Nilay Patel's Chromebooks
Half Moon Bay resident Nilay Patel made it his mission to turn ageing computers into useful Chromebooks as many people turn to the devices for home and school work. Photo courtesy Nilay Patel

Half Moon Bay resident Nilay Patel was cleaning out his closet when he came upon an old laptop ready to be recycled. But then he had an idea — he could convert it into a Chromebook for someone in need. After posting on social media, he’s now helping to convert dozens of laptops and plans to donate them to students who need to access remote learning.

In just a few days, he has turned around nine old computers into devices that run just Google Chrome’s operating system, a high-speed web browsing software. After offering the first device on Nextdoor, Patel said a dozen families in the community responded asking for a spare computer for remote learning. And even more locals have reached out to him with devices to drop off for conversion. Now, the Boys and Girls Club of the Coastside is hoping to distribute some of the devices to staff and students in need.

“I didn't know what to expect when I put it out there, but I was really surprised to see the energy behind it,” Patel said.

Patel said it’s not his effort alone anymore. Others in the community have offered to help prepare the machines and to organize the distribution of the devices. Patel said he knew from experience that local school districts couldn’t accept the old computers for security and tax reasons, so he worked with local parent and Cabrillo Education Foundation board director Bettina Lunasin to find organizations like the Boys and Girls Club that can give them to students in need.

BGCC Director Jill Jacobson said she’s excited to accept some of the devices as backups for the remote learning center classrooms they are offering at the Ted Adcock Community Center and Cunha Intermediate School. She’s also hoping to survey students and families about what technology they may be missing at home and is in ongoing conversations with Cabrillo Unified School District and the local Parent Teacher Organizations about their needs as well.

As a founding member of technology company Backblaze in San Mateo, Patel knew the process of converting the laptops would be simple, but slow. First, he installs a program that shreds the data on the old computer to clean the hard drive and make sure it’s not recoverable. That process takes around 12 hours. Then, in about 20 minutes, he installs the Google Chrome operating system. Finally, he tests each computer to make sure the audio, video and webcam all work — he said each has been successful so far. When a student receives the laptop, Patel said, all they need is a Google username and password to access the internet.

“If there's a hero in this story, it's actually that Google Chrome OS works,” Patel said.

For people looking to donate their old laptops to be repurposed for students during remote learning, Patel has set up a website at chromebooksforhalfmoonbay.com. Any machine that is too damaged to be converted will be donated to local artist Tom Clifford who is repurposing the old parts into displays.

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