(Photo by Chris Reber)
This article is part of Broadband2035, a series in partnership with PlanPhilly funded by an award from J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism to explore broadband issues to impact Philadelphia’s developing comprehensive plan.
Last week, Mayor Nutter and Congressman Bob Brady opened the first of a series of new public computer centers aimed at reaching the estimated 41 percent of city residents who do not have access to the Internet.
On Tuesday, during Philly Tech Week, the Mayor logged on at the new center at Philadelphia FIGHT, an HIV/AIDS support organization — at 13th and Spruce streets, kicking off the federal grant-funded program. FIGHT has for more than a decade provided internet resources for people affected by HIV in the city.
“You should be able to get the information you need, access to services and programs all over the place,” Mayor Nutter said. “This is the future of this city, and it’s from a technology perspective.”
Officials from the Freedom Rings Partnership — made up of pro-digital inclusion groups like FIGHT, the People’s Emergency Center, Media Mobilizing Project and the Opportunities Industrialization Center — which is overseeing the new centers, thanked the elected officials for helping them secure more than $18 million in federal grants.
Over the next few months a total of 77 centers will open at other community organizations and public housing locations in the city’s least-served neighborhoods, offering access and crucial training for residents. The training programs are funded by an $11.8 million sustainable broadband adoption grant to Urban Affairs Coalition. The centers are funded by a $6.4 million Public Computing Centers Award given to the city. In addition grant recipients are providing nearly $7 million in matching funds.
Officials say it’s the largest investment in digital inclusion in the city’s history.
“The freedom rings partnership really is about providing digital literacy and workforce training opportunities to communities all across the city. Imagine 77 of these kinds of operations all around the city,” Mayor Nutter said.
While many details are being finalized, UAC hopes to offer in-person training for 15,000 people at computer centers, in addition to online training that residents can access on their own. The partnership also plans to distribute 5,000 netbooks to Philadelphia Housing Authority residents who pass a skills test.
“In a very short amount of time we organized with many other organizations to submit two proposals that would touch every neighborhood and every vulnerable population in the city,” FIGHT education director Juliet Fink said of the grant applications.
Many residents need training in applications that most take for granted, like the basics of browsing the web, Freedom Rings project director for the Urban Affairs Coalition Peter Kiliani said. But the partnership also plans to offer training in productivity applications like Excel and Powerpoint.
Officials hope trainees will use the web to access government resources like benefits, job opportunities, and public safety information. “We hope people will access information online, so they don’t have to spend so much of their time accessing the resources poor people have available to them which takes so darn long to actually obtain,” Kiliani said.
One program, operated by the Media Mobilizing Project, will give youths the opportunity to document their neighborhoods with video cameras, and then training to edit those videos.
“Most of the organizations we deal with already have outreach into and connections with members of disenfranchised communities,” Kiliani said. “These are people who are on the fringes of society,” he said.