Travis D. Breaux Carnegie Mellon University Travis D. Breaux
Assistant Professor of Computer Science
Institute for Software Research
School of Computer Science
5000 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
5103 Wean Hall

Links: Home | Research | Teaching | Publications | Biography | Vitae

Volunteer: Peace Corps Mongolia

Mongolia -- not to be confused with Inner Mongolia, a region in northern China-- is a nation just north of China. Mongolia's geography is spread atop a mile-high plateau with no access to oceans. In 1991, Mongolia became a parliamentary democracy in much the same way as other formerly Communist satellite states of the former USSR. Mongolia's national economy covers textiles, tourism and well as herding various animals, including camels, cattle, goats, sheep and yaks. In the far north, the Tsaatan people even herd and ride reindeers. Many regions in Mongolia are subjected to sand storms in the spring, blizzards in the winter, with winter temperatures reaching as low as -60° celsius in some areas. I lived in Bayan-Khongor, the capitol city of the state with the same name located at the northwest edge of the Govi desert. In Bayan-Khongor, the winters only reached a mild -40° celsius.

During my time in Mongolia I met a number of incredible people, too many to name. One noteworthy companion, Battogtokh (translates to "steady, immobile"), was my officially sanctioned Peace Corps counterpart with whom I worked for most of my stay. Battogtokh entertained a number of my crazy ideas, including mapping and measuring a good deal of the city for a computer interanet proposal that never found funding in a tight Peace Corps budget -- the total cost was under $5,000. In addition to broken Mongolian, Battogtokh and I spoke a subset of English largely derived from error messages found in popular software applications. When I departed, Battogtokh was the senior technology officer at a foreign-aide agency based in Mongolia's capitol city, Ulaanbaatar.

Perhaps the most suprising technological aspect of Mongolia was the large number of pentium-class computers littered throughout the country-side. Of the nearly 60 machines I found in Bayan-Khongor during numerous surveys and outreach events, most were dedicated to accounting practices in law firms and banks or for engineering/ drafting in the local power company. Among the public secondary schools, small business college and one NGO there were around 15 - 20 computers dedicated to educational purposes. The people in Bayan-Khongor were fortunate to have a 32 Kbps satellite connection to the Internet for a whopping $800 per month and paid for, in part, by the George Soros Foundation and the local NGO Khongor Foundation. Before I left Bayan-Khongor, Battogtokh and I had been successful in connecting the Internet connection to a modem-bank crafted from two spare modems, hard-won telephone lines, and TCP/IP routing software. Alas, Bayan-Khongor's first Internet Service Provider (ISP) in a city with no outbound, paved roads and irregular, rolling blackouts.

Apart from Bayan-Khongor, I also met with a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiative that sought to develop component-based software concurrent with their managerial/ accounting training programs. While we may take software foregranted, software plays an important role in developing countries by promoting standardized and accountable business practices. The basic resources to produce software, namely computers, electricity, software development tools, and trained programmers, are not difficult to find -- at least in Mongolia. The pay-offs, in terms of accountability and automation, however, generally are rare. In developing countries, I see large infrastructure projects like the Internet as lower priorities compared with the need for building and sustaining technological capacity for solving everyday problems -- problems which are inherently culturally specific and certainly language-specific. At the time of this writing, Microsoft Windows lacked support for the Mongolian language character set and keyboard layout. Two functions that I had to reverse-engineer for Microsoft Windows NT support.

Suprisingly, there were few information technology initiatives in foreign-aide that I was able to find. For American citizens, the Peace Corps does have a limited IT Focus Area in their application pool. Perhaps more intriguing, the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) manage a UNITeS Program for professionally adept information technologists. If you're interested, I can say it's an experience of a lifetime with friendships that will last forever.