Teacher Jan Juricek leads a discussion for Ucime online users on combining Google and other apps for use in distance learning. Video via YouTube/Ucime online.

How IT volunteers connected civil society with corporations to deliver computers to needy families during the pandemic.

As a virus spread across the planet in spring 2020, the shared threat brought people together. “I sensed, and not only me, that something big was happening that we would remember for a long time, and I wanted to take an active part in it,” says Tereza Vohryzkova, a mother of two and a project coordinator in an environmental group. A few days after schools sent students home that March, she took it upon herself to help families who lacked distance-learning equipment. In a Facebook post, she asked those needing a computer or printer to get in touch. She also asked whether anyone with a working device was willing to donate it. “I’ve been through a period when I was taking care of my two daughters by myself; I can imagine the stress,” Vohryzkova says. She connected about 100 families.

According to a study by IDEA, a think tank of the Economics Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, 6% of Czech households had no computer or tablet at home in spring 2020. Roughly 3% were without an internet connection. Some students had only a mobile phone, with limited data. One in six students from disadvantaged backgrounds lacked learning support from their parents.

Outside help eventually improved the situation for many families in need, both in terms of material support and encouragement at a difficult time. Simultaneously with Vohryzkova’s private initiative, the non-profit Cesko.Digital and a local electronics seller, Mironet, got into the act. Their projects were much slower to take off, but gradually picked up speed and to date have delivered computers to several thousand families. 

Best known is the ongoing computer collection drive launched early in the pandemic by Cesko.Digital, a group of IT sector volunteers who already had been providing technological help to people working in areas from urban planning to mental health and safe needle disposal. Through its flagship Ucime online (We teach online) project, Cesko.Digital connected businesses willing to donate computers with NGOs for final delivery to needy families. 

The other of the two most visible collections was launched by Mironet. Unlike Cesko.Digital’s approach, Mironet collected devices from both companies and households, took them to its own premises, and delivered them directly to recipient families.

“I have been to almost all the families personally; you can’t just send a computer somewhere and not care,” says Petra Skrabalova, who was put in charge of the collection directly by Mironet owner Robert Novotny.

Both drives started slowly. By May 2020, Cesko.Digital reported that it had distributed about 500 devices. Mironet, although it threw itself into collecting computers with great enthusiasm, was unable to satisfy the thousands of applications for devices it received soon after announcing its own drive.

Cesko.Digital focused on corporate donors because “we sensed that there was untapped potential,” says Eva Pavlikova, the NGO’s current director, who started in the group as a volunteer and eventually helped launch Ucime online. “We noticed that companies most often give discarded computers to employees for a symbolic price, resell them, or dispose of them ecologically. Even functional or easily repairable computers end up as scrap.” 

The main task Czech education faced in spring 2020 was the introduction of distance learning for teachers and pupils unable to meet in person because of the lockdown. Cesko.Digital’s volunteer IT experts were well equipped to take on the job. Two years after its founding, the organization now has more than 4,000 IT volunteers and several full-time paid staff. 

Just days into the first lockdown, Ucime online started sharing with schools its expertise on remote teaching and launched its drive to collect donated computers for households in need. The donated devices went to schools and NGOs working with economically disadvantaged families, who then chose the final recipients.

In this Ucime online video for teachers, education specialist Iva Louzecka shows how to make and share e-books using the Book Creator tool. Video via YouTube/Ucime online.

“We didn’t feel competent or capable of finding out and deciding which family is eligible for the donation, and this seemed the most logical,” says Pavlikova. 

Cutting Red Tape

When Cesko.Digital’s email appeal for donations met with a positive response from numerous companies, the organization promptly messaged schools and social service organizations that help was on the way. If the IT volunteers had known that a donated computer’s journey from source to recipient might take a month, two or three, four, even six months, they might have been more conservative about estimating delivery times. 

One of the NGOs to which Cesko.Digital reached out was one of the country’s largest providers of social services, Diaconia of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren (DECCB). Its staff, who help families in excluded localities, mapped the needs of their clients. “We quickly found out what the situation was like; where there was a complete lack of equipment, or where there was only one computer for five children,” says Diaconia spokesman Ivo Mares. Diaconia first asked for 50 tablets and laptops, later increasing the number to 120.

In April 2020, Cesko.Digital informed Diaconia that a donation of 500 computers was on the horizon; based on that, Diaconia told its clients that help was imminent. “Everyone thought it would take weeks at most to hand over the equipment, not months, as it happened,” Mares recalls. He says the delay compromised clients’ trust in his organization. “When the wait got longer, the situation became really unpleasant.”

Some corporate donors Cesko.Digital sent to Diaconia came with copious red tape. Companies’ lack of experience with such a project also played a role. Most, if not all, were trying something like this for the first time. “Everything really dragged on; somebody asked for a contract on paper and by mail, as if we still lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” Mares says. “We even got into a conflict with one donor, because everything was so convoluted. Other times we had the feeling that the company was acting like a prima donna that was doing us a gracious favor, and we always had to go by their time constraints.” Most of the promised equipment finally arrived at Diaconia in the fall, including that of the largest donor, Medtronic. 

Business Chips In

The Czech facilities of Medtronic, a multinational manufacturer of medical instruments and devices for hospitals, include a service center with 400 employees and a business unit of 150 people. All employees receive a new laptop every four years; the old devices are discarded. About a hundred computers are changed out each year. 

Medtronic learned about the collection through its service partner, the Czech firm Datasys. In 2020, Datasys managed the ecological disposal of electronic waste for Medtronic. Hundreds of laptops had piled up after the company that used to do this for Medtronic globally had temporarily suspended the service.

Datasys became an active supporter of the computer collection drive and convinced Medtronic to participate. “We were motivated by the fact that we were doing something for a good cause, so we took the plunge,” explains Walter Reinold, Medtronic’s senior IT supervisor. 

Medtronic eventually sent 500 computers to Cesko.Digital. But first it had to get the OK from the department entrusted with the protection of company data. Medtronic has strict internal security rules. “Nothing from the corporation’s intellectual property can leave with a laptop,” Reinold says.

In the end, Medtronic decided the only solution was to swap out the hard drives. “We looked at different ways to delete the data. They were all pretty complicated. So the IT department figured that the easiest way was to dispose of the hard drive, under our supervision,” Reinold says.

Datasys supplied some new hard drives for the donated devices. Cesko.Digital purchased the rest, says Gabriela Chladilova, who coordinates its computer donations. They raised the funds from other companies and through a Christmas collection from individual supporters. 

Mironet provided some hard drives at an attractive price, while continuing its own computer collection for needy children. The two campaigns intersected: Cesko.Digital, which did not work directly with individuals, sent individuals – both those seeking help and those wishing to donate – to Mironet.

Learning as they went, Cesko.Digital volunteers drew up manuals for companies afraid of data leakage on how to overwrite the contents of data storage devices, using internationally recognized standards, Pavlikova says. 

Gradually, they also realized they needed to take a more active part in the process of connecting companies and non-profits. Initially, they hoped that the direct contact between donors and recipients would result in a lasting relationship – that companies would continue to donate equipment to their non-profit partners. But the relationship did not seem to be working.

“At some point, we gave up the idea of just pairing them,” Chladilova says. “We took over the administration and became the one who received the donation and then passed it on.”

A Job for the Night Shift

“It’s not easy to get technology from companies,” says Jiri Singer, a manager in the Datasys IT service department. Singer, who pitched Cesko.Digital’s collection to Medtronic, says the main complications are tied to tight data protection and entrenched company processes for scrapping hardware.

Laptops and monitors collected by Datasys in fall 2020, ready for distribution to schools. Photo from Datasys’ Facebook page. 

Datasys itself, with about 100 staff, did not have much equipment to donate. What it did have was the knowledge that its large clients, including banks, ministries, and retail chains, had lots of machines. Thanks to Singer’s initiative, Datasys assumed a central role in the equipment drive. He began by asking clients for meetings. “I told them that we would even take equipment that wasn’t fully functional and try to fix it,” he says. “Arranging a meeting was not always easy, but it was important, otherwise I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to explain the whole principle to them and reassure them that everything was safe. At Medtronic, we even made presentations to the security specialists from company headquarters.”

Datasys eventually picked up and repaired computers from several other Czech companies. Workers doing weekend and night shifts on the company help line repaired machines between calls. “They didn’t even object. They’re all young guys and they took to it eagerly,” Singer says.

By September 2021, 1,600 pieces of hardware made their way to the needy as a result. And the technicians continue to devote part of their night shift to fixing computers for needy families, instead of sleeping or playing games while waiting for the next call from a client. 

Another important connector and accelerator in the chain between donors and recipients was the Eduzmena Foundation (zmena means “change” in Czech). Funded by private donors, Eduzmena’s original mission was to support grassroots education reform in a pilot region, the Kutna Hora district east of Prague. When the coronavirus crisis thwarted the plan, the organization pivoted to the pressing needs of schools and families. It established a fund to channel financial assistance to schools and, through them, to families in need. 

Eduzmena also joined Cesko.Digital’s computer collection project. “We surveyed the demand from schools and NGOs in the field, and then we went to collect the laptops in Prague,” says Monika Seifertova, Eduzmena’s Kutna Hora local coordinator. “It was difficult at first, but it got better and better with each handover, and we were relieved when the contractual relationships started going through Cesko.Digital.”

Eduzmena would pick up computers that Datasys had collected and repaired. “We waited until 10 machines had accumulated and then went to get them,” says Seifertova. “Sending something like this by post is very difficult.” She delivered about 100 devices in the Kutna Hora district.

Diaconia’s Mares says that although he would not like to go through another bitter experience like the first lockdown in spring 2020, he’s not sure there would have been a better way of bringing distance learning equipment to disadvantaged families.

“In a normal situation when you don’t promise anything quickly, delays don’t matter as much as in a crisis when the pressure is mounting on everyone,” he says. By mid-September 2021, Cesko.Digital had collected 2,745 donated devices from 65 corporate donors and handed them over to 231 recipient groups.

The urgent, cooperative atmosphere of that first lockdown has faded. The computer drive is ongoing as many families still lack computers for their children, even though they returned to classrooms in September. For Cesko.Digital, running the computer drive was straining its capacities, and earlier this year the group put out feelers to NGOs with experience in large-scale project management. In October, Cesko.Digital announced they would turn over the project to People in Need, a large Czech-based charity with operations in many countries.

As the cases highlighted in this article show, the key to success is the individuals who get on board. Singer’s example shows that personal commitment is an important trigger and driver of the whole process. But unless the initiative becomes part of a company’s regular routine, it can easily dry up.

“For us, Medtronic, this was unfortunately a one-off event,” Reinold says. The company’s risk assessors flagged “critical pitfalls” that would need to be addressed before carrying out another such initiative. Medtronic went back to disposing its discarded devices through an authorized global partner. 

Cesko.Digital has been an important agent of action since the pandemic began: As a volunteer organization, it is by default made up of committed IT professionals; its leadership sees change as its mission. It also has the necessary competences to react to obstacles that could have sunk the whole idea. As an IT community, it understood and could help resolve technical and procedural hitches and developed know-how that others can use in the future. A less tech-savvy nonprofit partner might not have been able to do that.

How much of the commitment and goodwill of the pandemic’s first wave will translate into more community-friendly use of retired IT equipment cannot be predicted. 

Jitka Polanska is a writer with Eduzin, a Czech online magazine about education.