'Digital Inclusion' Efforts Give Training, Gear

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The lure of a free PC brought Suliana Feiloakitau to Hamilton Family Center's technology education program, but technology-savvy volunteers won't hand it over unless she meets minimum requirements.

She has to "earn" the computer by learning basic computer skills such as using e-mail and the Web. She also has to save US$10 per month and get ongoing computer training from a free computer lab in San Francisco for a year. The center will check on her progress, while supporting the PC and providing Internet access for a year.

Tech for All Effort

The center's program, called Pathways to Technology, is part of a larger grassroots "digital inclusion" effort in San Francisco to provide affordable Internet access, hardware and technology training to low-income and disadvantaged residents.

Volunteers at the center provide one-on-one computer training to help previously homeless families and youth be successful and self-sufficient in permanent housing. Hamilton provides emergency shelter, as well as services, to put homeless people into permanent housing.

"In order to access housing listings, educational resources necessary for their kids, opportunities for new work, people need the ability to get online in their home," said Megan Owens, director of the Pathways to Technology program. The center also runs a Web site, MyHousing.org, that provides information about child care, subsidized housing and other housing tools.

Feiloakitau, a Hamilton Family Center resident, has a strong motive to earn the computer and is eager to work hard.

"I've got family all over the world. My brother's in Iraq, and the only way I can keep in touch with him is through e-mail," she said, sitting at a computer as volunteers taught her how to right-click to save an image off the Internet.

Opportunity for Volunteers

A few computers away, volunteer Darius Garza found a food bank document on the Internet for a participant and showed her how to save the PDF file to the hard disk.

Garza, who is attending a Web design school and moved to San Francisco two months ago, said volunteering is a way to learn about the community and meet people on the other side of the technology fence he otherwise wouldn't meet.

"If I wasn't born with a computer and Nintendo in front of my face, I would probably be a bit hesitant about new technology as well," Garza said. He found out about the program through SF Connect, a volunteer management organization for digital inclusion initiatives.

It's hard for disadvantaged people to make ends meet in this expensive city, so to pay for a computer and Digital Subscriber Line is a significant expense, said Amanda O'Shea, a volunteer and San Francisco native.

"It's even more of a setback for them because there is no way for them to get in touch with the services and resources that everybody else takes for granted," O'Shea said.

Disparity Persists

San Francisco may have a reputation as a technology-savvy city, but many communities and neighborhoods face disadvantages in accessing and learning about technology, according to a June 2007 study by the University of California, Berkeley.

Access to technology is substantially below average for San Franciscans earning less than $10,000 up to $25,000 per year, the study said. There is also a big technology gap for the large numbers of residents who speak only Spanish or Chinese.

For a wired city like San Francisco, such a wide technology gap can easily go unnoticed, said Kami Griffiths, project director for Community Technology Network, an umbrella organization of individuals and nonprofits that aims to build technology capacity for San Francisco's disadvantaged community.

The city has computer labs that offer different levels of skills training, but no overarching support organization that shares best practices and low-cost resources, Griffiths said. She hopes CTN will fill that gap with the help of smaller nonprofits and community-based organizations, Griffiths said. Both Hamilton Family Center and SF Connect are members of CTN.

"CTN is hoping to network these computer labs together so we can all offer [better computer training]" to the disadvantaged population, she said.

The importance of the computer labs is further underpinned by the loss of momentum for San Francisco to develop a free citywide Wi-Fi network. Voters approved the network, but Internet service provider EarthLink backed out of the project, which has slowed development.

Open-Source Options

After moving to San Francisco from New York, Griffiths started volunteering at a computer lab that was built as part of a low-income housing development. The PCs were ill-equipped with old operating systems like Windows NT and Windows 2000, Griffiths said. "They were a wreck, there were pop-up ads and spyware and most of them didn't load Internet Explorer because no one took care of the lab."

Griffiths got to work, replenishing the lab with 15 donated computers and getting volunteers to load up Edubuntu OS, a version of Linux for the classroom. Now the training center offers free classes to teach basic computing skills to individuals. Griffiths is witnessing the joys and frustrations as her disadvantaged students integrate technology into their lives.

Many of her students are new computer users who have taken well to Edubuntu and open-source productivity software like OpenOffice, she said. "Brand-new computer users have no clue. Mac, PC, open-source -- it doesn't mean anything to them. All they know is 'how do I get on the Internet.'"

However, OpenOffice doesn't provide enough tools for job seekers to work in an office environment, Griffiths said.

"If you go to a temp agency, they are going to test ... your skills and run you through a mock test on how to do certain tasks in Microsoft [Office]. The differences are just enough to put you at a disadvantage."

Ongoing Effort

CTN doesn't promote or advocate one technology or piece of equipment, but supports multiple choices to provide technology access and training to disadvantaged city residents, said Kari Gray, program manager with SF Connect. In some instances, free open-source software is the best choice, and in other instances, like the Hamilton program, people will use Windows XP and other Microsoft operating systems.

The organization holds an open meeting every month where attendees discuss different technologies, Griffiths said. Though informal right now, CTN is receiving funds from organizations like the Full Circle Fund, and aims to keep growing so it can bridge the technology gap more effectively.

"We're going to build something that will be amazing," Griffiths said.

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