2 September 2015

Outernet: the first library in space

Outernet is a company that is organising a so-called ‘library in space’ designed to untether information from the restrictions imposed by the Internet. The Internet as a medium for transmitting information is of course a miraculous one, but access to it is highly dependent on communications infrastructure, which of course many developing countries lack.

Copyright Outernet 2015, https://outernet.is/

There have been projects in the past, and many on-going, to try and bring the Internet to the world on a universal level. One on-going project, which has been met with concerns over neutrality and data security, is the Internet.org project run by Facebook. Google’s Project Loon is another service that hopes to reach digitally isolated regions of the Earth. Project Loon uses balloons that travel around 20km above the surface of the Earth. The balloons utilise the wind currents at different altitudes to maintain their position relative to the Earth’s surface. The balloon can stay in the stratosphere for around 100 days, and can provide connectivity to a ground area of about 40km in diameter.

Outernet is a different sort of project to Loon and Internet.org. Where other projects aim to provide access to the Internet wholesale (although whether internet.org really does this is up for debate), Outernet is a project that seeks to distribute information uploaded to a library, and then distribute that information via satellite.

The lottery of where you are born, and therefore what information you have the rights to access, will eventually be cancelled out by Outernet.

-Outernet Chief Operating Officer Thane Richard International Business Times

Outernet began its operations in June 2014: “Since then we have moved quickly. Outernet is now multicasting on seven satellites covering 99% of humans with 1 GB/day and a test beam of 100 GB/day over Africa and Europe.” (https://outernet.is/about)

Outernet sell receivers called Lighthouses for $99, but they also offer instructions on how you can build your own. The receivers operate in a read only fashion allowing users to pick information (via a Wi-Fi enabled device) to view and download. Filling the shelves of 'Humanity's Public Library' posed significant challenges due to the limited bandwidth available via satellite. This is why the team behind Outernet decided early on to create a systematic set of guidelines for choosing what information should be shared (Outernet guidelines document). Essentially, the information is structured into four tiers.
Copyright Outernet 2015, https://librarian.outernet.is/en/
1. The Core Archive - this is relatively static and features content considered to be of high universal utility and importance. Such things include scientific studies, and classical works of fiction.
2. Globally Curated Content - Similar to the Core Archive but with a the additional emphasis on currency and regularly updated content.
3. Nationally Curated Content - this is information that is of local/national importance - effectively most of this information will be from newspapers.
4. Disaster information - information about natural disasters, wars, etc. is broadcast separately and given highest priority.

One of the early partners of the project was Harvard University, who agreed to upload content from their institutional repository DASH. Peter Suber, Director Scholarly Communications at Harvard said:

“Harvard supports open access to peer-reviewed faculty scholarship, and the participation of our open-access repository in Outernet is entirely consonant with our mission to enhance the distribution, visibility, and usage of Harvard research.” Outernet 2015

Syed Karim, CEO of Outernet, said:
“Broadcasting the academic content of one of the leading universities in the world is an enormous win for information equality.” Outernet 2015

Outernet also has partnerships with Wikipedia, the open access monographs publisher Project Gutenberg (http://blog.outernet.is/project-gutenberg-announces-partnership-with-outernet/), and Open Education Consortium; who offer free resources and tools for education.

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