Information Technology on the Horizonte

Mobile truck gives Brazilian city residents Internet access and training

by / September 29, 2006
Moving along the metropolitan streets of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, is an eclectically painted semi-truck. On the side, a cartoon alien using a laptop snarls at passers by. To an American eye the truck looks like it is hauling organic fruit juice. Or it might be a blood donation vehicle. But the truck is hauling something almost as vital -- a 21st century livelihood.

There are 16 million people in Brazil who are illiterate, and 22 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In an attempt to change this, Digital Inclusion is a social program designed to give Brazilians every opportunity to survive in a digital world, by decreasing the digital divide. Digital inclusion focuses on helping those people who do not normally have access to IT&C (Information Technology and Communications) such as the poverty stricken and the people who live in the ghettos (known as "favelas" in Brazil). Through classes and training, low-income people across the country are learning the ins and outs of Internet and technology use.

The idea of digital inclusion, similar to e-inclusion as it is called in the European Union, is supported by three ministries of the Brazilian government -- Science and Technology, Communications and Education Ministries -- and many local cities and states receive funding from the federal government to supplement their own programs. In a world where IT skills are increasingly needed in practically every job, digital inclusion is giving the children, and adults, of Brazil necessary skills for their future.

Belo Horizonte ("beautiful horizon" in Portuguese) is a city located in southeastern Brazil and is the fifth largest metropolitan city in the country. BH (as it is referred to by the residents) has its own specific Digital Inclusion program which is supported by the public and private sector. "The inclusion of citizens in the digital world has contributed to [the reduction] of social exclusion," said Silvana Veloso, BH's Digital Inclusion director. "Access to information and communication is fundamental in the knowledge society." With the increase of IT&C skills, people will improve their economic status. Children who can use the Internet will be better equipped to find scholarships, and so better their education, as well. "The inclusion of a greater number of people in the digital world is reducing costs through the electronic government, where people can use Internet to access the services available by governments, like tax and tribute payment, access to the public employment system, enrollment into public job contests, etc." said Veloso. There are two distinct areas of BH's program: Telecenters and a mobile unit. Each of these options are computer classrooms, and people come and learn how to use computers and the Internet.

The telecenters are built at various places around the city -- sometimes in schools, other times in central buildings -- and each has computers and classes for the public to take advantage of. The classes offered at each center are specified to the demographics of the area, such as specific classes for children, elderly, women or African Americans. Similar to the telecenters are smaller Internet Access Points, which only have two to four computers (as opposed to a whole classroom) and are made for quick access to things such as e-mail, map searches or government service Web sites. By December 2006, 150 new locations will be opened in Belo Horizonte, 60 telecenters and 90 Internet Access Posts. "We have prioritized the construction of the fixed spaces in the neighborhoods, villages and slums so the citizens could keep on using IT&C for the communications, searches and access to public electronic services," Veloso says.

But what about those people who can not use the telecenters or do not live near an Internet Access Point? For this reason, the Digital Inclusion Truck was designed. The truck is really a classroom on wheels, where everyone from children to the elderly can learn how to use the Internet, or take other computer classes. "It goes around the neighborhoods of the city where we find social vulnerabilities such as the slums and villages," Veloso explained.

To have the truck visit an area, a manager of one of the eight regions of the city requests a visit and times are scheduled. With three shifts of classes, two classrooms holding seven work stations, and six people to teach classes (two for each shift), many people are able to benefit from the mobile unit. According to Veloso, Belo Horizonte has an estimated population of 200 thousand, six thousand of whom have been trained in "basic informatics" and "15,000 have learned how to access the Internet." Over the past two years of the Digital Inclusion Truck's operation it has traveled to 12 different villages, slums and/or neighborhoods. "Once trained, the population will be able to keep using it through the Telecenters and [Internet Access Posts] for free."

In today's global, technological society, people must understand the rules to play the game. The Digital Inclusion program does just that -- it teaches the people of Brazil the rules, so that they too can join the team and play their share of rounds in the digital game. Brazilian children especially benefit. They are learning IT&C skills and are given career training such as classes in Web design. Digital inclusion is giving people the opportunity to succeed -- something we in America can sometimes take for granted.

This project, titled "Digital Inclusion Truck" was a finalist in the Public Administration category of the 2006 Stockholm Challenge.

Gina M. Scott Writer