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Talk About Remote Backups – A Perspective from Papua New Guinea

It’s easy for IT folks in the US to think we have problems. Whether it is worrying about our jobs, how we are going to stretch the budget to get everything done that needs to be done or trying to decide if and when to innovate, our problems can pale in comparison to the stresses that individuals working abroad can face. This is especially applicable for those individuals working for missionary organizations that work in the remote parts of the world such as Papua New Guinea that have huge technology needs but who do not really have any viable, affordable data protection options available to them.

Recently I had the opportunity to meet one of these individuals who works in one of the most remote regions of the world: Papua New Guinea. This individual is Bob Lee who works as a missionary in Papau New Guinea for Wycliffe Bible Translators  and has recently retired to Omaha, NE. While Bob still goes to Papua New Guinea occasionally (and is there as I write this), he is now in Omaha more often than not and I recently had a chance to meet him and his wife over dinner and talk about some of the challenges that they face in their ministry.

Papua New Guinea is unique in that it has one the most diverse set of languages of any country in the world.  In a country that is a little larger in size than the size of Texas but has only about 1/6 of Texas’s population (4.7 million versus Texas’ population of over 30 million), it boasts over 800 known languages.

Bob’s assignment while in Papua New Guinua was to translate the Bible into the native languages of these different people groups. Obviously this in itself no small feat as he and his staff need to learn the language and then translate it into the language of these different people groups. In some cases into the written word and, in others, into the spoken word since some people groups they were trying to reach have no written language.

However an equally great challenge for Bob and Wycliffe Bible Translators is protecting the data both as the translation of the Bible progresses and then once it is complete. This is problematic in a couple of ways. First, Bob and his staff are working in remote areas of the island (according to Bob, it is a two hour drive on less than ideal roads just to get to where he resides in Papua New Guinea) so backing up the data is in itself a challenge no matter what method he uses. Power is unreliable, technology supplies are hard to come by and he has to manage and track all of the backups himself.

This leads to the second problem: even when he does complete a backup, he still needs to manage this data and get it offsite. Many of the bible translations that Bob and his staff complete are irreplaceable and impossible to recreate. Since everything they do is for the most part stored digitally, if the data is ever lost or compromised it could quite possibly never be recreated by anyone. But even if he does get the backup shipped offsite, Wycliffe’s missionaries largely work independently. So unless someone at Wycliffe knows how the backup was done, what data is on it and how to recover it, there is a good possibility the data could never be recovered.

The purpose of this blog entry is not to make you feel sorry for Bob Lee or ask for money to help Wycliffe in its Bible translation efforts (though you are certainly welcome to do so if you wish.) Bob understood what he was getting himself into, has been doing it for years and I’m sure he and Wycliffe will carry on. Rather realize there are individuals and organizations out there that really have no good options available to them at all and that we should be thankful for the technologies to which we do have access, imperfect though they may be at times.

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