Session 1: March 1, 2010
- Facilitator: Kim Marcille Romaner, Founder, Possibilities, Inc.
- Scribe: Heidi Williamson, VP Communications, Berks County Community Foundation, Reading, PA
Kim Marcille Romaner is working with the Miami Dade Broadband Coalition to close the digital divide in the county and to improve broadband access in public anchor institutions like libraries.
The Miami Dade Broadband Coalition is working with these public institutions to create and sustain robust broadband access for the communities they serve. The coalition is looking at ways to measure the need for broadband among these organizations and provide a broader pipe they all can use, thus lowering the strain on the organization’s budgets.
The coalition’s work is one step in a multifaceted approach that communities can take to develop a Digital Public Square. A Digital Public Square ultimately provides broadband access to everyone, allowing each person to choose how engaged to get in community issues.
In many cases, people may not become engaged in those issues at all, but the very ability to access the Internet is of value. When people have access, they can decide what they want to use the Internet to do, and eventually may develop an interest in broader community issues.
Once a Digital Public Square is built and accessible, community leaders need to look for ways to ask people for input and to contribute to the conversation. The Digital Public Square should also take into consideration other tools that can be used to share content, including cell phones. This will require taking a holistic approach to the access issue and considering other factors (poverty, advanced age) that people without access often face.
Another facet of creating a Digital Public Square is engaging schools in the process. By improving civics education beginning in elementary school, children will begin to learn the importance of information in a democracy. As it becomes more and more difficult for those without access to connect to services and apply for jobs, communities will need to develop a sense of urgency within their schools to provide students with the technological skills they need and the public with the broadband access it needs. Schools can also play a role by providing broadband through programs such as E-rate, where schools pay for connectivity for their buildings but can also provide access to the community around them.
In addition to schools, there are many potential partners that community leaders can turn to as they work to create a Digital Public Square. These include:
Businesses that need to hire people with at least rudimentary computer skills;
ISP-providers, hardware and software manufacturers, who all have a stake in the game (market-creation strategy);
Local, state and federal government grants and funding;
Existing community organizations already working on access issues;
Newspapers, public radio/television stations;
And Healthcare providers, who need to broaden the network to put health records online, could potentially use the broadband they put in place to connect broader swaths of the community.
While there are many potential partners, a concrete method to sustain Digital Public Square projects has yet to be developed. Promising ideas include treating access as a public utility and implementing a rate-payer concept similar to what electric companies use.
Similarly, a step-by-step approach to creating a Digital Public Square has yet to emerge among the many experiments. Current models for the Digital Public Square concept include:
In upstate New Hampshire funders are putting towers in rural areas as an experiment;
Wisconsin has a wide network to connect universities, now trying to spread it wider;
MIT Center for Future Civic Media is studying cell-phone networks, broadband and looking at the culture of specific communities;
The Boston Hub on Wheels bicycle race raises funding for access projects;
The Teach Up program pairs Mississippi schools with IT interns to improve access and expand learning;
Existing literacy programs may offer insight into rolling out access programs;
And Google has a program where communities can apply for broadband – Google-gig.
Community foundations can play a role by convening interested and relevant parties to discuss ways to create Digital Town Squares in their own communities.