Sunday, February 10, 2008

Is One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Being Sabotaged?

Fellow blogger Andy Carvin at Learning.Now is reporting a strange anomaly in the One Laptop Per Child Initiative. Andy reports in "Dude, Where’s My Laptop?" that
By donating $400 to OLPC, a person would receive their own XO laptop, while a second one would be given to a child in the developing world. OLPC began taking orders in mid-November. They made it clear that most people would probably not receive their laptop in time for Christmas, but they would try to accommodate those who ordered on the very first day of the program.

Some lucky donors managed to receive their laptops in time for the holidays, but others, including myself, receive cryptic emails saying that the address we supplied for shipping was incorrect, and that we would have to submit a new address for a January delivery. On bulletin boards, discussion lists and Twitter, people grumbled but were generally forgiving.

But that was just the beginning of the problem. As reported by Ars Technica recently, the software used by OLPC’s fulfillment contractor had a glitch that caused perfectly correct addressed to appear incorrect, preventing FedEx from shipping the laptops. Making matters worse, when donors re-submitted their address or supplied a new one, the glitch would overwrite the new information and again supply FedEx with a nonexistent address. Moreover, they were unable to ship to PO Boxes - a fact that was never communicated to donors before they ordered.

While a group of volunteers began to document the potential causes of the delivery mess on a wiki, established a forum where users could vent their own experiences with the ordering process. The posts are filled with people who were clearly supporters of the initiative but now are questioning its competence, like this one, entitled Joke of the Year:

I’ve always been a supporter of programs that are aimed to eradicate poverty and help the poor. I’ve traveled extensively and lived in Africa and I grew up in China. While I was living in Ethiopia, I took up in the annual 10km run and raised $400 for the UNICEF.

Now I’m just very surprised by the lack of human touch of OLPC foundation. I’m not frustrated because I’m still very patient and hoping it will arrive one day. But this email reply from their support team is leaving me disappointed.

Please note that this reply from the support team was dated “Jan 17, 2008 2:29 PM”:
“We currently show that your laptop has been sent to the warehouse for shipping. You will be receiving an email notifying you when the laptop has been shipped along with a tracking number. If you live within the United States, you should receive your laptop no later than January 15, 2008. If you live in Canada, you should receive your laptop in the January/February 2008 timeframe.”

Their experiences mirror my own. While I was expecting delays, I was amazed and dismayed by the sheer disorganization of their customer service.
Given the threat that the OLPC program represents to vested interests, one cannot help but wonder whether this in fact is a "glitch" and not a wholesale effort to sabotoge the program.

I've spent many years in the software engineering field - far to many to believe that mailing list software such as this could be so complex or buggy to cause this kind of sustained havoc.

Is anyone else equally suspicious? This looks sufficiently suspicious to warrant an investigation into malicious behavior behind the scenes.


Tom Hoffman said...

Well... I don't think so. They essentially patched together a whole retail sales system from donated and at-cost services from several different companies. They went from 0 sales to 125,000 and are planning on tearing the whole thing down asap. It always seemed to me that it was likely to be pretty disorganized. Also, if you're only doing this once, you don't have as much incentive to get the customer service right.

It is unfortunate, but not really surprising.

The Caretaker said...

Disorganized is one thing. Getting it all wrong and not fixing it is quite another.

I'll buy your explanation because it at least explains where this stuff came from but, my lord, why accept stuff that violates the essential rule of software engineering; accuracy?