September 25, 2006

C.U. Computer Reuse Program Set to Launch

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Computers are so ubiquitous at Cornell that it is easy to forget about the global and local technology divide.

However, this gap — between those who have computers and those who do not — is on the minds of Zaks Lubin ’07 and CIT staff member Al Heiman. The two are beginning to launch a Cornell Computer Reuse Program intended to encourage CIT, libraries, departments and students to give their used computers and printers a second life.
Student volunteers — such as members of the Society of Females in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Cornell Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers—would reformat donated computers with new software and send them off to needy organizations.

Lubin and Heiman recognize tha people tend to purchase computers at an astounding rate, while relegating older — but still useable —equipment to the dusty closet shelf or local recycling company.
Meanwhile, Ithaca organizations such as the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) struggle to provide the basic technology needed for their job training and youth academic programs.
Every year, Cornell transfers ownership of hundreds of computers, most only a few years old and in perfectly good condition, to a recycling company for disposal.

Several years ago, Heiman stood in front of a load of these machines and realized that something had to be done. Since then he has sent about 130 CIT computers to Ghana, South Africa and Togo. He is pleased that students are passionate about becoming involved.

“If you have students going into the community and doing anything, you’re winning,” Heiman said.

He pointed out that sending Cornell’s computers into Ithaca rather than overseas comes with a different set of responsibilities. When he sends computers to his personal contacts in Africa, his responsibilities largely end when he tapes up the boxes.

On the other hand, the Computer Reuse Program volunteers would be instrumental not only in reformatting the computers but in providing on-site installation and computer training. Heiman envisions that Cornell students would teach mini-seminars about how to build a resume or use Excel.

The need is certainly there: the 32 participants in GIAC’s teen program currently share one working computer, according to GIAC Deputy Director Leslyn McBean-Clairborne. Heiman and Lubin are also looking into donating to the Ithaca Youth Bureau and Southside Community Center.

However, among the questions Heiman and Lubin confront in launching their local initiative are those legal issues relating to software and ownership: When are transferred computers allowed only with their original operating system, and when, if at all, may software go with the PC? If the computers eventually are disposed of improperly, is Cornell responsible?

According to the Heiman, donated machines may only come with the original operating system. As for the second question, he imagines that Cornell can create a bill of sale for no value to give the computers to the City of Ithaca. Student computers, with no legal tie to Cornell, would not have the same problem.

Though there are still some legal and logistical gray areas, Lubin and Heiman are excited about implementing their ideas.

“It’s a great way for people to get involved … it’s something that makes sense that also makes a difference,” Lubin said.