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Nurturing Neighborhood Nets

Can free access to the Internet enhance the lives of people in poor communities? An experimental system in East Austin, Texas, is showing the way.

Timika Mitchell was living in the Salvation Army shelter in Austin, Tex., 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 violence.

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 billion.

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 pronounced.

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 linger.

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.

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 times:

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 benefits.

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 views.

Lesson of Public Access

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.

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