Thursday, May 06, 2010

"Bridging a digital divide"

Richard Burgess has a piece up in today's Advocate that offers an excellent overview of Lafayette's digital divide efforts. I'll review the highlights and offer some comment here but you'd be well-served to go to the source.

The story lists the most active digital divide efforts in the city, including efforts associated with the Heritage School program & KJCB, the Housing Authority of Lafayette, Vision Community Services lab, and the Lafayette Library.

Je’Nelle Chargois and the Heritage school:

A program that Chargois coordinates called the Heritage School of the Arts and Technology began providing computers and training last year to students at J.W. Faulk Elementary.

The students are selected by school staff based on need and given donated computers on condition they and their parents attend computer literacy workshops.

That program is the primary recipient of one of the two digital divide grants from recent stimulus funds applied for by LUS and LCG. If won the grant would provide 3.9 million for the expansion of the program, training, and free internet for the pupils' households.

Walter Guillory and the Housing Authority:

Chargois is already working with the Housing Authority of Lafayette to provide computers for three planned computer labs at public housing developments.

Housing Authority Director Walter Guillory said the first lab is planned for the Simcoe Street Development in a retrofitted apartment that will be filled with 20 computers with access to LUS Fiber.

He said the lab, which is set to open as soon as it can be stocked with donated computers, will be staffed and also available to residents in the surrounding community outside of the development.

This program is actually a recreation of a lab setup first developed during the runup to the fiber referendum in 05. At that time and for a couple of years afterward it was staffed by Americorp volunteers. When that organization developed other programs and withdrew support the centers languished and were closed. Staffing and maintenance will be an ongoing issue. The provision of reliable human support is by far the biggest barrier to many programs.

Sessil Trepagnier and the Vision Community Services lab:

Trepagnier said the lab is open on weekday afternoons and offers computer access and training on how to use and build computers.

“We focus on technology, but we also teach them leadership skills,” he said.

Trepagnier's center is a one-man labor of love. That's both its strength and the model's weakness. Lafayette, as blessed as it has been with people willing to sacrifice to see the right thing happen, cannot count on there being enough such people to fill the need—especially when they essentially labor alone. Folks like Sessile need a strong support system.

Sona Dombourian and the Lafayette Parish Library:

The library system has about 160 computers at its 10 locations in Lafayette Parish, and computer use has more than doubled in the past five years, with the number of computer sessions rising to 411,000 in the fiscal year that ended in October 2009, said library director Sona Dombourian.

The library system also offers wireless Internet access for patrons who bring laptops.

The library system is doubtless the largest single digital divide resource in the parish. In addition to computers and free net access it offers classes in a wide range of programs and activities, serving all age groups. I've set in on two discussions with library staff recently and came away impressed with both the personnel and the activities they sponsor. The library has the advantage of being a stand-alone institution with a dedicated tax stream to support activities its leadership understand are in its area of responsibility. Lafayette is lucky to have professional librarians and support staff that see the need and go the extra mile. The second stimulus grant that Lafayette has applied for will be spearheaded by the library but funds will also support centers at the Housing Authority and senior centers.

There are, of course, other good projects in town ranging from the Boys and Girls club to senior centers.

But for all of these the issue is, as I tried to say the phrases the article quotes, that more and more the barrier to full participation in the web is being reduced to the irreducible human and cultural factors.

LUS Fiber rates are low and the price of computers keeps falling, meaning that financial constraints, though they exist, will become less of an issue in years to come, said St. Julien, who also runs www.lafayetteprofiber.com, a website that tracks issues related to LUS Fiber.

“I think the initial thought was that hardware was going to be a big barrier. Now that the day is here, that is not a big issue,” he said. “We have reduced everything, except the human part, to a minimum.”

My first computer cost more than my first car. Less than a decade ago I spent money on a second telephone line here in Lafayette in order to get somewhat affordable always-on access to the internet at my North Lafayette home. I paid a small fortune to maintain a stable of professional-level software. I now do a fair amount of my net work on my carrier-subsidized "palm top" computer and get 50 megs of symmetrical bandwidth to drive my in-house wireless network of computers and devices. Many of these are products I would not have anticipated at prices I would not have believed. Excellent open source on net-based software can be had for free. Times have indeed changed. The costly computer has become a commodity, a present from a vigorous marketplace. The network connection is world class and amazingly inexpensive, a present of a vigorous community. Software can be had for free, a present of ad support and the open software movement. The barriers that once appeared to be insurmountable mountains have become, if not molehills, at least readily surmountable hills that the motivated can be helped to climb. The final barriers are people—people to support computer and center maintenance; people to man help lines and support the inexpensive or free open source software; people to educate. People to help.

That's the real challenge before the Lafayette community: finding a way to rally people who care in support of the effort to bring the entire community into the digital era on an equal footing. I'm convinced the ingredients are there: the talent and the desire to help is clearly there. What is lacking is, generally, a mechanism that will enable folks to use their talents and realize their desires to help.

Ideas? Lafayette Commons (which provides nonprofits with support for its education edition of Google Apps) could use folks in support—and would be willing to sponsor a mechanism for the support of a broader set of open source software if the human resources could be found. A clearing house for setting up people with powerful free software? A once-a-month computer rebuilding "fest" where the techisly inclined could test and install software on recycled computers? We need the social mechanisms to make this happen.

I'd be happy to hear of any mechanisms or projects that you think would help, in the comments or offline.

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