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La Plaza Network Helps Taos

Suffering from isolation and a low standard of living, a small community in New Mexico discovered new opportunities through a community network.

by / December 31, 1995
SOLUTION SUMMARY
PROBLEM/SITUATION:
The isolated New Mexico
community of Taos could
benefit from a community
network - but few citizens have computers.
SOLUTION: A community network with public-access
terminals and free access for residents.
JURISDICTION: Taos, N.M.
CONTACT: La Plaza Telecommunity Foundation, 505/751-4357. Web site:


Tucked away in the remote mountains of northern New Mexico lies the diverse community of Taos. Founded as an artist colony almost 100 years ago, much of the population in the largely untamed area still eke out a living handcrafting items with skills passed down over the generations. With an average per capita income of just $9,300, Taos is one of the poorest regions of the United States and has had to fight a constant battle to overcome isolation and keep up with modern times.

La Plaza Telecommunity Foundation Inc., a grass-roots, nonprofit organization, launched La Plaza Community Network to pursue its goal of bringing Taos and the rest of Northern New Mexico into an online community. La Plaza is the first community network online in the state.

Rather than just provide citizens with technology toys, the network is intended to create a community infrastructure, aid the economy, and provide opportunities to citizens that they normally wouldn't have.

"Because people here are so isolated, they see this as an excellent avenue to alleviate that isolation," said Paul Cross, director of technology for La Plaza network and one of three founders of La Plaza Telecommunity Foundation.

Among other things, the network provides opportunities for distance learning, improved access to health care and medical information, a forum to discuss local, national and global issues, and access to state and local government information. Special services include Internet access for schools, online job seeking tips such as resume writing and how to interview, as well as a community calendar, an online teen center, e-mail, and Taos history and folklore.

But the biggest problem in a community where the unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent and about 40 percent of residents don't even have a telephone -- much less personal computers -- was how to get citizens access to the benefits of technology.

"The number one obstacle was access," said Patrick Finn, managing director of human or organizational development for La Plaza. "Most people here can't afford a computer, but they've heard about this technology and they are interested in seeing what it is."

PUBLIC ACCESS
The answer was found by organizing community centers and supplying them with free public access terminals, where residents are eligible for 15 hours of access a month.

"We also provide extensive training in the centers," said Finn. "Some people don't even know what a mouse is when they walk in the door, so we provide beginning classes as well as more advanced training on using things like e-mail and the World Wide Web."

La Plaza network has met with notable success, despite early fears that residents would be hesitant to experiment with technology. Over 10 percent of the community signed on in the first two months after the network was launched, and current participation is hovering around 20 percent. According to Cross, participation levels for most free nets average about 5 percent of the population.

"The predominate way we've gotten people involved is by showing them personal relevance," said Finn. "A lot of people are using it to keep in touch with their families. We have a large Indian and Hispanic population and these people want to keep close ties to their children. This is one way for them to do that."

"We use the technology as a lure, and then we show them a lot of personal empowerment stuff," said Cross. "That way we can involve people and help them realize there are incredible resources out there."

GAINING SUPPORT
La Plaza was made possible with financial support from the University of New Mexico, the town of Taos, the state of New Mexico, local businesses and several large companies. To gain community support, La Plaza representatives solicited input and discussed the community network with every service and professional group in the region.

"Our most useful tool was a 'hands-on' La Plaza demonstration," said Finn. "It allowed people to see first hand how La Plaza would work, how it could be personally relevant, and how simple it would be to use. Once people could see and experience La Plaza, support was widespread."

"We spent a lot of time reaching out to people without mentioning the word 'computer,'" said Cross. "We talked about information, we talked about resources that are important to people. When you sell it on that kind of an angle, people's eyes don't glaze over."

The network has generated attention from other states. "We are a model that other people are beginning to replicate," said Finn, who explained that they built the network by combining different types of software, then built their own user interface on top of it.

Cross and Finn said their organization gets several calls a week from people asking them how they put the network together -- from all over New Mexico and the world.

LOOKING AHEAD
La Plaza Foundation plans to add a regional virtual library to the network with a grant from the Kellogg Foundation. The goal is to find out what kinds of information people in the community need, then locate it and provide access to it.

"As a community network we're information managers," said Finn. "We need to provide the information people need that's relevant to their personal lives, businesses or institutions."

The organization also received a grant from the U.S. Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration to work on an application designed to improve the health of their community, where hypertension and diabetes are common. "We'll be working with local hospitals and health care providers to provide them with the information they need to better serve their clients and educate them about these diseases," explained Cross.

"We'll also make the information available to patients, because if we can get the patients to start monitoring their blood sugar and their blood pressure, and become involved in their own health care, then we can definitely make an impact."

La Plaza organizers have several additional goals for the network, including gaining exposure for local artists by giving them the opportunity to show off their products around the world. "One of our primary objectives is to take some of these mom and pop operations that do really world class work that nobody gets to see and market those internationally through the Internet," said Cross. "Taos is really an export region. Visitors come and buy things from local people and take them home, but there is no coherent marketing of what is here going out to the rest of the world. So we have people that don't make a lot of money but have incredible skills."

Organizers also plan to put some of Taos' cultural aspects online. "Most of the art created here is gone," said Cross. "The only way we're going to get it back is by electronically transferring historical photos to digital format for preservation."

But the central theme that remains is that of helping residents. "We want to see this network help people," said Cross. "If we can actually provide better health care, if we can provide an opportunity for people to get to the information they need, if it can actually improve the quality of their life, then I think that we've really met not only the dream of building the network but also the dream of the NII."

"Being a rural community, we don't have big libraries, and we don't have a lot of museums," said Finn. "If people can sit down in front of a computer terminal and get this information, then I think its providing a lot for a community located in the mountains of Northern New Mexico." *



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