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banner Monday, 19 March, 2001, 10:43 GMT
Bridging the digital divide
Digital divide
As the UK Government announces plans to wire up homes in deprived areas, looks at the fortunes of a similar US project. By Laurie Santos in Boston.

The Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) doesn't look much like Sherwood Forest.

Nevertheless, it is the home of Communitech, a band of merry men who take from the digitally rich to give to the digitally poor.

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The brainchild of graduate student Bryan Adams, Communitech is a public service organisation that aims to put discarded computers in the homes of disadvantaged families.

It's one of a number of grassroots organisations in the Boston area attempting to bridge the "digital divide", the ever-growing gap between those who have access to computers and the internet and those who don't.

The UK's plans
500 homes in Liverpool will be given broadband access and computer equipment in the trial project
According to the US Department of Commerce, the key to achieving digital equality is simply getting computers into more homes.

Although minority families are using the internet more than ever, white households are still one-and-a-half times more likely to own a computer than black or Hispanic homes.

Mr Adams first encountered this problem while volunteering for another MIT public service organisation, which ran basic computer courses. Families who received training never got a chance to practise their new-found skills, because very few owned a computer.

Computer graveyard

The idea for Communitech came when Mr Adams' roommate complained about how difficult it was to unload his old PC.

Because of emissions regulations, it can cost up to $20 to scrap a computer monitor.

Babbage computer BBC
"Take my old computer, please!"
Faced with the hassle of getting rid of old computers, many people stash their defunct PCs in storage rather than do something useful with them.

"I thought, 'Wait, why can't MIT students collect people's old computers, fix them up, and give them to the people who need them?'"

He and five volunteers put up a single flyer offering to collect old computers for free. In less than two weeks, they had more than 20.

"We had to stop just because we didn't have room for all of them."

With the help of the Madison Park Community Centre, Mr Adams found disadvantaged families keen to boost their computer skills.

He and his crew of volunteers then organised two-hour training sessions on elementary computer operation, application programs such as Word and Excel, and basic troubleshooting. To date, more than 40 families have completed the training and received a reconditioned computer.

Computer training BBC
First steps: To have and have not
Wei-Han Yu, another volunteer, says: "The families are so excited. I delivered one computer personally. It was like an early Christmas."

The volunteers also find it gratifying to see the recipients' skills develop over time.

Volunteer Richard Hu says: "In a few weeks or so, one mom was making a spreadsheet for her monthly finances. She was ecstatic. She was even planning to take web page design classes."

Uphill battle

But Mr Adams has met with his fair share of adversity.

The first major problem is training families to be self-sufficient. Often, basic troubleshooting is not enough to get families going and when computers crash, it's the volunteers who bear the brunt of the late-night calls.

"When we go over to fix a computer, we kind of assume a certain level of knowledge," Mr Hu says. "But some of these people, they have no clue what anything is."

But the biggest roadblock is convincing those with money and resources that the chasm is really as wide as it is.

One mom was making a spreadsheet for her monthly finances. She was ecstatic

Richard Hu
Recruiting helpers continues to be a major problem. At a university of almost 10,000 students, Communitech has just 12 regular volunteers.

"It's hard to find people to really volunteer because it's so easy for a student to go off and just make money," Mr Adams says.

Even harder to get on board are the internet service providers (ISPs). Mr Adams had thought it would be easy to get free internet access for the scheme, but after contacting more than 15 companies, he's had no joy.

But Communitech plans to continue its digital goodwill.

"[The digital divide] is a big issue. But it's not a resources problem. And it's not a knowledge problem. There are just no channels. And someone has to build the bridge."

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27 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Digital exclusion still a problem
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