Taking the Stage

San Diego Futures Foundation puts retired computers back to work in the community.

by / June 3, 2004
When state or local governments purchase new computers, disposing of them is often the last thing considered. When the equipment becomes outdated, however, discarding old PCs, printers and peripherals becomes a significant and potentially costly concern.

San Diego County, Calif., found a way to dispose of PCs once they're retired from county and city service, and at the same time, aid community groups and stimulate use of e-government services.

In 1999, San Diego County outsourced its IT and telecom services. The county's RFP asked vendors to bid on providing PC and telecom services, and also to consider how they could go above and beyond those services.

More precisely, how could they help the county dispose of used computers and give something back to the community?

One group of companies -- including Computer Sciences Corp., Science Applications International Corp., SBC and Avaya -- formed a bidding consortium called The Pennant Alliance. The alliance submitted a bid to provide county IT services and formed a strategy to solve San Diego's PC disposal request.

The county planned to put the majority of its services online as part of an e-government initiative, but doing so meant ensuring constituents would have adequate access to those services.

The alliance proposed creating the San Diego Futures Foundation, an organization that would remove city and county computers, refurbish them and donate them to nonprofit and educational institutions, thereby helping those who might not have access to a computer learn technology skills.

The county accepted the bid, and the San Diego Futures Foundation was built into the IT and telecom services contract.

Building a Community
San Diego County is on a three-year PC refresh cycle. When computers hit the three-year mark, they're shipped to the San Diego Futures Foundation, which manages the reservicing and deployment of PCs to nonprofit organizations, schools and programs that help low-income or underserved community members.

In the four years since the foundation was formed, it has donated approximately 7,000 computers and about 12,000 hours of technical support to the San Diego community. Though most PCs have gone to nonprofit organizations, the Futures Foundation also works with the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association -- a national organization with an active education committee in San Diego -- to refurbish and install used computers in schools.

"It's a great model for state and local governments," said Karen Bruett, director of Dell's Public Sector Education and Community Initiatives, which was created a year ago to support the San Diego Futures Foundation, and help other state and local governments form community programs to repurpose technology. "Rather than throwing away their PCs, they are giving them to those who need them most."

Since its launch, the Futures Foundation has expanded to run a tech center in San Diego's inner-city area. The organization works with the San Diego State University Foundation to train students from community colleges, vocational schools and urban high schools to refurbish the PCs.

"It's a way to really get them involved not only in learning about IT and getting some good hands-on experience, but getting them involved in the community as well," said Becky Stawiski, the San Diego Futures Foundation's executive director.

The Futures Foundation also initiated other community programs, including the SDcommunities Web portal. The portal, which includes more than 99 communities, gives citizens an opportunity to participate in local issues electronically.

"You can go to SDcommunities and get all the resources in your community," said Stawiski. "People can post community collaborative meeting minutes, post information about their organization, highlight their organization or things going on, etc."

Stawiski said Microsoft just completed an internal case study of SDcommunities, because the company sees potential in using the portal as a model for helping other communities.

Building Sustainability
With limited staff and resources, the Futures Foundation relies on help from industry and local volunteers. Dell and Microsoft stepped in with assistance on technology issues, while additional knowledge and labor were gleaned from the community.

San Diego County's current IT contract, which included funding for the Futures Foundation, is still active. When that contract expires, however, the foundation may be challenged with how to sustain the program. Should that happen, Stawiski said, they will seek grants or charge a fee for service to keep the foundation afloat.

"We already provide some Web hosting for nonprofits, e-mail services, Internet content filtering, [and we] install computers, set up LANs, etc., so we'd have to begin charging for those services, and we'd also look to the community for additional funding," she said.

But it's more likely the county Board of Supervisors will seek to include the Futures Foundation in future IT contracts.

"The Board of Supervisors is thrilled with this program because we're taking these assets and making them very valuable, and putting them to good reuse in the community," said Stawiski. "We're directly supporting their e-government goals by making sure a lot of their constituents have access."

San Diego's approach was innovative, Bruett said. "To have them thinking from the start about how they would dispose of PCs, how they were going to get them into the local community after they were done using them, was very insightful."

As the Futures Foundation moves into its fifth year, Stawiski said it wants to increase efficiency and effectiveness so more people in the community benefit.

"There are all kinds of opportunities for people when they have the technology tools to help them," she said. "In the beginning, we talked about how many computers and organizations we were serving. Now we've realized it's not about the output, it's about the outcomes -- letting people realize their own potential and using technology as a tool to help them do the things they want to do."
Justine Brown Contributing Writer