February 22, 2006 By Government Technology
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.
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