Leo Ussak big hit at MIT

by Jeff Colbourne
Northern News Services

RANKIN INLET (Aug 13/97) - What does Rankin Inlet's Leo Ussak school and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have in common?

Both are making leaps and bounds in the area of technology and communication.

Bill Belsey, an elementary school teacher at LUI and one of the founders of the Igalaaq community access centre had the opportunity to explain at a global conference at MIT how Rankin Inlet has gone about turning an isolated community into a global attraction on the Net.

"What was amazing to me among many, many things is that at the world famous MIT media lab there were no media there, and no politicians and no bureaucrats there," said Belsey at the Igalaaq community access centre, at the school last Friday.

"What they had done is they had focused on doers, as it were; community activists, teachers and others. There were approximately 200 people from almost every country you can imagine from around the world. I felt rather humble to be a part of this group, let alone having to make presentations in front of this group."

The conference was put on by the 2B1 Foundation, set up in the U.S. to bring Internet and information technology to isolated parts of the world, focusing particularly on children.

Belsey heard about the foundation after an Ottawa friend told him about an editorial by Nicholas Negroponte in Wired Magazine.

Negroponte, director and founder of the media lab, sent out invitations to anyone who had success stories to tell about how they've brought technology to special, remote places.

Within two weeks, Belsey had his plane tickets lined up and dates verified to meet with the people at 2B1, like his idol, Seymour Papert, co-chair of the foundation and co-creator of artificial intelligence at MIT.

Following his speeches in front of the delegation, Belsey shared conversations a number of influential members of the international computer community.

These high-profile business people were not at the conference to gloat about their personal successes, but rather to hear the inspiring stories from people like Belsey.

"There was a story by Peter," said Belsey.

"Peter is a social worker or community activist in India and he found this young boy about 10 years old. The boy expressed an interest in wanting to learn about computers."

"Some how or other he had heard about this thing called a computer. The little boy lives in a thatched hut with no running water and no electricity."

"His job is to go into a larger community, walk 10 kilometres into this community and he goes to water the plants and take care of the garden for a more wealthy person, for six rupees a month, which is not a lot of money. Then he comes back," said Belsey.

"His whole life is spent going to do this job. He has no time for school. He's trying to help look after his family. So what Peter did was he got the boy a bicycle, to get him to his place, to work and back and he actually had time to go to school a little bit."

"Then, someone figured out another use for the bike. They rigged it with a series of gears so that he could peddle his bicycle and thanks to the donation of an old lap top computer, this boy now is learning computer skills in his grass hut, which has no electricity at all and he peddles his bike to generate electricity which goes to his lap top which allows him to learn how to use his computer."

"Now this boy is beginning to do other things. And these things are going to lead him away from this sort of menial existence and actually give him a chance to further his education and possibly make some more substantial wages that will help his family."

Before the conference wrapped up, Belsey talked with a number of people interested in coming to Rankin Inlet to see how the Igalaaq centre works.

Tentative plans are being made by Industry Canada to come to Rankin Inlet in the fall to see Igalaaq in action. And next spring a European delegation is interested in visiting the community to hold a technology conference.

Belsey has had a busy year since the centre opened last fall. The school's website has been visited by Prime Minister Jean Chretien. On a different occasion Chretien's wife Aline and American first lady Hillary Clinton visited the site.

In the last few months Belsey has picked up the Prime Minister's Award for teaching excellence, among several other awards.

Earlier this summer, he and several of his students visited Toronto and attended a technology conference called Global Knowledge '97.

Government officials, business people and media from all over the world were on hand and were quite interested in hearing about Igalaaq and the impact Internet has had on the community.