Tech Nonprofit 'DigitalC' Wants to Help Cleveland Innovate

DigitalC does DataSmart boot camps to help organizations and local governments use data to drive better decisions.

by Grant Segall, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland / March 16, 2017

(TNS) -- Lev Gonick is the co-founder and chief executive of DigitalC, a $2-million-per-year nonprofit trying to help Cleveland connect and compute.

How's Cleveland rate for information technology?

Lev: Back in '01, when I came to Case Western, we were at a low C. Today, we're between a B and a B+.

In the 1980s, the Cleveland Freenet was one of the very first online repositories of information. But in '01 Cleveland was still licking its wounds from the end of steel and auto and really hadn't managed to lift its chin up to see over the horizon. Most people in Cleveland thought fiber was something you put in your cereal. Almost everyone in Cleveland took a pass on the internet as a passing fad. A handful of people who'd made investments lost their shirt. Universities like Case Western took a pass.

So DigitalC arose to connect us?

Lev: It began in '03 as OneCleveland. When Akron joined, it became OneCommunity. It helped connect over 800 institutions--libraries, museums, government buildings...

In 2013, I became chief executive. We later spun off Everstream, a commercial internet service provider. They're doing great.

Cleveland has always been at the intersection of the most important transportation systems: the river, the canal, the railway, the interstates. Our idea was creating a blueprint for the future based on a 21st-century transportation system. OneCommunity's mission was to catalyze technology for community impact.

How do you do it?

Lev: We help leaders develop a strategy for their organizations and the region. Organizations are drowning in data. They don't know how to make the noise-to-signal ratio better. We do DataSmart boot camps to help organizations like University Hospitals' Harrington Institute use data to drive better decisions.

We're helping people living in public housing to get on line. We're wiring them with better speed than I have at home in Beachwood. We're going to do eight sites.

We're also creating neighborhood innovation sites with internet. They could be libraries, coffee shops... We're working with other groups to help people get the computers and skills and connections to participate in the digital economy. Fifty percent of Cleveland city residents proper do not have wired connectivity. For 60 to 80 percent of all jobs, you have to apply online.

We have citizen tech series quarterly at both Happy Dogs. We're also part of Data Days, a festival at the Global Center for Health Innovation to promote open data...

Where are you from?

Lev: I was born in New York City and grew up in Winnipeg. I've lived in Toronto, L.A., Phoenix and elsewhere.

Your first glimpse of Cleveland?

Lev: On a Greyhound in 1977 on my way to Winnipeg from New York City. I got out at the same Greyhound station as today and thought this was a really harsh American city.

Second glimpse?

Lev: I met a Cleveland girl in 1983 in upstate New York. I'd commute from New York City to Ohio State to see her. We came to Cleveland in 1978 for Thanksgiving dinner. The following day we went to the New York Spaghetti House on East Ninth. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

What made you move here?

Lev: I was recruited by CWRU. The first time I said, "We're definitely not going to Cleveland." But, after we spent a year in Africa and India, it tickled Barbara's fancy to come home.

So how does Cleveland improve on the so-so grade you're giving it for computing?

Lev: We need a CEO-backed regional strategy. They have a selfish interest in keeping tech jobs here.

We've recently had three monster sales of local companies that have done extremely well: CoverMyMeds, Explorys and TOA. But there's still room for improvement.

We have a huge advantage: The cost of starting up a business in Silicon Valley is fantastic. Cleveland's still very affordable, and the economy is solid here. If we can get people to look at Cleveland, we can usually get them to stay.

©2017 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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