Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2007 | People

Wiring the World: Cliff Missen

By Shelbi Thomas
Cliff Missen Cliff Missen's "Internet-in-a-Box" delivers the best of the Web to developing countries at a fraction of the cost.

Although Cliff Missen lives in Iowa City, his heart remains in Africa. It beats for rural health care in Liberia. It pounds for water wells in remote areas of the continent. And most of all, it aches for Africans to have access to the resources of the World Wide Web.

Missen, 92MA, works toward his heart's desire as head of the UI School of Library and Information Science's WiderNet Project. As part of its mission to end the "digital divide" between developed and developing countries, the organization makes the Web available inexpensively by leaving out one major component -- the Internet. Instead, WiderNet connects more than 300,000 people to Missen's brainchild, the eGranary.

Packed onto a hard drive the size of a paperback book, the eGranary Digital Library contains millions of educational resources available through a local area network. Through WiderNet's agreements with organizations such as Wikipedia and the United Nations, users can access books, encyclopedias, websites, and multimedia clips. Thanks to the efforts of UI student programmers, eGranary looks just like the Internet, complete with a browser and a search engine, but it loads as much as 5,000 times faster.

Schools in Africa would typically pay more than $200,000 for sluggish Internet connections to reach such sites, leaving them little money for anything else. The eGranary costs only $500 and can be regularly and cheaply updated. Already, it's been installed in 130 schools and hospitals across Africa, India, Haiti, and Bangladesh.

"A lot of programs send free computers to Africa, but the users still can't access information," explains Missen. "The eGranary serves the information-poor without making them poorer. It's turning knowledge delivery on its head."

WiderNet staff and volunteers provide not only low-cost refurbished computers, but also the training needed to maintain and update them. On one such visit to a Nigerian university, Missen encountered medical students from another school five miles away. They regularly used a 90-minute break to rush to the eGranary lab and collect materials for their next class.

"People are just hungry for information," says Missen. "There are many brilliant people in Africa who don't have resources at their fingertips, and this is changing things for them."