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Making the Case for Technology Within the Community




Feb 5, 2001


Nancy Green

First, my apologies for not responding sooner to the policy piece. I know you were trying to move this discussion along last week -- hopefully these comments come not too late in the process. I should note that these comments are my personal views, and not necessarily those of the Markle Foundation.

You make an important point in stating that creating a policy environment conducive to the equitable diffusion of technology happens not only at the federal level, but at state and local levels as well. There needs to be symmetry between local and national public policy efforts as the magnitude of such issues as broadband deployment make it unlikely that they can get resolved exclusively at one level or the other. A group in Oakland, CA was doing some interesting work on this last year, as the city was developing a city policy on bridging the digital divide, while holding to national policy under the Telecoms Act of 1996 of advancing a competitive environment. Interestingly, the elements they suggest in developing a coherent and successful city policy include: recognition of the work of CBOs; developing a community based model for market-oriented innovation and diffusion of advanced technology; employment and training policies that promote opportunities to move from secondary to primary labor markets; and the creation of industry/community consortia to develop local applications.

Policy that mobilizes private sector resources, and new public private partnerships is key. The creation of these incentives, whether through merger reviews (like AOLTW, or the PacBell-SBC Communications merger that led to the creation of the $50 million Community Technology Foundation of California) or through tax or other incentives is vital in demonstrating and creating sustainable new marktets beyond the 'low hanging fruit' of typical corporate R&D. The few initiatives that I'm aware of that have tried to do this, mostly using the financial services sector, have found it hard to develop buy-in from the corporate sector. The argument that this is not about corporate philanthropy but rather new market development hasn't taken hold -- the marketing folks see it as work for corporate foundations. I'm interested to hear from others if they know of success stories here (Ben, maybe we need to catch up?!?!) and whether future research efforts might focus in part on gaining new understanding of what makes new market development tick, and how CBOs can leverage their work, reach, and reputations in the community to help create viable corporate opportunity.

The second important thread in your piece is on content, and at Markle we agree that access alone is not the answer; that technology is not a gift for anyone unless it delivers information, goods and services that can improve people's lives. Key to this effort is creating functional, user-friendly applications that provide pertinent content, at the right literacy levels.

The example of the program you cite in Portland, OR supports work that we're funding at the Children's Partnership, Online Content for Underserved Internet Users. As a result of their initial research (report issued March 2000), TCP has focused subsequent efforts on identifiying and evaluating specific technology tools and content for an online resource center portal. The portal will be a practical and functional set of tools for low income users, including appropriate search engine capability and language translation tools.

We're also supporting some interesting "content" work at the Ella Baker House in Dorchester, MA, where low income, "at-risk" kids -- many referred by the Department of Youth Services -- participate in an after school program that teaches high-quality culturally relevant content through a curriculum based on Encarta Africana, the CD ROM encyclopedia of African and Arfican-American history. The program has just piloted its first "semester" and should have some interesting findings as to how kids learn computer skills (and self-esteem) when taken through content that is culturally relevant. The project is run in partnership by the Baker House and Harvard University, and funded by both corporate and philanthropic contributions.

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