Project Robinhood Helps Save the Environment and Money

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Aaron Freed and Benny Soto, the founders of Project Robinhood

Manning the IT help desk for the Department of Medicine from a tiny office on the 7th floor, Aaron Freed is a modern-day hero of sorts, taking discarded computers and refurbishing them for researchers in need. Freed aptly has dubbed his effort, Project Robinhood.

According to Freed on the project’s website, “It’s about being environmentally conscious and putting to good use old computers that would otherwise end up being discarded. It’s about saving money—why buy a new computer when a reconditioned machine is perfectly serviceable—and it’s free?”

Freed and his colleague, Benny Soto, started the project in March of 2013 and have already overhauled and donated 20 computers. Freed got the idea when another colleague asked him if he knew of any old computers that could be repaired and given to a lab. He decided to keep doing the refurbishments after the initial request and expanded his search from inside his building to other areas of the hospital.


Aaron Freed departs from Vose Hall on the “TRecyle” with his findings of the day.

Now, Freed and Soto go on weekly runs scouring the storages bins in the basement of Vose Hall, where the IT department stores computers before they are picked up to be recycled. They haul back their findings on the “TRecycle”, a three-wheeled vehicle Freed built out of an old bicycle, scrap lumber, and a wheel from a flea market.

“When computers are replaced, IT removes the old components and brings them to the graveyard in Vose where Aaron gets his parts,” says Steve Monstur, director of environmental management.

Monstur explains that the primary concern when recycling electronics is contamination due to the lead and other metals that make up many of the components. Boston University works with the Institutional Recycling Network, a New Hampshire based company that is committed to recycling electronics comestically.  The problem with sending electronics outside of the country is that other countries they often don’t abide by the same environmental standards as the United States.

Monstur assures that IRN is “heavily regulated from an environmental standpoint, subject to full scope of federal and Massachusetts regulation.” He also stresses that departments should only use this University approved contractor for their electronics recycling needs because other companies may not be subject to same standards.

“Project Robinhood makes a positive environmental impact, since virtually everything we use is pulled from the trash. This and the smiles from the people who receive our donated PC’s make Project Robinhood more than worth the effort.”

Sarah Johnson, manager of customer operations for BMC’s Information Technology Services, explains how computers end up in storage for Freed and Soto to scavenge. “The policy is it doesn’t get replaced until it absolutely broken and irreparable.” She says that often the machines are used for 6 or 7 years before they are finally deemed unusable. Many of the machines can’t be salvaged because of the high processing power that is required of computers used in clinical settings at the hospital. These are the computers that wind up being re-purposed, but not before being completely wiped of all data, Johnson assures, a process known as degaussing.

Though these machines may be obsolete in clinical settings, they still have potential in the right hands—this is where Project Robinhood comes in. Research laboratories have different needs than clinical or office environments and in some cases require far less powerful machines for certain specific uses such as controlling scientific instrumentation. Freed is able to take parts and pieces from the machines the hospital can no longer use and build perfectly good computers for his colleagues back in the Department of Medicine. Researchers in the department can submit request through a ticket system and he does his best to build a machine to their specifications using what they finds.

“I generally build two machines at a time. For each, it takes approximately two to three days, assuming the availability of used hard disks. If I had new hard drives, this could be cut down to one to two days,” says Freed.

This is quite an impressive turnaround time for a two-man team, especially considering Soto is only in the office part-time.

Their work certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed. According to Soto, the department has been extremely supportive of the project.

“We get positive feedback all the time because we’re helping people,” says Soto.

“It’s been very successful. I have heard a lot of positive feedback from my colleagues,” says Freed’s boss, Dr. John Meyers, who serves as the Department of Medicine’s director of technology and holds a faculty appointment as an assistant professor of medicine. Dr. Meyers even suggests that while the utility of Robinhood PCs is restricted to a very specific set of laboratory uses, in some ways getting a Robinhood computer is better than buying one new because of the service provided by Freed. “He does it all! He brings it you and sets it up. It’s very convenient. He provides red carpet service!”

Johnson agrees adding, “He has one of the biggest hearts I know so devoted to the hospital and all the people working here”.

It’s not only his colleagues and customers; working on the project has made Freed pretty happy too.

“Project Robinhood makes a positive environmental impact, since virtually everything we use is pulled from the trash. This and the smiles from the people who receive our donated PC’s make Project Robinhood more than worth the effort.”

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