Outernet: A Digital Library in the Sky

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To me, libraries have always represented a concentration of knowledge. Growing up I dreamt about how smart I’d be if I read all of the books in my hometown’s tiny local branch library.  I didn’t yet understand the subtle differences between libraries, archives and repositories, but I knew that the promise of the internet and digital content meant that, someday, I’d be able to access all of that knowledge as if I had a library inside my computer. The idea of aggregating all of humanity’s knowledge in a way that makes it freely accessible to everyone is what led me to library school, programming, and working with digital libraries/repositories, so whenever I find a project working towards that goal I get tingly. Outernet makes me feel very tingly.

In a nutshell, Outernet is a startup that got sponsored by a big nonprofit, and aims to use satellites to broadcast data down to Earth. By using satellites, they can avoid issues of internet connectivity, infrastructure, political censorship and local poverty. The data they plan to provide would be openly licensed educational materials specifically geared towards underprivileged populations such as local news, crop prices, emergency communications, open source applications, literature, textbooks and courseware, open access academic articles, and even the entirety of Wikipedia. Currently the only way to receive Outernet’s broadcasts is with a homemade receiver, but a low cost (~$100) solar-powered, weather-proof receiver with built in storage is in the works which could be mass produced and distributed to impoverished or disaster-stricken areas.

Outernet chooses the content to be added to its core archive with a piece of software called Whiteboard which acts as a kind of Reddit for broadcast content; volunteers submit new URLs pointing to content they believe Outernet should broadcast, and the community can upvote or downvote it with the top-ranking content making it into the core archive, democratizing the process. A separate piece of software called Librarian acts as the interface to locally received content; current receivers act as a Wi-Fi hotspot which users can connect to and use Librarian to explore, copy or delete content as well as configuring the data Librarian harvests. Public access points are being planned for places like schools, hospitals and public libraries where internet connectivity isn’t feasible, with a single person administering the receiver and its content but allowing read-only access to anyone.

While the core work is being done by Outernet Inc., much of the project relies on community members volunteering time to discuss ideas and test the system. You can find more about the community at discuss.outernet.is, but the primary way to participate is to build a receiver yourself and report feedback or to submit/vote on content using Whiteboard. While Outernet is still a long way off from achieving its goals, its still one of the most exciting and fun ideas I’ve heard about in a while and definitely something to keep an eye on.