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Computer infrastructure

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Communication we hoped to improve

What aspect of existing communication did we try to improve, so that more people in Somerville could collaborate in young people's success? How’d it go?

(Who was involved in the project and how was time together spent? What did the project accomplish?)

We’ve supported Somerville technologists in collaboration with a community organization, the Haitian Coalition, to work on low-cost improvements to Somerville's computer infrastructure (refurbishing computers, teaching multi-age classes in a housing project) so that more people can access basic technology and gain basic technology skills to make such communications even possible.

Typically, the computer lab at Somerville's Clarendon Hill Apartments, a housing project in West Somerville, has half a dozen kids in it, playing flash games or using applications such as Second Life or Facebook. The computer lab does not have any content filtering, but there is always an adult present in the lab to monitor usage. The computer lab consists of thirteen PCs running either Windows 2000 or Windows XP. When we started the program, many of the computers were unusable due to the presence of viruses and malware, or due to people changing the passwords. We wanted to provide a constructive alternative to run-of-the-mill computer games and clean up the computers so that the residents, particularly the youth, could take advantage of this opportunity.

Our work, and our ¡Ahas!

What was the basic groundwork needed to support the current work? How did the project change and grow over time? At this point, what are our main ¡Ahas! about improving communications in public education? What communication and implementation ¡Ahas! and turning points did we have over time?

Our Custom Etoys Stick

In the fall of 2009, Caroline Meeks was working on testing “Sugar on a Stick” in an Allston elementary school in collaboration with Sugar Labs, a spinoff of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) organization. Seth Woodworth, who was working on the Oneville project, was a former employee of One Laptop per Child. Caroline lives near Somerville and attended Somerville High School. Thus, there was interest in doing a pilot in Somerville.

Seth brought Caroline, Professor Mica Pollock, and Franklin Dalembert, the Executive Director of the Haitian Coalition of Somerville, together for a meeting at the Somerville Housing Authority’s facility at Mystic. (The Haitian Coalition is a community-based organization located in the Clarendon Hill Apartments, and it promotes Haitian culture and helps members of the Haitian community gain access to services and programs such as legal aid, social services, voter registration and small business training.) The group decided to pilot in the CHA computer lab in partnership with the Haitian Coalition of Somerville. The team was later joined by Derek Radfern, a student taking a gap year between graduating high school and entering Olin College, a local engineering college.

The original goal of the project was to give every child in CHA a USB stick with a bootable version of the Ubuntu distribution of Linux, and filled with educational programs. The initial software selection was based on the work of Open1to1, a Maine based educational project. See for further information. However, a number of technical issues were encountered that hindered, and ultimately prevented, implementation. These issues included:

  • Slow boot time on CHA machines - more optimization required for the image to be a viable option
  • The Persistence software did not work when the stick was created on Windows, regardless of the tool used

However, the Haitian Coalition's relationship with Waveplace, an organization that is piloting the use of OLPC laptops in a number of schools, introduced the team to Etoys, a childrens’ programming environment where kids can both draw and program. Etoys has been used for over 10 years in the US and other countries; see Another feature of the software is its instructional capability: Etoys allows users to create curricula to teach kids how to use to software for increasingly advanced purposes. Waveplace’s goal is to create a full set of curricula; currently they are working on subjects that include science, mathematics, and health.

One of the main advantages of Etoys over similar projects such as Scratch and Turtle Art is that it has a “to-go” version already built that runs from a USB stick without needing to install anything on a computer. This way, each child can have his or her own stick that holds Etoys, a particular set of curricula, and the child’s own projects.

We wanted to create a stick that easily runs on different hardware platforms (Windows, Macintosh, and Linux) and that automatically backs up the students’ work to the internet without student intervention. After doing this, we started classes with children who dropped into the CHA Computer center, teaching them to use Etoys to create art, games, and stories, and testing some of the Waveplace curricula.

Our custom Etoys stick runs off of a Java executable archive that serves three main purposes: to identify the operating system currently in use; to execute the proper version of Etoys based on the OS; and to execute Dropbox if that OS is Windows. A copy of the Java source code can be found here: After the jar file runs, Dropbox will run transparently in the background if on Windows, and Etoys will open after a short delay, depending on the speed of the system. Also included on our sticks are the project files for Waveplace science and geometry curriculum. They can be accessed by using the “open” button.

Refurbishing Donated Machines

The Haitian Coalition has 19 donated computers (along with a number of monitors and other peripherals) that have been wiped clean. All are Dell Optiplex GX240 models, with varying amounts of RAM and CPU power (averaging 512MB and 1.5GHz respectively). We decided to install the Ubuntu distribution of Linux on them for reasons of cost, performance, and open-source availability.

We’ve loaded many educational programs and useful tools onto the systems. The full list is included in the link below, but the highlights are: KDEdu (large suite of educational programs), GIMP, Chromium, Dropbox, Scratch, Audacity, and Etoys. We also installed the Netbook Launcher on them, courtesy of Martin Owens, as an easier to use alternate interface.

There are plenty of keyboards, mice, and power cords lying around; monitors are in shorter supply.

Steps to prepare CHA computers and list of software can be found here:

As of this writing, ten computers have been imaged, of which six have been installed in homes at CHA. Finding families to donate computers to was mostly done through word of mouth and signage around the apartment complexes. The kids, who were in general more enthusiastic than their parents about the prospect of having a computer, were our main avenue for spreading the word - once one of them knew, all of them knew, as well as their parents. Lince and Franklin also reached out to specific residents who would benefit from a donated computer.

Installing the computers in the homes was a relatively simple process. An appointment was made for the installation, and we brought all the equipment over to their house (computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, 2 power cables) at that time. One challenge was finding enough outlets to host the power plugs - most of the families didn’t have power strips. It might be good to have surge protectors to donate to the families as well.

After everything was installed, we spent some time going over how to log in (password is “password”), how to navigate the menus or Netbook Launcher as appropriate, how to use basic applications, how to open the internet (if they had internet or were expecting to get it soon), etc. We also showed them how to find their files and how to open a USB stick. When there was interest in learning more, we went over more advanced settings and features of Ubuntu (changing screensaver, password, etc) and went further into word processing. Then we answered any questions they had and let them explore on their own.

In addition to preparing the donated computers, we’ve brought the systems already in place within the CHA lab up to date. The administrator accounts had been locked with the password long forgotten, so we reset the passwords to “Somerville” and proceeded to clean up the machines. This process included removing the software that posed security risks or performance problems (downloaded freeware games, free smilies, and viruses posing as free smilies) and locking the desktop background to prevent kids changing it to offensive images. The systems also needed plugin updates - notably Java. Finally, we plugged the security loophole that allowed us to change the admin password in the first place. These systems are now secure.

Our Products: Concrete communication improvements and next steps

We've had a total of 17 kids take part in our classes at CHA over the course of eight training sessions. Of those, roughly half came for only one or two classes; the rest still come intermitently. Generally we can expect four or five kids on any given day, with a few more who are really only interested in playing flash games. We've also run two classes at Parts and Crafts during their vacation camp, where we got around ten students.

The kids are always excited about learning new and cool things to do in Etoys, whether it's animating a character's mouth or making moving eyes that track your cursor. The main project we ran at CHA was on storytelling. ( Choose-your-own-Adventure books ( and action-based “cops and robbers” style games ( have also gone over well. The kids did show a tendency to use a lot of violence in their books, but we ascribed it to the fact that kids will be kids and that there’s not much to be done about it. We have video and photo releases from two CHA students so far (Nana and Dessources), plus the students from Parts and Crafts. Examples of their work can be found in the shared Dropbox folder.

Replicable Pieces - Standalone pieces that someone else could take and use.

  • Etoys stick with backup.- Audience is teachers and after-school programs. How to make it, use it, and recreate it. -
  • Choose your own adventure Etoys book - Audience is people who are using Etoys and want to make a choose your own adventure book. -
  • Translatable books - Audience is bilingual people who want to make a book that can switch between two languages. -
  • Etoys Training curriculum - Audience is people who want to train adults in using Etoys with kids or for curriculum. -

Technological how-tos

System Requirements and Restrictions

  • Backup is currently only working on Windows XP and up. (Since one of the computers in the CHA lab runs Windows 2000, we know it’s not compatible with that version of Windows.)
  • Systems must have Java installed in order for users to start Etoys. It’s still possible to browse to the appropriate executable manually, but this isn’t something most people will know how to do.
  • The version of Java must be reasonably current, which can present a problem on systems without access to the internet. For reference, the current version of Java is JRE 6 update 25; execution failed on an older system, which turned out to be running JRE 2.
  • It is impossible to make the sticks autorun eToys (that is, without making kids execute anything), as this functionality has been removed in the major operating systems for security reasons.


Our current backup solution involves using an application called DropboxPortableAHK, which was written in AutoHotKey. The app is on the back end of the interface, as it is automatically executed when Etoys runs. The user never has to interact with it except when an update is available for the software.

DropboxPortableAHK is basically a wrapper for the normal Dropbox installer. The difference is that it modifies some of the steps in the install process to match your preferences - in this case, making the Dropbox folder reside on a USB drive. During setup, you can mark the Etoys data folder as the Dropbox folder so that all project files are automagically backed up:


Whenever a student runs Etoys on a Windows computer (XP or higher) with internet access, their project files are synced with the cloud; therefore if a stick is lost or damaged, the project files can easily be accessed and restored since the usernames and passwords for the sticks are on record. In addition, this part of the stick does have an auto-update ability to ensure that the kids have the latest version of the backup software.

Instructions for setting up Dropbox on the sticks can be found here:

Ideas for future tech development

Finding a backup solution for Mac and Linux, as DropboxPortableAHK only works on Windows. Possibly creating a Chrome extension to house all the data, as was discussed in February. Using githooks or similar technology to allow the sticks to pull the newest version of the stick from github servers automagically. Continuing to image the remaining computers at CHA.