Computer Commuter Idea goes to NYC

Thanks to Ann Higgins for sending me a fun story in Government Technology on mobile computer labs in NY City. …

Much like the lovable ice cream trucks that drive around neighborhoods and sell delicious treats, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is driving a van equipped with laptops, Wi-Fi and printers to communities in need of computer access.

It’s great to see that trends started in Lac qui Parle (the Commuter Computer) are catching on in other places.

The Tale of Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services

We’ve been following the fiber project in Southwest Minnesota for a while – definitely since they were awarded the ARRA funding. They have been on time deploying fiber and great about sending updates. Broadband Properties just ran an article that really outlines their project and progress. I won’t recap the whole article because as I said we’ve bee following their progress – but I wanted to share the highlights on why they think they have been successful. I think their notes will be helpful to others:

SMBS is a success in the eyes of its satisfied customers and the member cities. What makes this project so successful?

  • There really was a need for services. Incumbent providers had not stepped up to offer next-generation services.
  • Communities realized they could not do it alone. For a single community to succeed at building a fiber optic network would have been difficult; banding together aggregated the communities’ demand and allowed the financials to work.
  • The project has several champions. Because multiple communities participate, there is a champion in each community. Jackson County has also been very supportive of the project both financially and politically.
  • SMBS has a strong partner in WindomNet, and the two entities are linked in their success. Sharing both technology and expertise improves the bottom line of both entities.
  • Good project management discipline was used. Projects such as SMBS are very complicated and have many moving parts. Having a project plan and follow-up ensures that nothing is missed and that any missteps are fixed and learned from.

Connected Nation on Connect American Fund Phase II

I’m cheating this week. I’m actually at TED Global in Edinburgh. (If you don’t know TED, you should definitely check it out.) I hope to take bits and pieces from the very heady talks here for future posts – but mostly this week, I’m being inundated by ideas worth spreading.

So I was delighted to see that Connected Nation has posted a policy paper on Phase II of the Connect America Fund. A couple of weeks ago we were lucky enough to have Kevin Beyer from Federated/Farmer’s Telecom talk about the impact of Phase I on his ability to provide service in rural Minnesota. Many folks have been waiting to see the details of Phase II to see how it changes the game. It’s kind of like watching Texas Hold ‘Em – the next card could change the game.

Here are some quick snippets from the Connected Nation report…

The FCC estimates that the service territories of the larger, “price cap” local telephone companies collectively include approximately 80% of the 18.8 million Americans who do not have adequate broadband access today. …

Officially called “Connect America Fund Phase II,” this model will have a significant effect upon the economics of getting broadband to many unserved Americans. The FCC model will calculate an estimated subsidy amount that will be offered to these large companies to build out broadband across their unserved service area on a statewide basis. The price cap providers can accept or reject the offer for a state- or territory-wide build-out. If a provider rejects the offer in a state or territory, the opportunity will be offered to other eligible providers. All told, nearly $10 billion in subsidies over the next five years will be allocated pursuant to these models.

How these models are written and implemented will have a significant impact upon the broadband landscape in every U.S. state and territory.

MIRC Community Update: Upper Minnesota Vallery RDC

The Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) initiative is winding down. The demonstration communities are taking time to reflect on what has happened in their community as a result of added focus on broadband and broadband projects in the area. Each community will go through this process looking at what’s happened, lessons learned and plans for the future. One of the public benefits of federal funding for a project link this is the opportunity each community has to share what they have learned and the opportunity that other communities have to glean from their lessons. With that in mind, I’d like to share notes from the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Center’s latest meeting (and hope to share other communities’ in the upcoming weeks). Thanks to Jacki Anderson for sharing her coordinator’s notes; they aren’t an exhaustive list of projects but a reflective list.

Project Presentations:
1. UMVRDC -Building websites for rural communities: Bellingham and Echo
– Two of the region’s smallest communities (pop: 205 & 278 respectively) are now on the worldwide web
– Best Practice: Both communities have all their local businesses listed on their website with contact information for each. This is definitely a best practice for small communities (not practical for larger communities). You would never know how many or what types of businesses are located in these small communities without these web pages
– Not surprisingly the businesses listings pages have received the most views since launching the websites
– Lesson Learned: Must have dedicated community members or staff to make the project successful, those with a little more “skin in the game” ended up being more involved in the process (free domain vs paid for domain/set-up)
– Staff felt that Word Press might be the more user and budget friendly site for smaller towns versus a GovOffice site which is slightly more complicated and expensive but comes more support.
2. LqP County Computer Commuter- Providing increased access and training to residents
– Best Practice: Developed partnerships with schools, businesses and workforce to offer special trainings
– Were able to visit more community groups and provide even more awareness about its resources (Kiwanis, Chambers, Social Clubs, Community Ed, Schools, Parades, Fairs, Radio Spots)
– Established an Advisory Board
– Lesson Learned: Follow a schedule already in place for cancellations, the Computer Commuter follows school cancellations for inclement weather.
– 162 users – 84% are 50yrs and older
– Avg user spends 1.5 hours on the bus
– Need to keep getting the word out that this is a “free” service
3. BS County -Public Access to County Information Online
– Four years of tax statements have been placed online and are available to the public. This has significantly reduced phone calls and inquiries in the assessor’s office.
– In the last 13-14 months there have been 64,000 non-county hits and 11,000 unique hits. The GIS site has generated over 3500 non subscription hits and has 1,750 paid subscription hits. For a county with a population of approximately 5,000 these are impressive numbers.
– Best practice: All GIS info (even paid subscription information) is available at a kiosk in the county building, the assessor’s office staffs are available to help customers and train them in finding and using the data.
– Subscriptions to the data have full access at the convenience of their own office, while the public has limited information available to them by just accessing the site. So technically all the information is available for free but you have to go there to get it. This has saved so much staff time in processing requests and billing minimal charges to individuals and businesses for printing and researching.
– It is anticipated that once the upgrades are complete the subscriptions (if they can maintain current subscription levels) will cover the cost of maintenance for the site.
– There are 7 annual subscriptions and 10 one-time shape files that have been purchased. 3 annual subscriptions have expired and all 3 businesses renewed indicating that they find value in the site!
– Lesson Learned: if they would have known then what they know now they would have included a request for more funds to develop an online payment system in conjunction with this project, it seems to be the missing piece right now.

4. Johnson Memorial Health Services- Home Stream Tele-Medicine Project
Great concept poor execution. This project did not work for the following reasons:
– Poor communication from technology company – no updates on where software testing was at so it always felt like it wasn’t working due to this there was only 1 family that remained committed until the end
– Were too far from the technology company (located in the metro) and lack of willingness/presence from technology company to come out to the community to talk about issues and resolve them
– Lesson Learned: when promised two-way communication but the demonstration includes only screen shots, this is a red flag
– Incurred overruns in cost and time with no results
– Pictures were blurry (Skype was better) – no two way communication
– Best Practice: Hospital could not/would not connect to bad technology & associate the hospital’s name/reputation with it. Proceeded with caution knowing this was beta testing
The hospital feels that there is still potential for this concept and would do it again but only with a company who is further along with their technology and committed to working with a community 3 hours outside of the metro.
5. Pioneer TV- Broadband in Rural Areas Documentary
– Best Practice: Brought national awareness to rural broadband issues by leveraging other funds and working with Need to Know programming.
– Hope to expand it by several more minutes so that other stations can run a 30 min segment
– Could lead into Brain Gain awareness/research/promotion
– Lesson Learned: try to plan projects around state shutdowns 
– Could potential update this segment in the future
– Kept costs down by keeping interviews local
– Anticipated to air in September 2012
6. Ortonville Schools- Getting the business community online
– Developed open wi-fi network – used all the time by not only students but general public
– Lesson Learned: At first it was challenging to get businesses to sign up to do a website, now we wish would have had a plan to handle the demand for new website requests – have a plan for when demand picks up!
– Business pages and/or websites have been completed for over 100 businesses
– Xoom was best for working with businesses, schools felt IPAD was better for student usage
– Started by doing business websites in Ortonville, due to high demand expanding to county-wide assistance
– Best Practice: Have determined a website does fit everyone. Changing focus for some businesses from website creation to starting with claiming their business on Google (in some cases it’s a much better fit if a business has no intention of doing updates or providing new info)
– Average visits per day on business websites is approximately 60 – it’s a start.
7. Dawson Boyd School- New media center, student tech team and student to community training Academy
– Computer Savvy Specialists (CSS) learned how to refurbish computers – 5 of 12 are now planning to pursue college education related to computers where prior to this experience had not
– Best Practice: New Computer Savvy Specialists will continue to refurbish and work with the EDA to distribute computers from community businesses and old computer labs in the school
– Lesson Learned: CSS students will continue to work with businesses in the surrounding communities on websites and social media. During the project they found students were best able to help businesses with “updates” and new content after the websites were created rather than having the students create the initial websites
– Recycling of schools computes with students refurbishing and County EDA distributing to families – the need is great they always seem to have twice as many families interested as computers available
– Teachers teaching others with online classes through community education – this still needs some tweaking, they learned that although online classes are great they want to integrate one or two in-person meetings, new classes will also be looked into
– All aspects of this project have gone over so well that they plan to continue all of it for the next school year

Like Moths to a Bright Light?

As I mentioned earlier – I’m at a conference this week. I am pleased (and thankful) to share a post today from guest blogger Matt Grose. Matt is the Superintendent at Deer River School District. He is also on the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board and the Minnesota Broadband Task Force.

Image courtesy of The Moth Chase (

Every so often, a technology arrives that attracts educators like moths to a light, becoming the next must-have item in the classroom, whether deserved or not. We’ve seen things like the personal computer, interactive whiteboard, classroom response system, and LCD projector all take their place in what we often think about as an ideal classroom. I’d argue that today’s bright light is the iPad.I believe the iPad craze has hit education in an unfortunate way. Every time I open up a paper (I still do that sometimes), or check my favorite news aggregator (I do that daily), I am reading about another iPad deployment. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure and contrary to what you might be thinking, my district is going to be piloting iPads in a 1 to 1 initiative this fall in four grades, so some of my criticisms could be considered hypocritical.

What concerns me most is what seems like a lack of planning on the part of many districts as they roll out this new and exciting technology. In talking to my peers and even to vendors, I hear stories of districts doing little in the way of systems analysis to see if they are even ready, in many cases deploying devices that they are in no way capable of supporting from a technical or personal perspective. Specifically, I am concerned about readiness in four areas:

1)  Bandwidth. I’m personally aware of a district that is planning to roll out an iPad initiative with only a T1 line coming into their district. One of the strengths of the iPad is its ability to easily connect students to content either they or someone else has created, which most often lives online in some format or another. A student staring at an iPad trying to connect to a slow internet connection is a bored, frustrated, and disengaged student, the opposite of what the device should be intended to do.

2)  Internal infrastructure. Districts deploying large numbers of iPads need to be extremely concerned with wireless density – that is, the availability and strength of wireless in the learning environment. Experts suggest the best way to ensure that devices can reliably connect with the speed needed to do meaningful work is to have a wireless access point in each classroom. Unfortunately, a wireless access point isn’t nearly as cool looking as an iPad, and as a result, districts often skimp on the very thing that makes the iPad the most useful and enables access to the internet.

3)  Staff development. The iPad is a great tool, but like any tool, is only as good as the person using it. Staff need to feel comfortable with the device if they are going to be expected to use it to enable creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. Staff can’t be handed iPads as they leave for the summer and then be expected to be ready to transform teaching and learning in the fall, but unfortunately, that is the story that is being played out over and over again. Districts need to thoughtfully plan staff development activities that not only address the technical how-to’s but also the process of designing units and lessons that teach and reinforce 21st century skills.

4)  Policies and expectations. I believe strongly in the saying “If they knew better, they would do better.” Staff, students, and parents need direction as they navigate their way through this new way to do education. In their book Switch, the Heath brothers say that we need to “script the critical moves.” In this case, that means making sure people are clear about what they should and shouldn’t do as well as what appropriate use looks like. New technologies demand new policies and practices.

Sometimes it is possible to ignore ineffective practices in other places, especially if they don’t affect the children in my district. Districts rushing into large scale technology projects without careful planning can have some serious and wide spread consequences though, because every deployment that fails is fodder for those who are quick to point out places where technology has failed to improve outcomes for students. To the degree that community support for my district’s efforts is weakened by poor outcomes in other places, the children in my district will lose out, and that I can’t ignore.

Connect Anoka County Last Mile Presentations

Last week, Connect Anoka County hosted a number of providers for a series of presentations on Last Mile options. Connect Anoka County is working on a community fiber network. Here’s a quick reminder of the program, from the Connect Anoka website

Connect Anoka County is the county-led effort to increase the amount of fiber optic cable in the county. The Connect Anoka County project has resulted in a partnership between Zayo Bandwidth, LLC and Anoka County. Through the partnership, Zayo Bandwidth applied for and received a National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) grant paying 70 percent of the fiber construction cost and initial equipment. The grant project will construct an approximately 286 mile fiber network throughout Anoka County linking 145 governmental institutions.

And here is a description of the meeting…

This meeting is intended for council/board members, city managers/administrators, EDA members, economic development professionals, cable commissions, etc. Please pass the word along to all those who may be interested in learning more about last mile connectivity. This meeting will be an excellent opportunity to gain insight into the industry and ask questions of several broadband providers.

The intention is to look at options for expanding the community network to local residents and businesses. Presentations from the meeting are available on the Connect Anoka County website; they may be useful to other communities looking at community network options.

Telehealth at Mayo to help save taxpayers $172.8 million

I love this story because it really demonstrates that money spent on technology is an investment that pays off. It’s not a donation; it’s not sunken costs. According to the Rochester Post Bulletin

Mayo Clinic will share $60 million from the U.S. Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to fund efforts to improve health care — and save costs.

Mayo also announced expected savings — of $172.8 million — for taxpayers as a result of the $60 million investment.

And here are some of the projects that will be funded…

The grant covers three projects:

• A “patient-centric” electronic environment — costing $16 million and estimated to save U.S. taxpayers $81.3 million over three years. Four states (Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York and Oklahoma) will participate in a Mayo collaboration with the U.S. Critical Illness and Injury Trials Group and Philips Research North America.

Mayo will train ICU caregivers to effectively use new health information technologies to manage ICU patient care, reducing errors due to information overload. Mayo’s model uses a Cloud-based system with a centralized data repository, electronic surveillance and quality measurement of care-response.

• A collaborative effort including Mayo Clinic Health System for management of multiple physical and mental illnesses, costing $18 million and estimated to save taxpayers $27.7 million. Care will be monitored and patients will transition to self-management.

• Shared decision-making for patients and care providers, costing $26 million and estimated to save taxpayers $63.8 million. Sixteen states will be touched by a Dartmouth College Board of Trustees grant with lead Mayo Clinic investigator Dr. Doug Wood.

Patient and Family Activators will be hired to work with patients and their families so they share decision making with doctors, and that’s expected to reduce utilization and costs.

Obviously it’s easier to recoup costs when the funding is a grant – but think of this in terms of investment from the federal government. They invest $60 million so that taxpayers save $172 million. Presumably this effort will help shift healthcare services online – clearly that’s the focus of at least two-thirds of the projects mentioned above – but also presumably savings will only be realized when patients have the technology (equipment and connectivity) they need to access healthcare resources online.

So while we calculate the cost of bringing broadband to unserved areas – I think we also need to calculate the cost of not bringing broadband to unserved areas. As more services are provided online it will become costlier to serve people who aren’t online – especially since many of those hard to reach places are by definition the most remote.