March 29, 2001 By Steve Towns
Earlier this year, Atlanta received a $100,000 Urban Challenge Grant from 3Com Corp., which the city will use to create a community Web portal. Residents enrolled in the citys computer training programs will help produce content for the site. Atlanta envisions the portal offering everything from government services, to neighborhood histories, to citizen-authored recipe books.
"Providing access is only half the answer. Thats the easy half," said Jabari Simama, head of the Atlanta Mayors Office of Community Technology, in a recent speech. "The other half is not so easy. That is to ensure that community technology, the Internet and new media in general [are] used to build community, serve the public and help break down barriers that keep us apart."
To staff the technology centers, Atlanta is forming a "Tech Corps" of computer-savvy high school and college students, according to a 150-page strategic plan for the initiative. Courses offered at the centers are designed both to provide computer training and improve low basic literacy rates that plague inner-city areas. In addition, the family-oriented facilities will offer security and childcare services. Atlantas initiative includes an extensive plan to market the existence of community technology centers and underscore the importance of computer literacy. The citys strategic plan envisions delivering a message of empowerment set to a hip-hop theme via television, radio and print media.
Boston also has taken a multi-pronged approach to the digital divide, which includes opening a network of community technology centers, developing advanced technology curriculum for city high schools and creating a program to give new computers to families who complete technology courses.
The latter effort, dubbed Technology Goes Home, is the most unusual. Stocked with 1,000 PCs donated by a local computer manufacturer, the program gives computers to low-income families that complete a rigorous 12-week training program. Technology Goes Home requires participating neighborhoods to form collaboratives to help staff local technology centers and provide other resources. Families are chosen for the program based on several factors, including income level and a written goals statement describing how they will use technology to change their lives.
Once chosen, families must unfailingly attend weekly two-hour training courses and complete a series of projects, culminating with a lengthy final research report. Only those families that meet all the requirements receive a computer; about 30 had done so by the middle of last year.
Good News/Bad News
Just how far has the nation come? The latest in a bellwether series of digital divide reports compiled by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) holds reason for both optimism and concern.
There are now more American households with personal computers than without, according to the report, "Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion." The study, released in October, says PCs sit in 51 percent of homes across the country, and four out of five of those machines are linked to the Internet.
The NTIA survey points to progress on a number of fronts. For instance, rural and urban areas enjoy virtually identical rates of dial-up Internet access, and the gender-based gap in technology use has evaporated. Whats more, this progress has come more quickly than many expected.
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