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Webmakering in Belize

Just a few months ago, I was approached by fellow Mozillian Christopher Arnold about a very interesting and fairly ambitious idea. He wanted to organize a Webmaker-like event for kids in a somewhat remote area of Belize. He had made some friends in the area who encouraged him to embark on this journey, and he was on board, so it was up to me to decide if I wanted to join in.

As a Costa Rican, I’ve always been very keen on helping out in anything that involves Latin America, and I’m especially motivated when it comes to the easy to forget region of Central America. Just last October I participated in ECSL, a regional free software congress, where I helped bootstrap the Mozilla communities in a couple of Central American countries. I was hoping I could do the same in Belize, so I accepted without much hesitation. However, even I had to do some reading on Belize, since it’s a country we hear so little about.  Its status as a former British colony, English being its official language, and its diminutive size even by our standards contributes to its relative isolation in the region. This made this event even more challenging and appealing.

After forming an initial team, Christopher took on the task to crowdfund the event. Indiegogo is a great platform for this kind of thing and we all contributed some personal videos and did our fair share of promoting the event. We didn’t quite reach our goal, but raised significant funds to cover our travel. If it isn’t clear by now, I’ll point out that this wasn’t an official Mozilla event, so this all came together thanks to Christopher. He did a fantastic job setting everything up and getting the final team together: Shane Caraveo, Matthew Ruttley and I. A community member from Mexico also meant to attend, but had to cancel shortly before.

Traveling to our venue was a bit unusual. Getting to Belize takes two flights even from Costa Rica, and then it took two more internal flights to make it to Corozal, due to its remoteness. Then it took about an hour drive, including a ride on a hand-cranked ferry, to reach our venue (which was also our hotel during our stay). Years of constant travel and some previous experience on propeller planes made this all much easier for me.

Belize from a tiny plane
I made it to Corozal, as planned, on December 28th. I could only stay for a couple of days because I wanted to make it back home for New Year’s, so we planned accordingly. I would be taking care of the first sessions, with Shane helping out and dealing with some introductory portions, and then Matthew would arrive later and he and Shane would lead the course for the rest of the week.

Part of our logistics involved handing out Firefox OS phones and setting up some laptops for the kids to use. It didn’t take long before things got… interesting.

Charging 6 Firefox OS phones
Having only a couple of power strips and power outlets made juggling all of the hardware a bit tricky, and since our location was a very eco-friendly, self-sustaining lodge, this meant that we couldn’t leave stuff plugged overnight. But this isn’t really the “interesting” part, it just added to it. What really got to us and kept Shane working furiously in the background during the sessions was that the phones had different versions of Firefox OS, none of them very recent, and half of them were crashing constantly. We managed to get the non-crashy ones updated, but by the time I left we had yet to find a solution for the rest. Flashing these “old” ZTE phones isn’t a trivial task, it seems.

Then Monday came and the course began. We got about 30 very enthusiastic and smart kids, so putting things in motion was a breeze.

First day of classA critical factor that made things easy for me was attending a Teach The Web event that held in Costa Rica just a couple of weeks earlier. This event was lead by Melissa Romaine, and to say that I took some ideas from it would not be doing it justice. I essentially copied everything she did and it’s because of this that I think my sessions were successful. So, thanks, Melissa!

So, here’s how Melissa’s my sessions went. I showed the kids what a decision tree is and asked them to draw a simple tree of their own, in groups, for a topic I gave each group. After that I showed them a simple app created in Appmaker that implements a decision tree as a fun quiz app. They were then asked to remix (hack on) the example application and adapt it to their own tree. Then they were asked to share their apps and play around with them. This all worked out great and it was a surprisingly easy way to get people acquainted with logic flows and error cases.

Kids hacking away

The next day we got back to pen and paper, this time to design an app from scratch. We asked everyone to come up with their own ideas, and then grouped them again to create wireframes for the different screens and states their apps would have. I was very happy to see very diverse ideas, from alternatives to social networking, to shopping, and more local solutions like sea trip planning. Once they had their mockups ready, it was back to their laptops and Appmaker, to come up with a prototype of their app.

Unfortunately, my time was up and I wasn’t able to see their finished apps. I did catch a glance of what they were working on, and it was excellent. The great thing about kids is that they put up no resistance when it comes to learning new things. Different tools, completely new topics… no problem! It was too bad I had to leave early. Matthew arrived just as I was leaving, so I got to talk to him all of 30 seconds.

But my trip wasn’t over. Due to the logistics of the 4 flights (!) it takes to go back home, I couldn’t make it back in one go, so I chose to spend the night of December 30th in Belize City, in the hopes of finding people to meet who were interested in forming a Mozilla community. I did some poking around in the weeks leading to the event, but couldn’t find any contacts. However, word of our event got around and we were approached by a government official to talk about what we were doing. So, I got to have a nice conversation with Judene Tingling, Science and Technology Coordinator for the Government of Belize. She was very interested in Webmaker and the event we did, and was very keen in repeating it on a larger scale. I hope that we can work with her and her country to get some more Webmaker events going over there.

On my last day I finally got some rest and managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Altun Ha, which is fairly small but still very impressive.

Mayan ruins!

I’ll wrap up this post with some important lessons I learned, more as a note to self if I go back:

  • While the official language is English, a significant amount of people living outside the city centers speak Spanish in their homes (school is taught in English, though). In the cities Spanish is a secondary language at best.
  • When in doubt, bring your own post-its, markers, etc.
  • Tools that require accounts pose a significant hurdle when it comes to children. It’s not a good idea to have them set up accounts or email addresses without parental consent, so be prepared with your own accounts. I ended up creating a bunch of fake email addresses with spamgourmet so I could have enough Webmaker accounts for all computers (Persona, why so many clicks??).
  • If you’re ever in a remote jungle area, wear socks and ideally pants. Being hot is truly insignificant next to being eaten alive by giant bugs that are impervious to repellents. Two weeks later I still have a constellation of bug bites that prove it.

Many thanks to Christopher for setting all of this up, our hosts Bill and Jen at the Cerros Beach Resort, Shane and Matthew for all the hard work, Mike Poessy for setting up the laptops we used, and everyone else who helped out with this event, assistant teachers and students.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. jose | 2015/03/17 at 10:40 AM | Permalink

    Pregunta, ¿es cierto que ya está a la venta un smartphone con Firefox, en Costa Rica? Dónde puedo comprarlo? Lo tiene el ICE?

  2. jorge | 2015/03/17 at 5:54 PM | Permalink

    Movistar tiene un modelo disponible desde el fin de año. Es el único que hay en el país por el momento.

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