Digital Communities

Transforming the way communities live, work and play

by / February 22, 2006 0

Charting New Territory
Emerging digital communities mark a new era of service delivery in government.

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered what is widely regarded as one of the greatest speeches in history: the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln's was a time of great upheaval, thunderous change and the beginning of the modern age. The Industrial Revolution was growing -- feasting on steel and steaming across the country on mighty locomotives. Inventions such as the telegraph -- and the telephone a few years later -- were suddenly bringing people information in hours instead of weeks or months.

Machinery and factories allowed the entrepreneur, the inventor and the laborer to come together and create a host of industries. Employees could find steady work and good wages. And should he so desire, for the first time in history, a man could travel thousands of miles in mere days thanks to the greatest engineering feat of the 19th century: the First Transcontinental Railroad. Only months prior to Lincoln's speech, on January 8, the first tracks were laid in Sacramento, Calif., and in Omaha, Neb. -- finally meeting on May 10, 1869 in Promontory Summit, Utah. Thus was born an age of interconnectivity the likes of which the world had never known.

On the cold, bitter day Lincoln gave his address, he closed his celebrated oration with a famous line that was both an expression of hope and a challenge to America: "that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

How delighted then would Lincoln be to know that only a handful of generations later, America would be poised to take another great leap toward the government he envisioned. Here, at the dawn of the 21st century, the frenetic advance of technology is allowing government to deliver services to the citizenry at levels never before imagined -- giving rise to the age of digital communities.

But not all is well. America no longer has the pole position in the technology race. Despite a number of commendable efforts under way, the U.S. is falling farther behind in terms of broadband availability and mobile technology -- the infrastructure backbone of the digital community. Other nations are surpassing the U.S. by aggressively advancing this mobile, high-speed technology infrastructure.

The U.S. risks losing the competitive technological edge it has owned for 150 years. However, courageous and visionary public officials, who will dare to change the plodding, disconnected IT infrastructure of the past, can once again propel the U.S. into the lead by ensuring technology access to citizens and transforming government into an environment of agile and effective service delivery -- truly the government of the people, by the people and for the people that Lincoln envisioned those many years ago.

Guts and Glory
The launch of the Digital Communities Initiative is an important milestone as government seeks to transform itself into a highly efficient service delivery entity. But what is a digital community and how does it better citizens' lives and government's ability to serve?

A digital community deploys advanced technologies that enhance the quality of life for residents and improve government services. It is a community built on strong leadership and vision. It is a community that is not reliant on technology but instead is enabled by it. A digital community represents the complete transformation of government from the age of siloed, agency-specific infrastructure into an integrated IT framework that delivers any number of innovative, e-government services.

The rise of digital communities begins with municipal government. Mayors, city councils and government CIOs must drive the transformation. Public/private partnerships play a vital role in delivering broadband access to last-mile communities. And communities that embrace Wi-Fi and WiMAX technology will greatly enhance their ability

to deploy interoperable systems and communitywide connectivity.

Philadelphia CIO Dianah Neff is among the leaders seeking to create truly connected digital communities. By creating a public/private partnership with EarthLink, Neff and Philadelphia have laid the foundation of a digital community by deploying one of the first large-scale, citywide Wi-Fi networks.

"The whole initiative started because of the mayor's goals for the city," Neff said. "Mayor Street has had neighborhood transformation as the cornerstone of his administration since he came into office. We don't want to leave another generation of families and children behind who don't know how to use the tools necessary for economic knowledge."

Courageous city leaders and advanced technology combined to bring new opportunities for social and economic growth. Building a wireless network that offers access to anyone in the city is critical to economic vitality, said Neff.

"We believe that wireless can help stimulate that, particularly with our small and disadvantaged businesses, of which we have about 26,000," she said. "We want them to become more effective by helping them get up on the Internet where they can place their advertisement, driving people to their businesses. With economic stimulus, we believe that it will create new jobs. We have already seen some of that starting to happen."

For the People
A digital community is first and foremost about people. As such, government leaders must champion digital inclusion. Numerous communities are finding unique and innovative ways to ensure broadband Internet is available to their citizens. In Houston County, Ga., and Allegany County, Md., community leaders devised strategies to provide affordable Internet access to residents and businesses using broadband wireless technology.

In some areas, governments have taken steps to ensure that every citizen, regardless of income, can access the tools they need for education and employment opportunities. Chicago and Houston, Texas, have deployed utility computing solutions that give citizens free access to Internet and computing tools. And San Francisco is laying down plans to deploy a wireless network that will blanket the city with free Internet access.

When everyone has access, communities have a better educated and economically advantaged populace, and people can come together like never before.

"Citizens become more involved," said Neff. "Citizens are more connected with their schools. Citizens are more interested in what is going on in their community, and they can get that information online. It is the simple things. It's the ability to have high-speed access at an affordable price so that the small businesses can compete as well as the mid- and large-size businesses. That is the inclusion part of it. It is bringing the arts, cultural and business communities together with the residence community and having that fluid communication."

Everything about a digital community is focused on the citizen. There must be value in the services government offers. The value is not the broadband access or the WiMAX network -- those are tools to enable value. Reversing voter apathy, enabling citizens to access government services easily, that's where the value lies.

"We are trying to address all those issues and make it a holistic program," said Neff. "But those who need that help, those who need to understand what the benefits of being connected are and how that can help them improve their lives are the ones we want to focus on."

The digital divide can be bridged by actively seeking to include citizens who would not otherwise participate.

"Once people have the tools, training and find value and are connected, then you open digital communities," she continued. "The health community is very excited about making telemedicine a reality. Distance learning becomes a reality. Telecommunication becomes a reality. E-government becomes a reality once people are connected and they have the tools and the training.

We are creating affordable access, helping to get the tools and training so that we have digitally literate constituents. It then makes it easier to bring people on and do things like e-voting without continuing to have this class divide."

Finding ways to better engage and integrate the public into a digital community are the primary drivers for innovative e-government services. But underpinning those external services are the applications internal to government that cross old, disparate infrastructure, improve information sharing and slash the cost of doing business.

Examples of internal innovation are cropping up across the country and around the world. Very much at the core of a digital community, it is these cost-saving and efficiency-boosting applications that keep the community humming. From Wi-Fi mesh networks in San Mateo, Calif., and Shanghai, China, to Wi-Fi enabled, automated meter-reading in Corpus Christi, Texas, from integrating phone, voice and data on a Wi-Fi/WiMAX network in Ocean City, Md., to a Wi-Fi-enabled public-transit information network in
Portsmouth, England, these internal innovations enable the governments of digital communities to remain focused on high-quality service delivery, which in turn acts as an economic stimulus.

Around the world, thanks to widely available broadband access and wireless technology, the digital community is emerging -- and the door is open for America, it just needs courageous leaders to take the next step.