My Big Campus

Tamarind Tree and Nomad India have seeded an organic wireless mesh network targeted at extending the school educational resources to the homes of the first generation learners in the rural area of Dahanu block of the Western Indian State of Maharashtra.

The project, “My Big Campus”  uses the 2.4 Ghz network based on OLSR with Commotion as a utility graphic layer to link approximately 150-200 households in the first phase. The network is expected to spread across 8-10 villages predominantly inhabited by indigenous Warli Community. 

The project emphasizes on local applications targeted at enhancing the learning environment at home of the school going children. The Tamarind Tree school is emerging as the primary node maintaining e-learning servers on moodle, a video distribution platform to support e-learning,  an Icecast server for  community radio, and an Asterisk server for free telephony, among students, teachers and parents.

The Network
The network building team is spearheaded by two youth from the community, Nitin and Anil, who have been trained into flashing routers with open source firmware designed specially for mesh networking. The firmware knows as Commotion has been developed Open Technology Institute. At present four nodes have been setup with commotion and the network is being used to for providing e-learning platform in the school premises. A moodle and Icecast server hosted at the Nomad Lab (see the close up of the network map) is being accessed in the school and also in the dining area where a lot of children and teachers hang around in their free time.

In the first few months we tried using consumer grade radio to flash with commotion as the firmware. The efforts did not achieve much results due to non-standard and non-descriptive hardware. In order to kick start the project we deiced to use tried and tested Ubiquity routers even though the cost factor was a major hindrance. The cost of Ubiquity devices were too high for community members to afford and hence it was decided that the Tamarind Tree and Nomad will bear the cost of arterial links of the network.

With the recent weakening of Indian Rupee against the global currencies made things worse.

We also realized that the only way to reduce the cost of a node was to self manufacture the antenna, which are more expensive than the radio. For example a Ubiquity Rocket M2 for 2.4 Ghz would cost Rs 5800 (USD 90) while a 120 degree sector antenna is available for Rs 9,600 (USD154) in India.

In the past three months we started working on the Wifi Antenna with active participation from the community enthusiasts. As of now we have an omni antenna with 16 dB gain and has a workable design for directional antenna. We have done a comparative analysis of cantenna and yagi and we feel that Yagi may work out better for us. On the other hand we are yet to start working on sector antenna for MIMO radio. We already have designs but due to competing financial priorities, we have not been able to start working on it.

One of the major challenge in building the network is very thick vegetation in the region. Some part of the area is covered with dense orchard producing tropical fruits like sapote, custard apple and mango while some part is covered with forested mountain.

The Tamarind Tree School is an initiative of the Tamarind Tree Trust, a non profit organisation based in Dahanu, Maharashtra, India. Founded in 2007, the school is committed to building an equitable and just society where individuals and communities can realise their full potential.  The school believes that bridging the digital divide can play a significant role in overcoming social exclusion and a lack of voice that are the root cause of poverty.

Nomad India Network, which has been partnering with Tamarind Tree, is an organisation based on the principle of social entrepreneurship. In its nine year of existence, it has emerged as a leading organization providing technical know how to communities wanting to start their own community radio station. With its flagship low cost FM transmitter, Nomad has setup more than 35 community radio stations all over India.

The Geography
Located in the western Indian tribal belt, more than 90 percent of the children of Tamarind Tree school are Warlis, an indigenous forest dwelling community that still remain on the fringes of mainstream society. In a region with very poor indicators of literacy or health, the school is a community driven initiative to provide quality education to the local tribal children.

The school currently runs from Nursery (Pre K) to Class 3 with the intention of increasing one class every year to complete a secondary education ( Class 10). Teachers are drawn from around the community and trained to follow a plethora of pedagogies using art and craft, open source technology, story telling, working on land, etc.  The curriculum also includes tribal narratives from their oral tradition with  a view to creating a balanced individual with a sense of cultural identity.

Our experience suggest that one of the critical barriers to learning is a non conducive environment at home of the students, where a conventional school have limited impact.  The real challenge for the school is to attempt at creating an environment that enables and facilitates learning for the first generation learner when they are at home.

Due to the lack of last mile connectivity, Internet continues to be illusive for most households in the region. The legal environment in the country is also not conducive for community based initiative for Internet distribution. As a result the digital divide is widening.

The wi-mesh network is an attempt at reducing the digital divide and providing equal and contextually relevant access to the digital world with community driven local applications to run over the mesh network.

Even though the access to Internet is a great leveler, the project in this phase is emphasizing on the local applications. Digitalizing a community based on local applications could be more contextual, participatory and less intimidating. The local applications like local e-learning platform, video distribution server, streaming audio and telephony could give an immediate impetus to the community members to join the network.