Ukraine online: You've got crop reports!

December 21, 2009: 6:00 AM ET

To promote democracy, the United States is working to get Eastern Europe connected to the 'net. The results are more practical.

By Julia Ioffe, Contributor

When the village of Syn'kiv in Western Ukraine first got a computer with web access in 2003, the local priest encouraged people to come out for the grand opening of the library's Internet center. It had been paid for by the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, and the web access, which was free, was a novelty for this hamlet of 1,100 people.

Since then, however, the residents of Syn'kiv, a town known for its early tomatoes, have used the web to find out more precise local weather forecasts as well as the breeds of tomato best suited for the area and how to grow and fertilize them. In the last six years, this knowledge has helped Syn'kiv double its tomato crop.

Syn'kiv was part of a larger U.S. Embassy push to hook Ukraine, which has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in Europe, to the web.

(Lately, American embassies in the region have been promoting the web as a tool of democracy. In Azerbaijan, for example, the embassy sponsors a project that shows Azeri youth how to be citizen journalists through YouTube. But locals are finding they don't exactly have online freedom of speech: Two bloggers, who held a mock government press conference with a person in a donkey costume, are now in jail.)

In Ukraine, the U.S. Embassy managed to get over 140 local libraries online, and now they have help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which last year committed over $25 million to wire up 1,100 more in a project called Bibliomist, or Book Bridge. The project is currently in the rollout stage and, last month, nearly two hundred Ukrainian libraries applied to get their own Internet centers.

Books and more online

Each winning library, those that are ready and have the local authorities' support (because they are, after all, footing future maintenance bills), will get up to 15 up-to-date computers, training for its staff, and networking equipment that will allow as many as seven local branches to use the same connection. Microsoft (MSFT) is also donating over $4 million worth of software. (Conveniently, all the donated computers are required to run on the Windows Vista operating system.)

"In Ukraine, libraries are seen as cultural institutions," says Colin Guard, who runs Bibliomist through IREX, an international education non-profit. "They are seen as warehouses where culture is kept but little is known about the other services a library can provide to improve the quality of life, like finding jobs or answering healthcare questions."

The hope, Guard says, is to encourage people to use the wealth of information on the Internet to improve governance, improve business and lifestyle, and thereby jumpstart development. So far, the lucky plugged-in libraries have taken a series of initiatives, like posting government regulations and budgets online, or helping blind journalists improve their work.

Sometimes, however, the real victories are in the individual discoveries that Ukrainians make online, like the doctor from Kirovograd who used his library's Internet connection to diagnose his patient with a rare genetic disorder called Brugada Symptom that he hadn't been able to find in any Russian or Ukrainian textbooks. The patient survived.

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Stephanie Mehta
Stephanie Mehta
Deputy Managing Editor , Fortune

Stephanie N. Mehta is the deputy managing editor at Fortune, overseeing technology coverage for Fortune. She also is a co-chair of the annual Brainstorm Tech conference, an annual gathering of tech and media thinkers. Previously, Mehta spent seven years as a tech writer at Fortune covering the telecom and media industries. She also has worked for the Wall Street Journal and the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.

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