Bridging the Digital Divide – a gathering in St Paul

Yesterday (April 18) I attended a Bridging the Digital Divide session in St Paul. It was an interesting session – partially because the organizers had done a great job getting a varied list of speakers. Folks spoke about policies to deploy affordable broadband, access to computers, training to boost adoption and broadband as an advocacy tool. As always, it would inspiring to hear about so many options and tools available for folks on the far end of the digital divide. It was disheartening to hear that the main concern, almost with all speakers was budget – budget to continue with the success they have been seeing.

Another big challenge was getting the word out to the target audience. Sending an email to get folks online isn’t going to work. Folks who had success reaching people spoke about using tried and true means of outreach – door knocking, signs in buses, connecting through the libraries. The need is striking – everyone spoke about working with people who have never used a computer. They also mentioned that as that far end of the digital divide remains – another issue is emerging and that’s the that bar determining digital literacy is rising. It’s not enough to be online these days – you have to know what to do once you get there.

Here are some notes from the various presenters and rough notes on the conversation that followed…

Corrine Bruning – E-Democracy

What interests organizers?

The power of the forums. Free, safe online space for conversation, local promotion of events and getting connected. A challenge is getting the information to the residents. Get to many people through face-to-face outreach. We have people sign up on paper and add them to the list electronically. We’ve made a concerted effort to reach new people. We are hiring 9 new people this summer and are working on outreach to increase numbers but also increase diversity.

James Nicholson – Hennepin County Library, Software Instructor

We teach public technology classes. We can’t keep up with the demand. With unemployment rising we have seen an increase in people looking to update skills. The library is the first place most people go.

First barrier – getting people to recognize the digital divide. That has been accomplished.

In the library we’re dealing with budget issues.

New face of digital divide is unemployed people looking for job skills – from how to attach a résumé, to how to use a spread sheet. The definition of digital is changing – it’s not enough to be online you need to know what to do online.

In MN people of color are twice the unemployment and poverty as counterparts.

Chris Mitchell – Institute for Local Self Reliance

We want to make sure that libraries have the access they need affordably. We work on issues such as pricing and does the connection go to your home? For example when cable came into the market, the cities said they had to go everywhere – not just potentially profitable markets. Now the city can’t make the same demand of other broadband providers.

Communities have stepped up to build fiber networks. It probably won’t happen in St Paul anytime soon.

There are two issues – there’s a rural and an urban divide.

I just wrote a report on community networks.

Price of broadband is absurd and does not reflect cost. Once you have a network in place, the costs are not high – it’s just electricity. Comcast sets prices to suit stakeholders. When the community sets price, we can create a situation where the library may get reduced rates. There’s no consistency in pricing. Everyone pays a different prices. We’ll want these networks for a long time – so why don’t we (as communities) but instead of rent.

Abdi Ali –Broadband Access Program

Idea of the program is to break the digital divide. We have 11 labs in the Twin Cities. We offer free training. We also provide custom training for nonprofits. Unfortunately there is funding only for 3 years; there is some talk about giving the labs to the communities.

Many of the people who use the centers have not used computers before – there’s a huge population of people who have not used computers – the elderly, disenfranchised youth…

Without access to the Internet people cannot apply for jobs, cannot keep up with kids’ school, cannot keep up with current affairs and news.

Our challenge is budget and marketing to people in the area. – Broadband is a powerful tool that can change lives! Many people take it for granted – but there are so many people who don’t have it.

QUESTIONS:

Do you work with touchscreens?

  • Henn. CO Library – we don’t have many. But we do have e-readers and tablets.
  • Our trainers do use Smartboards.
  • The Minneapolis Digital Inclusion Fund gave money to put a senior book club on Kindle. It will be interesting to see if that has an impact,

Does anyone have success using technology as an advocacy tool?

  • It’s not a technology issue as much as an outreach issue. People still think – build it and they will come – but that’s does get you a mirror of the actual community. You ned to go where people are.
  • Smartphones are making a difference. More people are getting Smartphones.
  • Texting might be a way to reach people. That has been a good way to get parents at the school connected.
  • Community Action Against Racism is an example. They have seen successful use of Facebook. In Dayton’s Bluff – they tore down the house across the street. We decided to have a rogue BBQ. We promoted on the email lists – but got a very homogeneous attendance. Next time we’re going door-to-door.

We need to look at who owns the computer, connections, news… Wall Street isn’t doing us any favors. The Tea Party and Occupy might encourage change.

  • In Ward 1, we are about 39% of median income of St Paul. We’re bringing in about $3000/month for a family of four. The expense is an issue.

I don’t think broadband is the number one issue in some communities. But the policymakers need to know that it is a problem.

Can we go to the next step? What do we do once they get online? There needs to be a reason for people to get online. They need to be part of a conversation towards an end. We need to pay attention to doing that. We will have people working with Skyline Tower & Gordon Park Youth. We may be working on a three ring garden.

Many people don’t see the relevance of the Internet – maybe we need to improve outreach. People on the far end of the divide don’t’ even know why they should care about being offline.

Maybe we need to get people info on how residents can to get broadband.

E-Democracy

  1. We will be experimenting with block clubs. There’s a tool called voice drupal that might allow people tp post via phone.
  2. We are working on www.beneighbors.org
  3. We are recruiting forum managers

In Minneapolis

  • We are getting ready to release results of digital inclusion survey
  • Our plan is to hold 4 community meetings to dive into the details of the survey
  • We also have the Tech Literacy Collaboration (TLC)

Having an online presence – it works best when you have a real world component. It’s so important to have an integrated approach – going door-to-door, ads on buses, billboards, fliers in libraries.

Free Phone Minnesota – is not a nonprofit. It’s a cell phone company in Tennessee. They give these out through Lifeline program. The PUC finally recognized the company and gave permission to this company. Unfortunately the company is giving out the cell phones as quickly as they can – but they aren’t providing info on how to get more minutes…  They use refurbished phones and 250 minutes. There are other companies on the PUC docket to give out more phones.

E-Democracy – we want to bring info and people together.

This entry was posted in Conferences, Digital Divide, MN by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

1 thought on “Bridging the Digital Divide – a gathering in St Paul

  1. While Ann got the main thrust of my comments spot on, I should be more clear that there are some marginal costs in addition to the electricity – including a fund to replace some gear on a regular basis (generally multiple years).

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