The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday December 5th

Project expands access to information by bringing digital library around the world

Five billion people across the world don’t have internet access, and that is a problem Cliff Missen, director of the WiderNet Project and a UNC professor, is trying to solve. 

The WiderNet Project works to deliver educational resources and training to underprivileged individuals and communities across the globe to improve their involvement in the digital world.

"The name WiderNet is based on 'casting a wider net,'" said Missen, who is a professor in UNC's School of Information and Library Science.

Missen and Michael McNulty founded the project in 2000, according to WiderNet's website. Missen first came up with the idea for the WiderNet Project in 1999 while in Nigeria on a Fulbright Scholarship and trying to overcome the frustration caused by teaching without internet access. 

When he returned to the University of Iowa, Missen worked with McNulty to found the WiderNet Project.

So far, 3 million citizens from as close as Durham to as far as North Korea have obtained access to information through the project.

The resources are delivered using the eGranary Digital Library, which Missen said is also known as “the Internet in a Box.” The eGranary is a 3 TB hard drive with 32 million resources on it that don't require internet access, gathered from both contributors and public domain sources.

A single eGranary can serve thousands of patrons when connected to wired or wireless local area networks, making it a valuable resource for universities in areas with slow or nonexistent internet access.

Creating a database isn’t without difficulties. The willingness of website owners and journal publishers to contribute their information varies widely.

The communities that benefit from the information can provide feedback, as well as add their own material to local eGranaries.

“We have someone in Ethiopia right now who’s teaching young women how to program, and this group is using material out of the eGranary to do that, and they tell us what they need," Missen said. "So we’ve put together a special collection for them called ‘Girls Can Code.'"

First-year Connor Luckey-Smith works as a WiderNet database programmer. 

“I've learned a lot about what goes into providing access to internet resources for areas that can't afford traditional methods,” Luckey-Smith said.

Esther Chun, who works with WiderNet’s publicity, started working with the program as a work study student, and she chose to continue even after her work study ended.

“I really believe in the message that they stand for," she said. "Information is something that we take for granted, and it should be available to everyone.”

Working with WiderNet isn’t an opportunity limited by major or experience.

For students not involved in work study, a information and library science course called “Going the Last Mile” gives interested students a chance to work with the WiderNet project and investigate the economic and infrastructural barriers to information in developing nations. 

“Anybody from any discipline could do some work here,” Missen said. 

university@dailytarheel.com

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