Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A journey to bring research world to real world

From the day I joined the SCoRe group and worked volunteerly, I have been working on different computer science reseach projects for about one and a half years. The experiences I collected during that period are priceless. I have been working on wireless sensor networks projects and also on computer forensic projects. The common thing that I saw on those research works is that those innovations are mostly for highly technical purposes.

Those things were far away from the poor citizens in the island who expects some thing that imporve their lives, some thing that helps them to survive and some thing that helps their children to grow. Among all those research works, the SCoRe(Sustainable Computing Research) group has introduced solutions that seems to be interested at the aforementioned people even though I hadn't a chance to contribute. PokuruPC is a one such example that I never thought this much helpful. It all started few months ago. While working at the WASN lab, I got to know that one small school in Ampara district had requested from Dr. Kasun to deploy PokuruPCs in their lab. They have received a grant from the government to buy computers. However the amount of money thay got was only enough to buy about 4 or 5 computers, not more than that. They believed that our PokuruPCs will offer them 12 computers at the expence of 4.

PokuruPC is a specially configured linux operating system which supports multiple users to login and use a single system unit with the help of multiple monitors, keyboards, mouses and other stuff. When the PokuruPC is installed on a computer system unit and properly configured, four people can sit infront of 4 separate monitor which are plugged into the same system unit. Users of each terminal gets the feeling that he or she is using his own hardware including the system unit which is actually shared. Researchers at SCoRe research group attached to Wireless Ad-Hoc Sensor Network laboratory in UCSC developed it and currently imporving with more user friendly functionalities.

To deploy PokuruPCs at the School in Ampara we left University of Colombo on 25th June night at about 8.30pm with all the computers and other stuff loaded into a Van hired from Colombo. Five people from the SCoRe group joined to this journey. Chathura, Lakmal, Eranga, Prabath and I were the crew of it. As I heard it takes about 8 hours to go to Ampara from Colombo. Therefore we planned to visit the school early in the morning so that we can start our works from the morning. But we faced to to an unexpected run time error ;) on our way. When it was about 1.30am we were at Pelmadulla area and our vehicle broke down. The driver said that it was something related to pistons of the vans engine and he can't do anything till the morning. So, we were stuck there. 

At about 4.30am in the morning Lakmal, Chathura and Eranga walked to Pelmadulla town to find some other van to continue our journey. Me and Prabath stayed in van to protect our computers and other stuff :). Our people who went out found a new van and came with it to where we were broken down. So, unloaded all the stuff in our old van and loaded them into the new van. The driver of the new van was Shashika, a nice guy who became a part of our crew during the rest of our journey. So, we started running again at about 6.30am. We arrived to the school at about 10.00am in the morning. The principle madam, some of the members of the staff and few parents of the school children were waiting there for us.

Kethsirigama Kanishta Vidyalaya, Koknahara is a very small poor school at Ampara district. It has only about 150 students and classes are available only upto grade 9. Having a computer lab was a dream to them and they have been waiting for it from a long time. Finally they found some money for it. It was on enough to buy few computers. This is where PokuruPC came to the stage. After arriving to the school we first we moved all the stuff we brought from the van to the room where the computer lab is supposed to be set up. Actually that room was the principles office room of the school and they had to move the office to some other place in school since there wasn't any other good place like that to setup the computer lab.

After placing every thing inside the lab, we accepted our breakfast. They had prepared it very nicely. After having the breakfast we unpacked monitors and system units in the computer room and placed them properly. Then it began the hardest task. We switched on one PokuruPC and started testing it. As we expected there were few problems in it. The main issue was the sounds. When a user logged into it and started playing a music file, most of the times the output came from different headphones other than this users one. Assigning hardware to each user is the most complecated thing I found in PokuruPC. It took some time for us to fix problems in that PokuruPC. After our struggle with that PokuruPC we came out from the lab and went for lunch. It seemed they had been taken a big effort to prepare our meals.  

After the lunch we went to a stream of water near the school where all the people of the village have bath and wash cloths. Some of the students of the school came with us. It was very enjoyable to have a bath in that stream. When we retern back to school it was about 5.00pm. Two village women, most probably mothers of some school children brought us the evening tea. While having tea we walked over the school and explored it. We knew that we have to work all the night most probably to prepare PokuruPCs for the next days session with the school children. The village where the school is situated is far away from the town and very isolated. I could see only few house of the villagers from schools play ground. Everything else was the jungle.

As we thought we had to do so many things during the night. Some teachers of the school came were present at night to offer us the dinner. We had our dinner at about 9.30pm. Teachers were very friendly to us and they were talking with us for about half an hour after the dinner. They asked us about our next days program plan. We thought we should give the students and the teachers a brief introduction about PokuruPC and Linux since every things are new to them. Before the teachers left the school they brought some mattersses to the lab for us to sleep. At about 1.30pm I went to sleep after doing to work. But Chathura and Lakmal were still working when I quit.

I woke up at about 5.30am in the next day morning which is a Monday. As I got to know from a teacher previously students starts coming to the school from about 7.00am. Therefore we had to dress up before the school children arrives. We all wore the SCoRe t-shirts, denims and shoes as we had discussed before. After the school started we did the first session for the Grade 9 students of the school which is the highest class in that school. Principle and some of the members of the staff were present there for that first session. Lakmal started it by giving an introduction about the UCSC and about our SCoRe research group. Then I talked about the PokuruPC and Linux. Since almost all of them haven't even touched a computer before, I don't thing they understood most of the things I said. But it wasn't a big issue since the next step was the practical session.

We offered them some of the educational packages available in GNU/Linux to play around. I felt that they really enjoyed it and most of them won't forget that experience for a long time. Even though they hadn't used a computer before they quickly adapted to it and some of them mastered the games like Tux Math. They proved to us that if enough facilities are provided thay are capable of doing anything that a child in a well developed country can do. Those little boys and girls were very smart. We involved in those practicle sessions with children from different grades until the evening. The zonal educational director of that area who is also a nice guy visited the school to see the new computer lab. It's the last day we stayed there. At night we had to return to Colombo. Principle madam invited us to come for dinner at her home.

After finishing the days works we loaded our back packs to the van and said good bye to all. We directly went near the water stream by the van. After having a bath and get dressed we went to principle madams home for the dinner. She offered us a very nice dinner. At about 9.30pm we left her home and started returning to Colombo. On next days morning at about 5.30am we arrived to Colombo. This journey tought me lot of things. It was the first time I went out some where to do a task that is worth while to the society and our country. The most important thing is that this is some thing developed inside our university and by our research community. Our research works are not limited to the WASN lab any more. The benifits of our efforts are now out there in the society and it increases our confidence to work more and produce new things with our innovations. 

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