(Photo by Flickr user Roman Kruglov, used under a Creative Commons license)
Home to more than 80 neighborhoods, over 96.91 square miles and a population that — if counted on its own — would represent the fourth largest city in the United States, Brooklyn has the people, location and momentum to be a haven for the tech entrepreneurs and digital startups.
The key is connectivity.
Left in the wake of Brooklyn’s ongoing decade of growth are gaps. Where open office initiatives and emerging startups are dotting the waterfront of Dumbo and the streets of downtown, vacant lots still sit to the east and collaboration remains distant between Brooklyn’s most populous and most isolated neighborhoods.
We’ve identified six Brooklyn organizations that are working to bridge the borough’s digital divide. Some through education, some through open workspaces and others by simply facilitating the flow of information to communities that need it.
At the core of each organization below is a technology-driven mission to improve Brooklyn as a viable place for innovation.
Brooklyn On Tech
Jessica Santana and Evin Robinson cofounded Brooklyn On Tech last year as a means to increase educational opportunities in tech fields for local students. With it came the Tech Flex Scholars Program, where high school students are paired with working tech professionals to develop the skills and knowledge needed to be a competitive job candidate post-graduation.
“When you consider the shift in the job market happening in America, we’re quickly moving into an economy that’s largely based on innovation,” Santana said. “There are going to be skills required of people to be successful that are different come 2020 than they have been, and technology is a big part of that.”
"Every mentor we bring in is a working professional that uses technology in their jobs. That doesn't mean they're all coders or engineers."
In its first year, Brooklyn On Tech had a modest 15 students in the Tech Flex program and is projected to have 35 enrolled for the fall session. Yet, it drew mentors from companies such as JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte, General Assembly, MTV and Etsy.
The next phase for Brooklyn On Tech will include adding more programs for different ages and more mentors from the tech field to assist.
“We’re actively recruiting mentors to contribute to our program, and each and every mentor we bring in is a working professional that uses technology in their jobs,” Robinson said. “That doesn’t mean they’re all coders or engineers. They could be digital media specialists, software experts and a variety of things. But what that helps show kids in our program is that you don’t have to go into a pure tech job in order to benefit from learning (technological) skills. Really almost any field these kids go into, technology is going to be a big part of their jobs.”
Enrollment in the Tech Flex Scholars Program is open to any high school student in Brooklyn but eventually Santana and Robinson hope to grow a network of partner schools that consistently help align interested participants.
“We definitely want to expand our network of schools and increase our students,” Robinson said. “As we go into more neighborhoods and start developing a foothold for ourselves, we’ll then have to recruit new mentors and companies to work with us. As one arm of the program grows, so will the other and the result with will be an ecosystem of sorts that is mutually beneficial for tech professionals and students.”
Brooklyn On Tech is currently looking for new mentors for its upcoming fall season, with an April deadline to apply. Upcoming student information sessions are in the process of being scheduled and will be held at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Paula Segal says the 596 Acres project was born out of “a lot of frustration and inspiration.” The surplus of Brooklyn’s vacant land and scarcity of information pertaining to it was a source for both.
Founded in 2011, 596 Acres maintains an online database of vacant public land throughout Brooklyn and then distributes that information to people within the respective communities, helping organize efforts to convert empty lots into usable space. The database marks land by location, color-coded by lot type, and also indicates whether a restoration project is ongoing or not. If so, it provides contact information for how to become involved with the group leading the effort.
"We're putting land into community hands so improvements can be made."
“I got started just within my own neighborhood [Myrtle Village Green in Northern Bud-Stuy],” Segal, who serves as the executive director for 596 Acres while also working as an attorney, said. “I knew there was a lot of public land being wasted. I was just trying to connect the dots and realized how many holes there were. It became clear that a lot of the needed information for people to take advantage of these spaces just wasn’t easily accessible.”
596 Acres now serves communities throughout Brooklyn — mostly in the further-from-Manhattan, least developed neighborhoods — in converting vacant land into public spaces such as parks, playgrounds, community centers and gardens.
All of the data the group collects is open source and available online. 596 Acres uses a heavy social media presence to distribute it and interact with community leaders. Group members also physically post information signs at vacant lots.
“We’re putting land into community hands so improvements can be made,” Segal said. “The information is out there, but we work to make it easier to find and get it to the right people. Almost all of our work is done in most underserved neighborhoods because those are the places in the greatest need for this and that’s also where all the usable land is.”
Segal said 596 Acres has worked with 30 different groups that have created new community spaces. The organization is based in Gowanus and also provides information for the other four boroughs of New York City.
DUMBO Startup Lab
This space, located at 68 Jay Street, serves as a modern office for freelancers and technology entrepreneurs in Brooklyn without a workplace of their own. Founder John Coghlan says the space typically houses 40-50 people representing 25-30 companies, most of which are web-focused designers and developers. (Full disclosure: Technical.ly Brooklyn’s lead reporter is based out of DSL.)
"The openness definitely fosters more interaction than micro-offices."
It’s also designed to create a collaborative work environment amongst independent professionals and startup companies.
“When we started [in 2012] the goal was to foster a collaborative community, which is why we went with the open floor plan,” Coghlan said, referring to the organization’s open office next to the Manhattan Bridge with views overlooking the East River and lower Manhattan. “The openness definitely fosters more interaction than micro-offices as people can start a conversation when passing a neighbor without having to knock on a door.”
For new tech startups and freelancers, DUMBO Startup Lab offers an alternative option for an area with a tightly packed real estate market and continually high costs of living and rental space — two things Coghlan identified as key challenges for the continued growth of Brooklyn as a hub for emerging tech companies and entrepreneurs.
Coghlan says most people who use the space find it through searches or referrals, but DUMBO Startup Lab also hosts workshops and meetups that draw in local workers.
DUMBO Startup Lab will be hosting a “Startup Marketing Blueprint” workshop March 10, focused on helping new companies craft and market their brands. The space also hosts a monthly “House of Genius” meetup. There, 15-18 entrepreneurs are brought together with three business presenters to share ideas and discuss business solutions.
Brooklyn Public Library
Across its 59 branches, the Brooklyn Public Library has transformed itself into a community resource for technology services and education. Now, people can grab WiFi or check out a tablet as easily as they can a book.
The library offers a host of educational programs ranging from tutorials on Microsoft Office to workshops with video software like Final Cut Pro. For some, it also provides the most basic access to technology, like setting up email accounts and becoming familiarized with the online world.
"When you talk about a digital divide in Brooklyn, it's a very real thing that people are living in."
“I’m not sure how realized this is, but even in this day and age there are still people without reliable internet access or without the knowledge to use email and basic computer functions,” said Adam Leddy, the library’s communications coordinator. “When you talk about a digital divide in Brooklyn, it’s a very real thing that people are living in. Some people don’t have access to the internet. Some people don’t have a computer of their own. We’ve really become dedicated to addressing those problems.”
Melissa Morrone supervises the library’s Info Commons program, which opened two years ago as a digital media lab. Beyond the 1,400 standard desktop PCs available for public use, the Info Commons program works with Macs and other digital software to help those interested learn about Adobe programs, record podcasts or setup a YouTube channel, among other things.
“We feel it’s something that’s really opened up a lot of doors and the interest is continuing to grow,” Morrone said. “We could hold a technology course every day in each branch and there’d be a demand for it. [The Info Commons] program really digs in with some more advanced skills, but we’ll also have people come in who just need help learning how to use a Nook or Kindle their grandchild got them.”
To that end, the library is training its own staff in several aspects of technology so someone who needs help can get it on a walk-in basis without being a part of an official class or program.
“Basically, we want to be the go-to resource for people in our community,” said Cheila Cruz, the library’s technology training coordinator. “It’s important that we’re seen as a vibrant place for people with technology needs or questions. We have a group of nine technology supervisors who assess the needs of the public for all our different branches so our staff is qualified to help in those areas.”
All of the library’s services are available on a walk-in basis but they also host various technology training events and run a newsletter detailing when and where the events are taking place.
Brooklyn Robot Foundry
Located in Park Slope, Brooklyn Robot Foundry runs after-school and summer programs for kids with an interest in robotics and engineering. The age scales younger, with introductory courses for participants between 4 and 13 years old.
The benefit of that, Brooklyn Robot Foundry staff member Josh Brechner says, is that introducing the concept to kids at an early age might spark an interest they otherwise wouldn’t have access to in their normal education.
"We're cultivating a familiarity with technology and engineering amongst kids at a young age."
“We’re cultivating a familiarity with technology and engineering amongst kids at a young age,” Brechner said. “For some, it’s just a fun thing to do after school, but others will take a sustained interest in it.”
The Robot Foundry offers both structured classes as well as hack space workshops where people wanting to explore robotics and engineering can come to experiment. In addition to its standard youth program, the Foundry also offers one-off courses for adults and hosts occasional corporate events.
Robotics may be a niche interest, but the Robot Foundry is hoping to at least make it more accessible by taking away the perceived complications and intimidation.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as having people realize that all this stuff looks more daunting from the outside,” Brechner said. “By enabling people, particularly young people, it knocks down those perceived walls around a skillset and gives them the confidence to pursue learning new things they otherwise may not have considered or been introduced to.”
After-school classes are one class per week for 11 weeks while summer classes are available in less structured formats.
Red Hook Initiative
The Red Hook Initiative, like the neighborhood itself, very much looks after its own.
What started as a public health program in 2002 has become a multi-faceted resource for a community that’s largely isolated from the main stream of public transit, was decimated by Hurricane Sandy and left out of the surge in development seen a few miles up the East River and along Atlantic Avenue near the Barclays Center.
The Red Hook Initiative is open to neighborhood residents with programs for middle school, high school and young adults, ages 18-24 — a demographic the nonprofit organization’s website highlights as having a near 75 percent unemployment rate in the neighborhood.
"Our mindset is, it'd be a real shame if the people of Red Hook, which is an incredibly proud neighborhood, did not have the resources to take advantage of new opportunities."
Jaebi Bussey is the organization’s digital educator and oversees technology-based programs aimed at helping participants develop the skills they need to be competitive in the workforce.
“Technology is a playing field that’s not level everywhere,” said Bussey, who is one of the few Red Hook Initiative employees that is not from the neighborhood (the organization cites 90 percent of its staff as Red Hook natives or residents). “That’s a big reason I wanted to come here. Most people, no matter what they do, now need technological skills in their lives, but that type of training is not available to everyone. I learned about the internet back in the early Hotmail days in 1998 and it transformed my life. It’s crucial for young people to have a familiarity (with technology) because it puts them on a different stage in terms of opportunity.”
Bussey added: “Our mindset is, it’d be a real shame if the people of Red Hook, which is an incredibly proud neighborhood, did not have the resources to take advantage of new opportunities like those from other places do.”
The Red Hook Initiative’s tech program is one such resource. It runs in six-month blocks and focuses on training, internship placement and creating a project that betters the community.
One project spearheaded by the Red Hook Initiative’s tech program is Red Hook WiFi. It’s a community-led effort to build a wireless internet network in the neighborhood. The project is run by young adults in the Red Hook Initiative’s digital stewards program and also partners with Brooklyn Fiber and the Open Technology Institute.
“That’s something that young people in this community benefited from one just by learning the process, but it also had a real life impact here,” Bussey said. “It was a very collaborative thing that everybody in Red Hook benefits from.”
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