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BY Mildred Europa Taylor, 9:00am December 10, 2021,

The amazing story of Arlene Laing, who created the first Jamaican website on the internet

Arlene Laing, who is now a meteorologist, pictured here at her desk at the NOAA/National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center. Image courtesy of Arlene Laing

Arlene Laing has been on the Internet since 1989. Before creating the first Jamaican website online in 1994, she used email to keep in touch with her brother, who was a computer scientist in Jamaica. Her brother Dinsdale was among the first to have emailed back then, fellow students, professors, and friends around the world, Laing told Jamaicans.com.

She said before the “World Wide Web”, she had used “gopher” to browse the Internet and “USENET” to connect with the Caribbean diaspora. It was in early 1994 that a friend introduced her to Mosaic, one of the first web browsers. Realizing how the Web was very powerful, Laing was inspired to learn how to build websites.

She searched for information about Jamaica and the Caribbean and found two popular Caribbean collections, at MIT — by Geoff Seyon — and the University of Illinois, by Ryan Alva Stuart. “Neither collection nor anywhere else I searched had much information about Jamaica. So, once I learnt HTML, I started creating what I called “An introduction to Jamaica”,” Laing told Jamaicans.com.

As someone who enjoys reading, Laing had a collection of books about Jamaica as well as videos and photos she had used for presentations about Jamaica. Those materials helped her to create her “An Introduction to Jamaica” website. She also created the first website for Hampton School and Munro College and that site brought together Hamptonians and Munronians from around the world while inspiring other Jamaicans to do the same for their schools.

As Laing’s website began to showcase Jamaica beyond reggae, Rasta, and the beach to a worldwide audience, the site soon became popular as people were hungry for information about Jamaica. Laing, now an atmospheric scientist who completed a master’s degree and doctoral degree in meteorology from Pennsylvania State University in the U.S., said when she launched her website, she got in trouble with her systems administrator at Penn State “because our research center web server was overloaded by people hitting my site.”

“I had to email Yahoo, who had the biggest collection of web links at that time, and ask to be removed from their collection,” she recalled. She then set up her own web server after learning how to do so. And as she continued to share Jamaica with the world, she was able to connect with people from all over the world who were happy to find the site.

One Jamaican wrote the following to her in 1998: “… I must commend you on a wonderful Webpage. I think it is one of the most Informative webpage about jamaica I have seen so far. As a matter of fact, I was in the process of creating a webpage similar to the one you have. Now I realise that my dream is already full-filled by you….”

Apart from getting to connect with people through the site, Laing also got involved with organizations such as the Jamaica Computer Lab Facilitation Project, which provided computers for schools.

At the time Laing created the site, she said a few of her friends knew about email and the Web from family abroad. Her brother and other Jamaican tech people were during that period also looking at ways to increase Jamaica’s presence in the new virtual inter-connected world. But as people began to know about email and the Web, they found it difficult to understand the technical aspects — browsers, servers, protocols, and so on.

“Once I had my first laptop in 1995, I could demonstrate my sites, which made it easier for them to understand the concept,” Laing said.

But she faced some challenges along the way. She said it became tough updating information, responding to emails from users, and keeping up with web authoring tools while working on her doctorate. Later, there were other job and family obligations. And as she became too busy with her career and family, she couldn’t maintain her site after 2002. But she had paved the way for other Jamaican websites to exist.

Laing would come to have experience as a research scientist, weather forecaster, university professor, and trainer in operational weather forecasting. In 2019, the Caribbean Meteorological Council appointed Laing as the new coordinating director of the Caribbean Meteorological Organization (CMO). She had at the time become well-known in several areas of meteorological research, including tropical meteorology, thunderstorm systems, flash floods and mitigation, and satellite meteorology.

Laing is the author of several publications, including Introduction to Tropical Meteorology, as well as a co-author of the award-winning Meteorology of Tropical West Africa: The Forecasters’ Handbook. Before joining CMO, Laing was a Scientific Analyst at the NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory. Prior to that, she had worked as a forecaster in Jamaica and as a scientist at the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research. She has also held various academic positions, including being Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida and Adjunct Professor of North Carolina State University.

The Jamaican scientist believes that she has been able to succeed thanks to an early love for science and mathematics. She became interested in the atmosphere at the age of nine when she received a book about the weather as a prize in primary school. After deciding to become a meteorologist, she earned a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from the University of the West Indies before completing a master’s degree and doctoral degree in meteorology from Pennsylvania State University. She was also a postdoctoral fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere.

In one of her recent interviews, she said her greatest achievement is going from a little village in rural Jamaica to high levels of the international scientific community while helping others to advance in their academic and career prospects. She advised young female scientists to find good mentors.

“Do not be afraid to ask questions, not only about academics but also about other ways of building a career, including on how to create a network,” she said.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 10, 2021


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