computer access for homeless people (FWD article)

Tom Boland (
Sun, 7 Dec 1997 18:50:21 -0800 (PST)

fwd  "NURTURING NGIGHBOREHOOD NETWORKS" by Gary Chapman and Louis Rhodes

   Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the LBJ School
   of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. The 21st
   Century Project focuses on increasing public participation in science
   and technology policymaking. Lodis Rhodes is a professor at the LBJ
   School specializing in educational and community development.

Providing free access to computer networking can extend the pleasures and
benefits of the Net to people living in poor communities.

        Timika Mitchell was living in the Salvation Army shelter in
   Austin, Texas, when she developed her first home page on the World Wide
   Web. A homeless person with an Internet home page may seem to
   represent a scrambling of priorities. But for Mitchell--an unmarried
   mother of two--her home page is a source of pride and, she hopes, an
   entry point into the high-tech economy. Thanks in part to her
   abilities to create on the Web, this tall, talkative, self-directed
   young African- American woman landed a job with Time Warner, moved
   into her own apartment--and created a second Web page, where she plans
   to publish her poetry. Austin boasts one of the highest per capita
   rates of Internet use in the world and has recently been cited as the
   nation's fastest growing job market. On the west side of town lies one
   of the world's leading high-tech centers, with major semiconductor
   manufacturing firms, a booming new media industry, and tens of
   thousands of computer professionals. But Mitchell lives in East
   Austin--a poverty zone segregated from the rest of Austin by an
   interstate highway. In her neighborhood, known as the 11th and 12th
   Streets Corridor, the median annual income is $6,000 per year. The
   area suffers from high unemployment, poor schools, drugs, gangs, and

   Computers are still clearly beyond the means of most such low-income
   citizens, and will be for many years, even if prices decline
   significantly. WebTV, a new service recently acquired by Microsoft,
   provides access to the Web and e-mail over TV sets, but its access fee
   of about $30 per month is too high for most poor families, as is the
   $200 box required to use it. When Newt Gingrich briefly posed the idea
   of tax credits for poor people who buy computers, he was widely
   ridiculed and quickly dropped the idea. ("Let Them Eat Laptops," one
   headline read.) Such a scheme would be hugely expensive; Michael
   Kinsley noted in the New Yorker that subsidizing poor Americans'
   purchases of $1,000 computers would cost the U.S. Treasury $40

   The disparities in access to the Internet in the United States are
   well documented. Computers are present in almost half of urban
   households with incomes over $35,000 per year, according to a survey
   last year by the National Telecommunications and Information
   Administration. By contrast, only 8 percent of households with incomes
   less than $10,000 have a computer. Most of the Internet users in
   low-income brackets are students, who typically have connections
   through their schools. In Austin and other high-tech communities, the
   disparity in computer ownership between rich and poor is even more

   But communities and leaders throughout the United States are beginning
   to come to grips with the growing gap between the poor and the
   affluent in their access to information technology. Since most
   well-paying jobs now demand computer skills and a rising number
   require familiarity with the Internet, consensus is growing that
   access to the Internet is as important a part of civic life as parks,
   public transit, libraries, and cultural centers. In a dramatic
   testament to this point of view, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates
   recently announced that he will donate $200 million to U.S. public
   libraries to expand such facilities.

   One way to bridge the gulf between computer haves and have-nots is to
   provide Internet connections through publicly accessible terminals. In
   this spirit, for the past three years we have been exploring how to
   bring the Internet and computer skills to the low-income, largely
   minority community of East Austin. An operation called Austin Free-Net
   installed and maintains public access computers throughout the city.
   In cooperation with the nonprofit Austin Learning Academy, teachers
   and volunteers are striving to link the Internet to the real-world
   experiences of Americans whose circumstances and backgrounds differ
   substantially from the typical Internet-using population. We're
   finding that community-based computer networking, accessible through
   public-access terminals, is a cost-effective way to introduce
   information technologies to low-income neighborhoods and to engage
   their citizens in using them.

   The Austin Free-Net is part of a nationwide movement, known as
   "community networks." More than 200 such networks are running in the
   United States, according to Douglas Schuler, author of New Community
   Networks: Wired for Change. Some community networks receive modest
   grants from local governments or, in a few instances, from the federal
   government. These efforts are shoestring operations, often staffed by
   volunteers and using donated equipment and telephone lines.

  Building Real (Not Virtual) Community

   Cyberspace is full of "virtual communities"--groups of people linked
   by common interests. You're as likely to exchange views with someone
   in Australia as with a person living down the street. Austin Free-Net
   and similar computer networks foster the old-fashioned kind of
   community--that is, a group of people defined fundamentally by
   physical proximity.

   One big problem with the early community networks is that they did not
   actually represent communities in any tangible sense--they were
   typically just a cheap way for people to get online. When the cost of
   Internet access plummeted, that rationale evaporated for many
   customers; nonprofit community networks could no longer compete.
   Moreover, even community networks that developed locally oriented
   resources, such as online car pools, directories, and political
   information, wound up appealing primarily to people already online who
   manage to find their way to the community network and then decide to

   The concept of geographic community is often much stronger and more
   tangible in low-income areas than in more affluent locales. Poor
   people spend more time in their own neighborhoods because they are
   less mobile, and the economic boundaries of such places are often
   their most distinctive feature. In such communities, the Net would
   best serve to help cement the bonds that already exist, rather than to
   link individuals to a vast, faraway marketplace.

   A community network can enhance the efforts of residents already
   grappling with the myriad problems in poor neighborhoods. Senior
   citizens in East Austin, for example, are starting to explore how to
   use Austin Free-Net to stay in touch with one another. Area churches
   are beginning to offer computer classes, and their members are
   developing Web pages that provide a guide to church-related
   activities. Through the work of the Austin Learning Academy, mothers
   taking classes leading to high-school diplomas are learning how to
   use computers, as are their children in after-school programs --
   strengthening both literacy skills and family bonds.

   The benefits of the Free-Net in East Austin are particularly apparent
   among young people. Explains Jay de la Garza, a 14-year-old computer
   whiz: "My parents wouldn't let me out at night because it's dangerous
   where we live. There are drug dealers and criminals. But they let me
   go to Free-Net sites to do what I love to do most, which is help teach
   people the Internet." Jay has been accepted to a school for gifted
   students, and works for Free-Net as a volunteer.

   One problem with encouraging low-income users to explore the Internet
   is that few resources on the Net come from urban ghettos, poor rural
   communities, or other places familiar to low-income rural and urban
   users. Despite the rhetoric about shedding labels of gender, race, and
   social class upon entering cyberspace, the Internet reflects the
   culture of its principal inhabitants--upper middle-class white males.
   Thus the global network is dominated by the culture, tastes,
   preoccupations, styles, and interests of the affluent. A network isn't
   much good if you don't know anybody who has e-mail; an online shopping
   mall holds little allure to someone lacking money and credit cards.

   Thus the organizers of the Austin Free-Net are seeking to lay a
   virtual environment over real geographic places, to supplement
   existing connections between people, institutions, and programs with
   electronic ones. We are producing a web of network links and
   communication patterns that resemble those one finds in the community
   already. This approach gives community leaders a reason to use the
   technology, apart from mere curiosity. Free-Net terminals are being
   introduced into community police centers, recreation centers, public
   housing projects, job training centers, and church facilities; the
   latter includes a new training center for multimedia housed in a
   building owned by Austin's oldest Catholic church, Our Lady of
   Guadalupe. A Free-Net volunteer, Harry Williams, a lay minister and
   engineer, and his wife Marilyn began a computer lab in their church,
   New Lincoln Baptist. These computers help nearby citizens learn to use
   the technology.

   Residents of East Austin identified key community assets such as
   training centers, churches, schools, performing arts centers,
   recreation centers, and nonprofit organizations, and created an online
   database of people, programs, calendars, and events. This
   "Neighborhood Net" database re-creates--in electronic form, on a Web
   page--the networking that already exists in the community. The Web
   page includes a map that shows the physical layout of the community's
   resources and provides links to other pages with additional
   information. Eventually, this online database may become a unique
   encyclopedia of information about the neighborhood.

   The Austin Police Department is exploring the use of the community
   network to strengthen the links between police officers and
   neighborhood associations, nonprofit groups, and public housing
   managers, to enhance community policing tactics. Ricky Davis, an
   Austin Police officer who staffs the community police center at
   Ebenezer Baptist Church, says he gets between 400 and 600 calls per
   month requesting information. For example, he says, "people who want
   to move into a particular apartment want to know the crime statistics
   for that building. I have to look up the address on a map, then look
   up the area in our quarterly crime statistics report, which is a big
   notebook." Davis recommends putting this information on a Web page
   accessible to everyone.

   Davis would also like the network to allow residents to report
   abandoned vehicles, drug houses, broken lights and windows, and other
   problems, to enable the department to enhance its community policing
   efforts. "We're trying to move beyond responding to individual
   complaints to anticipating problems," Davis says. "But to do that we
   really need a thorough knowledge of the community, and we can't
   develop that by ourselves--people in the community have to be
   involved. The Free-Net could be a big help."

   Links between the online and off-line worlds can help connect people
   and organizations who would otherwise not interact. Timika Mitchell,
   for example, uses the network to discover how to make a name for
   herself as a poet. Mitchell looked at a Web-page map of East Austin
   and came upon a picture and description of the Victory Grill, a
   historic African-American performing arts theater and cafe. She has
   since visited the Grill and arranged to read her work there. Mitchell
   is now part of a network of local artists.

   10 COMMUNITY NETWORKS NETWORK AREA SERVED Distinctive Characteristics
   [2]ACEnet rural southeastern Ohio Participant in Public Webmarket--an
   attempt to help local entrepreneurs, artists, and craftspeople sell
   goods and services on the Internet [3]Charlotte's Web Charlotte, North
   Carolina 10,000 users; provides training and computers to community
   organizations; developed low-cost touch-screen kiosks [4]Greater New
   Orleans Free-Net New Orleans Targets low-income neighborhoods in
   partnership with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development;
   16,000 users [5]Hill House Community Access Network Pittsburgh Offers
   20 community access sites along with e-mail accounts [6]LibertyNet
   Philadelphia Features eight public-access computer centers plus a
   truck with laptops and cellular modems [7]LincolnNet South Metro
   Chicago Youth "Web cast" called CyberSight, for low-income students
   [8]Mountain Area Information Network Western North Carolina Computer
   recycling program for the disabled; provides no-cost training for
   low-income users [9]NeighborTech inner city Chicago Grassroots group
   founded by low-income residents and organizations; sponsors
   twice-yearly technology fair [10]Ohio Community Computing Center
   Network Akron, Columbus, Dayton, Marietta, Toledo, and Youngstown
   Targets low-income neighborhoods; centers are collaborations among
   community organizations [11]Tri-Cities Free-Net Columbia River Basin,
   Oregon and Washington Community technology centers for low-income
   citizens and the disabled

  Demand Deficits and Learning Curves

   Our approach to developing network infrastructure and skills
   emphasizes building and deepening the skills of the community as a
   whole, as well as the skills of individual users. In Austin, we focus
   on "training trainers"; we offer people instruction in Internet
   publishing, for instance, with the proviso that they must then
   dedicate time to helping teach others. This summer, teenagers who
   enrolled in a "build your own computer" class were required as part of
   the curriculum to introduce computers to a friend. This approach
   emphasizes informal, ongoing, social learning.

   Most people who spend time in cyberspace--up to 70 percent of users,
   according to some surveys--access the Net primarily at work or at
   school. Their use of the network has a certain purpose. People in
   low-income communities, however, typically don't encounter the
   Internet either at school or at work, and they must discover their own
   reasons to use this technology, as well as a place to use it. Thus the
   problem of a "demand deficit" is common in poor communities.

   Users in East Austin typically issue vague pronouncements that they
   are learning the Internet for their kids, "who need to know this
   stuff." Another common theme reveals a desire simply not to be left
   behind. Says Timika Mitchell: "Everywhere you turn, it's this,
   or that." Young people have seen Web addresses in television
   ads, such as for Nike shoes or Hollywood movies, or have heard their
   peers discuss chat groups or online games.

   Helen Hart--a lifelong resident of East Austin who has lived in the
   same house for 60 years--is typical in this respect. Hart worked as a
   crossing guard at a nearby elementary school for 12 years and is
   active in her neighborhood association. She encountered the Internet
   for the first time in her neighborhood library at a public- access
   computer terminal installed and run by the volunteers of Austin
   Free-Net. Her encounters with the World Wide Web have done nothing to
   dislodge her initial belief that the Internet, and computers in
   general, have little value for her life.

   But others in East Austin have found computer networking to be an
   uplifting experience. Etta Kelly, 22, had her first child at age 14
   and lives in one of East Austin's public housing developments. Her
   ambition is to go to college and get a degree in business. She and her
   four children participate in the Austin Learning Academy's Even Start
   program, which helps her study for her General Education Degree. With
   the help of some students at the University of Texas, Etta developed a
   Web page about herself, describing her life, her children, and her
   hopes, and featuring a photo of her family. At a recent parenting
   conference hosted by the university, Etta sat at a table with a
   computer hooked to the Internet, showing other mothers her Web page
   and answering questions about how to find other information on the
   Internet, clearly proud of her presence in cyberspace.

   As more low-income citizens are introduced to the Internet, they are
   using the medium for a greater variety of purposes. Austin Free-Net,
   for example, recently sponsored a "key pal" session of women from
   public housing in Austin talking to their counterparts in South Africa
   and sharing experiences. One Austin woman was so excited about this
   project that she couldn't sleep the night before; she has now
   dedicated herself to keeping the communication going.

   The learning curve for new users in poor communities has a distinct
   arc, characterized by three stages that we've witnessed countless

    1. "I Can Do This."

   In the first stage a novice discovers that simply using the technology
   is not that difficult, and that basic skills like manipulating the
   mouse and keyboard produce nearly instant results. The Web's
   point-and-click interface has made quick competence with the Internet
   possible, and search engines on the Web make finding online
   information or interesting sites much easier than what was required
   two or three years ago. Because of the sheer volume of material on the
   Web, nearly everyone can find something of interest, be it gardening,
   sports, cooking, games, chat rooms, or information about government

    2. "Look at This."

   The user quickly finds an item of personal interest that he or she
   wants to share with someone else. The sharing indicates a pride of
   accomplishment and a new level of confidence. Perhaps more important,
   this stage marks the realization that the Net is more than just an
   information bank but also a communications tool.

    3. "There Ought to Be a Way."

   Users also quickly realize that they should be able to find
   information of personal significance and relevance--or even to produce
   information that might be interesting to others. During one of our
   first training sessions two years ago, East Austin was facing a
   controversial school bond vote. Not far into the training, we were
   asked if the Web contained information on the issue. It did, and our
   trainees devised a strategy to look for it.

   At this point, the problem often becomes one of how to harness the new
   users' enthusiasm. Unfortunately, Free-Net volunteers are so busy just
   trying to get computers up and running, and then training people in
   the basics, that they don't always have time to follow through in ways
   that the users want. In the case of the school bond, for example, the
   question arose: "How do we tell people what we think of this school
   bond?" But the election happened before opponents from the East side
   of town organized themselves into using the Free-Net to present their

  Lesson of Public Access

   [IMAGE] An important lesson about how to foster effective public
   access to the network revolves around where to put public-access
   computers. Most community networks still tend to site their terminals
   in schools and libraries. But our experience shows that it is better
   to locate public access computers not in the quiet solitude of
   libraries but in venues in which people in low-income communities tend
   to gather informally during the course of their daily lives. What's
   more, many libraries do not permit patrons to develop their own Web
   pages or to upload files to Internet servers; librarians tend to view
   the Internet as a reference tool, not a means for personal publishing.
   We've had success locating terminals in churches, recreation centers,
   and local businesses, and hope to put additional computers in cafes,
   laundromats, alternative schools, youth centers, shopping centers, and
   even bars and sports facilities. After all, the skills required for
   using the Internet are acquired by sharing experiences with others,
   and in a social atmosphere.

   Regardless of where the terminals are situated, users need to be able
   to put their own information on Internet servers. But this generally
   requires that users have access to a server's file structure--an
   ability that system administrators are wary of providing. Some
   community networks are therefore beginning to experiment with software
   tools that will allow people to create Web pages in "protected" areas
   of a server and that do not require sophisticated programming. The
   City of Austin, for example, has developed software that allows
   nonexpert users to create Web pages without knowing hypertext markup
   language or how to load Web pages onto a server; pushing a button
   automatically inserts all the necessary codes to format the text,
   create hyperlinks, and deposit the page into the right space on the
   server's hard disk. This system may enable local nonprofits and
   neighborhood associations to maintain Web sites without assistance
   from a system administrator or an expert Web page developer.

   An even more urgent need is for software that makes it practical for
   community networks to offer the one service that has more than any
   other wedded people to the Net: electronic mail. Neither the Austin
   Free-Net nor many other community networks offer e-mail. The costs of
   constantly creating new accounts, eliminating dormant ones, and
   managing "bounced" mail are beyond the means of volunteer- run
   networks. In the commercial world, e-mail accounts are usually made
   available to people who are part of a relatively stable group, such as
   a university community or corporation, or to customers who pay by the
   month or year. There are no precedents for people using e-mail on a
   pure "pay-per-use" basis akin to the purchase of postage stamps.

   Millions of people are reportedly using free e-mail accounts provided
   by HotMail, a company that derives revenue by selling advertisements
   that users see each time they access their account. Unfortunately,
   HotMail suffers from a fundamental security flaw: hitting the "back"
   key on the browser has brought to the screen the mail written and
   received by previous users of the same terminal, presenting a
   significant privacy concern. HotMail has announced a new feature in
   its service--a "logout" button that will clear the mail from a public
   access terminal--that, if it works the way the company promises, will
   solve this problem.

   Much work remains to tailor the software and hardware of public-access
   stations to accommodate users who cannot afford personal computers or
   Internet accounts. We are confident that the computer profession can
   come up with solutions; whether those will develop into a profitable
   market remains to be seen, but in the meantime, we can hope that
   skilled programmers and responsible companies view this task as a
   public service to the nation.