When home-based learning for students began in early April in conjunction with the circuit breaker period, Johann Annuar learnt from a friend that some families couldn’t afford laptops for their school-going kids.
The executive director of Engineering Good, a non-profit organisation that helps empower disadvantaged communities by improving their access to technology, launched Computers Against Covid. He asked the public to donate old laptops, which he could refurbish and deliver to students who needed them.
“Our earliest request was for 24 laptops and I was prepared to complete those myself,” says Annuar, who is the only full-time staff at Engineering Good. “When we started receiving more machines, I had to get volunteers to help — in 10 days, we’d built a team of 120. By then, word had spread so rapidly; in two weeks, laptop requests had gone up to 800!”
By the end of the circuit breaker period, Annuar and his team had fulfilled nearly 1,700 requests for laptops. The first few weeks were especially hectic, he adds, as he worked from 10am to 1am every day not just to fix the laptops but also to finalise logistics, manpower and beneficiaries.
Computers Against Covid is only a part of Engineering Good’s mission to improve the quality of life for marginalised communities. Among other things, it also offers assistive technology programmes to engage people with disabilities and develop technology to help them become more independent.
In partnership with the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore (CPAS), it helped to design and build a Kinect-based showering game for CPAS students. The software uses a camera to detect a child’s body movements to ensure he or she “rinses” all over, for example. This helps make basic daily activities more interesting for them to learn.
Through its Student Chapter at the National University of Singapore, Engineering Good also guides students to design solutions to positively impact others’ lives. Among the projects is a smartwatch for beneficiaries of The Singapore Association For The Deaf, that can translate audio information such as ringing alarm clocks and chiming doorbells.
The organisation also offers end-user and IT consultancy support to beneficiaries and social service agencies respectively.
What lessons from Computers Against Covid will you apply to Engineering Good post-pandemic?
Although we are based in Singapore, we received requests for refurbished laptops from other countries, such as the Philippines, Brazil and even the US. So we are looking into the possibility of exporting this model. Covid-19 isn’t going away soon and there are still children who need laptops to make the most of their home-based learning. As we saw from the circuit breaker, the learning journey of children without a laptop can be disrupted. Parents from low-income groups need to see how their kids can benefit from having the appropriate digital devices; it’s not enough to have a smartphone. As a father of two primary school–going children, this is also something I feel strongly about.
Some families have unused laptops while others can’t afford one. What do you make of this digital divide?
The digital divide is real in Singapore. But for people to want to get to the other side, they must see what’s in it for them. For example, being able to break out of the poverty cycle. Education can help do away with the disadvantages of poverty. Only by acknowledging this issue, can we then find solutions. Hence, we want to reach out to digitally disadvantaged communities like the elderly.
Engineering Good also conducts workshops to teach people to fix their laptops.
Did you know a laptop can function for up to five years? It might experience some maintenance issues but it is decently functional. Generally, all you need is to do a software reset. Aside from repair workshops, we are looking into offering digital literacy courses; all this will help create a ground-up community to push recycling to a higher level and reduce electronic waste.
Engineering Good is seeking volunteers and funding for future projects; if you would like to contribute, click here for more details.
This is part of our series on super positivity spreaders. For the full story, click here.
This story first appeared in the June 2020 issue of A Magazine.