beginning, explains. “It all started with a Whatsapp message that went viral.” He chuckles: “Perhaps ‘went viral’ isn’t the best phrase to use right now, is it?”
All this happened at the end of March. Saad had been working for a Singapore-based charity called “Engineering Good” (EfG), a loose network of engineers who volunteer a few hours a week to help people with disabilities and offer workshops on basic electronics.
When the pandemic began to spread and the Singapore government ordered people to stay at home, a nearby family service centre approached the engineers, asking them if by chance they knew anyone who could provide 25 spare laptops for school children lacking computers for their homework. “We put out the message on Facebook, Instagram and our website,” Saad recalls. And it began to spread: Discarded laptops and messages from software engineers offering their help poured in.
An unexpected discovery
Singapore is not a poor country and the government was prepared for the lockdown. There are high-speed broadband connections in almost every home, and when the Ministry of Education implemented home-based learning, the government also started handing out devices to low-income families to ensure their children could participate. But as is so often the case when something has to get done fast, not everybody in need met the requirements and families with a lot of children frequently did not have enough computers to go around.
The small group of engineers had unexpectedly discovered this gap. At the time, they had no idea how big it truly was. Despite all the government’s interventions, there was still a large number of school children prevented from taking part in class.
As their call for support kept spreading, more NGOs working in the social sector approached them with requests from families and kids. Every call was published on the EfG’s website and donations peaked, especially on weekends. Meanwhile, people stuck at home wanted to help out, so the network of volunteers grew quickly as well.
As the initiative was gaining momentum and obviously meeting an urgent need, the government supported their efforts and allowed EfG to continue operations as an “essential service” when other businesses were being forced to shut down. EfG’s office was soon too small. A friend asked a friend for some help – and that’s how the group ended up in Jalan Besar Stadium, in the now empty rooms usually used by the Football Association of Singapore.
From “resurrection” to “rest in peace”
Today, the football stadium is the group’s central meeting and storage place. Even though only six to twelve people are allowed on the stadium’s two floors at a time and most work is done remotely from home, all donations are brought here first for registration and hardware testing.
“Ideally, the laptops we receive would already be ready to go,” Saad explains, “and we would only need to disinfect them and install the programs required for home-based learning: Libreoffice, Zoom, Acrobat and Chrome. But most of them aren’t in that good shape.” Sometimes data has not been deleted, the charger cables or adapters are missing, and old versions of Windows need updating. “The oldest one we received had Windows Millennium Edition installed. And in one laptop bag we found a Windows 98 booklet.” The hardware team checks whether the camera, speakers, microphone, headphone jack and USB ports are working, and makes sure that it is wiped clean of all the pervious owner’s personal data. Software experts then install all the necessary programs at home. The coordination team also makes sure that no donation goes to waste. Older devices that are difficult to repair are deposited on the “(Try to) turn me on” pile to wait for someone to dedicate some more time to them.
They are only sent to the “rest in peace” laptop graveyard if all attempts to resurrect them fail. But their death is never in vain, as they donate their hard drives, net cards or RAM memory to working models.
The end is near – and that’s good news
By the beginning of June, Computers against Covid had delivered more than 2,000 laptops to social service organisations and family service centres. The NGOs sent photos of the recipients, families sent thank you cards, and volunteers have even found unexpected notes in the bags of donated laptops reading things like, “Thank you for the good cause and hard work. Take care and good blessings.” The project seems to slowly be coming to an end. Donations are dropping, and so are requests from families in need.
“The government has been actively trying to modify its approach to fill the gap,” Saad reports. The team will soon move out of its headquarters in the stadium.
So what’s next? There are certainly some lessons learnt, such as how many people have old laptops at home that can still be used and that many are happy to volunteer for a good cause. “We’re considering founding a social enterprise,” Saad says. With the financial support EfG has received, they might be able to find an office space – and offer workshops to teach people how to extend the lifespan of their devices.