Kampong Cham may be a long way from Palo Alto, but one Silicon Valley institution has found its way to rural Cambodia: technology conferences.
Over the weekend some 600 people attended a two-day networking event in the province, which was hosted at the provincial capital's Chea Sim University of Kamchaymear.
BarCamp, with topics including Wikipedia and social networking, and more than 50 educational sessions on information technology, was open to the public and free.
Some 130 technology enthusiasts came from outside the provinces, some making use of special no-fee bus rides from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
“I have many [Facebook] friends from different provinces, and we were finally able to meet at BarCamp,” said Eang Kearovak, a 29-year-old Cellcard merchant from Kampong Cham.
BarCamp is an international conference structure that was first used in 2005 in California. Anyone can organise a BarCamp using an online wiki system, and to date it has been held in more than 350 cities worldwide.
While BarCamp has had eight sessions in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang, this was the first event held away from the large urban areas.
“We targeted the big cities, with the large universities, but we also want to target smaller cities,” said event organiser Be Chantra, who stressed the importance of involving the whole country.
Javier Sola, program director of Open Institute and BarCamp participant since 2008, said that Kampong Cham’s central position in northeastern Cambodia made it accessible to a greater number of rural people.
“It’s a key place, and it has universities, so you’ve younger students who are more interested in technology.”
Tep Sovichet, who co-led a conference on the emergence of Khmer Wikipedia, said that previous BarCamps had inadvertently excluded many people in rural areas.
“People in the provinces did not know how to join. They think about their budget and time. But if we come to the provinces, it is OK for them.”
Oum Vantharith, who co-led the session with Sovichet, said that the Kampong Cham BarCamp had a noticeably different flavour from the events he has attended in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
“In Phnom Penh, it’s more of a local unit. Here, it’s more diverse, with Kampong Cham youth and people from other provinces,” Vantharith said, adding that the participants at his session, who he estimated were 70 per cent Kampong Cham residents, left the session with far more knowledge than when they entered.
“Before we started our session, we asked the audience [about] their background with Wikipedia. Most of them really didn’t know or had little experience with the movement.
“Now they are aware that Wikipedia exists in their language, and they can edit the site. It gives them a chance to get involved.”
Vantharith added that increasingly intense competition among internet service providers and the influx of inexpensive, Chinese-made smartphones is making home internet access increasingly affordable for rural people of modest means.
Nheong Chanthou, a 28-year-old BarCamp volunteer from Kampong Cham, said that her mind was opened to thinking deeply about social networking.
“I have had Facebook for a year,” said Chanthou, who accesses the internet primarily from a smartphone. “But I’ve never socialised a lot, so it was very interesting to learn more about the possibilities of [online] communication.”