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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, September 25, 2023

Student-led initiative builds digital libraries in Ecuador

KoomBook, a digital library project currently being implemented by Tufts International Development in Ecuador, is pictured.

The Tufts International Development (TID) Ecuador team’s KoomBook digital library program was selected by Davis Projects for Peace as one of 16 outstanding projects from the summer of 2018, according to senior Cristina da Gama, one of the leaders of the Ecuador team. Davis Projects for Peace is an initiative that encourages grassroots projects which “promote peace and address the root causes of conflict among parties,” according to its website.

The KoomBook is a "digital library designed to provide access to educational materials for individuals in remote and isolated areas,"  according to the Institute for Global Leadership's website.

“It’s a hard drive … The main idea is that it emits this signal to other computers in an area but there’s no Wi-Fi required,” Jacob Rubel, a leader of the Ecuador team, said. “So you can download a ton of educational content onto it in addition to content that’s already there, like Khan Academy, Wikipedia and a bunch of cool stuff like that. You can have a whole library in an area that has no access to Wi-Fi.

Rubel, a sophomore, explained that the KoomBook is a technology that was developed a number of years ago by Libraries Without Borders, an international nongovernmental organization headquartered in Paris that works closely with TID.

According to da Gama, it came to Tufts when an alum from Ecuador who was involved with TID, Juan David Núñez (LA '16)Núñezinterned for Libraries Without Borders over summer 2015, according to his LinkedIn profile.

"When he was working at Libraries Without Borders, he realized they were doing all these great educational programs with technology, and it was technology that was portable and that was really innovative," da Gama said. "So he got the idea to start a project in Ecuador because he saw the need for it in several communities that are vulnerable. So his senior year, he started doing the research phase of the program to start determining how to bring the program to Ecuador, where to bring it and who to partner with."

According to da Gama, the first digital library was established in Coaque, a rural town located on the Ecuador coast, in the summer of 2017 after a year of extensive research into local NGOs they could partner with to help facilitate the program. Da Gama added that the program decided to build its first center in Coaque after teaming up with AVANTI, an Ecuadorian NGO based in Quito. According to Rubel, the town was heavily impacted by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck in April 2016.

“This is something that you take with a lot of responsibility,” da Gama said. “You don’t want to go into a community that you don’t have strong ties with, and there was no way that we could develop the ties that we needed ourselves from the U.S. So we looked at the problem through the other end. We decided that we needed to partner up with an NGO that already has ties with a community and that wants to work with us.”

Da Gama added that TID continues to partner with local Ecuadorian NGOs that help facilitate and run the program on the ground.

Clemencia Pinasco, another leader of the Ecuador team, said that one of the main goals of the KoomBook program is to expand literacy and education to underdeveloped communities that don’t have adequate access to resources.

“One of our long-term goals is that the community adopts whatever project we do, so it’s not like we’re going to go in and tell them, ‘this is what you’re doing to do and this is how you’re going to do it,’” Pinasco, a senior, explained. “We need to go to the community and see what they need and what they want and ... sort of work with them rather than imposing our own ideas and our own knowledge on them.”

Rubel noted the importance and significance of the KoomBook program in Ecuador.

“There are so many places in Ecuador where there’s a lot of interest and passion and desire -- a strong social energy and ambition and initiative to do things -- but there are no resources to actually get it done,” Rubel said. “People want to go to college, but they just don’t know how. People want to have more access to educational resources, but they don’t [have access]. So that’s what the KoomBook provides. It’s tailored exactly to the needs of each community.”

The recognition follows a $10,000 grant given to the Ecuador team this past summer from Davis Projects for Peace to improve and expand their KoomBook Program, according to Pinasco. Da Gama said the money allowed TID to establish two additional digital library centers in San José de Minas and Jatumpamba, both located in the Pichincha province. According to Rubel, four members of the Ecuador team, including himself and da Gama, traveled to Ecuador this past summer to check in with the Coaque center and establish these new centers.

"The main [goal of the trip] is getting to know the community and training them on how to use it," Rubel said. "So another thing is in [San José de Minas], the first time we implemented in a school, we trained every single teacher in the school how to use it and how to use it for their classes. But we’re also just trying to introduce it in an exciting way to the community. And also a big thing is monitoring and evaluation, so we have to get data on the current situation so we can track how things change throughout our time there."

Rubel explained that around 100 college initiatives receive grants, but only 16 of them are recognized as outstanding based on what the recipients do with the money.

According to Pinasco, a crucial aspect of the program is monitoring and evaluating the success of each center.

Rubel said each center has a local community member who helps run the program in addition to a partnership with a local NGO for each center.

“The main thing that we spend most of our time on is working with the communities and making sure the project is successful," Rubel said. "So we have biweekly calls with project leaders."

Pinasco said that the Davis Projects for Peace recognition will give the KoomBook program more leverage for receiving future grants.

“A lot about applying to grants is putting our name out there and making our project visible," she said.

Da Gama noted the TID Ecuador is also looking for funding from other organizations to expand the program.