The Community Technology Movement – A History Of Digital Excellence

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Erie Neighborhood House CTC

The history of digital excellence in Chicago is a history of community technology actors creating and distributing technology resources – from computers to training to internet access – that is now well into its 3rd decade.

Last month, Andrew Mooney, Executive Director of LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation)’s Chicago office which is the manager of the 7-year, 16-neighborhood New Communities Program, wrote an op-ed article in Crain’s Chicago Business in which he basically touted Chicago as Ground Zero for setting the pace in building digitally-empowered communities (U.S.A. 2.0, I believe he called it), citing the $7 million the city received from the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program to provide training (digital literacy training) for up to 22,000 residents over two years in five targeted underserved communities.

The city has also received $9 million in funding from the same grant pool for providing hardware support for 150 CTCs (community technology centers) basically focused on libraries, parks and public institutions.

We applaud these grant awards. In fact, we are going to take a bit of a bow for tilling the soil and planting the seeds that allowed those grant applications to bear fruit,  because the vast majority of the ideas behind these grant awards came from a community-driven process led by the Chicago Digital Access Alliance more than three (3) years ago which coalesced into a groundbreaking work published by the Mayor’s Committee To Eliminate The Digital Divide, “The City That Networks”. (Download your copy from the City of  Chicago website and look on page 56 for the proof).

While the city’s grant awards tout 22,000 potential trainees, the five communities targeted initially as “digital excellence demonstration
communities” (combining two terms we coined – digital excellence and digital demonstration communities) – encompass 10 wards with a total
of more than 600,000 residents.

While the grant award to the city for CTCs focuses on mostly public institutions, within the city limits are more than 600 CTC/PCC’s
serving tens of thousands of residents a year, created by grassroots community residents and organizations with not a single dime of city
or foundation money (although some state and federal grants were involved in a minority of cases).

Statewide including Chicago, there are more than a thousand CTCs, again the majority opened and developed by grassroots organizations and groups without any funding at all (although the state DCEO Eliminate The Digital Divide Program funds about 170 CTC’s a year).

That program itself emerged out of activism by a community-driven coalition around securing the first funding  – $4 million – from the SBC-Ameritech merger in the late 1990’s for neighborhood technology programs.) That activist process, spearheaded by a coalition of activists and lawyers including Don Samuelson and Layton Olsen, came together at the 1999 CTCNet Conference at McCormick Place, attended by 400 people, which I organized for Chicago along with Executive Director Holly Carter of CTCNet.

There are two wireless networks in Chicago neighborhoods (one in Lawndale and one in Woodlawn) and two more in development. None of them were funded by city money or grants awards. (The city, according to a Medill News article, may spend up to $21 million for setting up wireless networks. Will they also fund the networks that are already established?)

There are at least a hundred community-based technology training programs in Chicago where residents learn everything from basic digital literacy to computer troubleshooting to web development to network design, offering certificates and professional certifications to residents, most of them offered free of charge. Outside of two programs offered by two city colleges (at Kennedy-King and Malcolm X) to my knowledge, none of them is funded by the city or foundations (I said to my knowledge, if I am wrong please send me the proof correcting me).

I was at a meeting at IIT in 2000 or 2001 where David Weinstein, then working with the Mayor’s Council of Technology Advisors, and a fellow names Sean Lapp of a company called Iworks, stated that the city would create 1,200 CTCs within three to five years. Here we are nearly a decade later and I defy anyone to show me where any of those CTCs were created (unless you want to count CTCs in the Park District locations which were almost entirely funded by outside funding).

The grant awards given to the City of Chicago don’t propose to fund any of these groups or programs.  This is a very different scenario than the BTOP grant awarded in Philadelphia with help from the New America Foundation.

So my question is: how can a claim to make Chicago the innovation leader for digitally-empowered communities be made without acknowledging the community-driven process that created and implemented all the ideas on the ground and has done all the work for the past two decades?

The neighborhood technology movement in Chicago has created a wealth of community-driven programs and established the standard – digital excellence – by which future programs will be measured, all without any city support at all, that are the envy of the nation. (Ask the Knight Foundation, which created a 5-year, $25 million Institute For Digital Excellence based directly on the content of the Chicago report).

Despite what people may think from reading this, I am not living in the past. As Mike Ditka says, “Only cowards live in the past.” But as
Frederick Douglas observed, “Those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it.” We in the neighborhood technology/digital excellence
movement are mindful of history.

The history of neighborhood technology in Chicago is filled with activities from men like Carl Davidson, who directly created or helped start a hundred CTCs in Chicago and trained dozens of residents in computer troubleshooting repair through his groups Chicago Coalition For Information Access, Networking For Democracy and Techtrain (which I named and helped start). It grew from the community activism of  Rev. Lewis Flowers (13 church-based CTC/PCCs), Walter Gillespie (14 sites currently in operation), George Gilmore (who championed HUD ‘s Neighborhood Networks Program with over 40 housing-based CTCs in Illinois, the ITRC/Lumity Digital Accelerators program (more than a dozen CTCs established), and the work of the Chicago Digital Access Alliance, CTCNet Chicago, (with more than 90 Chicago CTCs in its membership) the FaithTech Network of church-based tech ministries, and many others.

We know that the only way that the city can showcase itself as the innovative USA 2.0 touted in Mr. Mooney’s op-ed piece is to do what
the city has not done in more than 20 years: actively engage and work with the grassroots technology movement that has led the way on its
own, from the bottom-up.

We support the principles of open democracy, open data, open collaboration, community interoperability and open stewardship that will bring our underserved communities forward in a new community development paradigm.

If anyone wants to interact or engage with the grassroots technology leadership in Chicago that is making and continues to make things
happen, come to the 1st Chicago Neighborhood Digital Excellence Conference and Technology Fair, Friday October 29, 2010, from 8:00
a.m. To 6:00 p.m. At DePaul Egan Center, 1 East Jackson, Lower Level. Come join us. We’ll share the history and the future of digital
excellence with you.

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Digital Excellence – More Than Just A Catchphrase

July 2006. It was only four years ago, healing sick but as Mike Maranda says, it seems like ages ago.

Two of my five kids weren’t yet in the world, although one was one the way. I was three and a half years into a new relationship that had its ups and downs and stresses and challenges and good times and things that needed to be worked out.

And I was more than 16 years into doing a kind of community development work that had, quite honestly, made me tired and somewhat cynical about what we were doing and the results, if any, we were achieving.

I’d been a part of the Empowerment Zone process in the mid-90’s, a national grants competition with what at that time seemed a fantasy-like prize: $100 million to be awarded to each of six winning applicants over the ensuing 2 years to, as it was proclaimed in the EZ Guidebook, “empower citizens and reinvent government.” The promise of the EZ/EC was that citizens living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods would be able to create and implement their own programs and solutions and that the federal government of Bill Clinton and Al Gore would provide hundreds of millions of dollars for them to do it.

The City of Chicago in 1994 was one year away from a mayoral election. Richard M. Daley, son of Richard J. Daley, had been in power less than six years, voted into office in 1989 after the black community, which had sparked an 83% turnout percentage to elect Harold Washington Chicago’s first black mayor, split badly on whether to vote for one of two men who were vying for the office: Eugene Sawyer, a former 6th ward alderman who had been appointed Washington’s successor in a memorably raucous Dec. 1 City council session after Washington died at his desk of a heart attack six months into his second term, and was seen as a sellout by many community activists, or Tim Evans, a 4th Ward alderman and supposedly the late mayor’s pick as successor (although Harold had clearly said on TV three days before his death that he didn’t and wouldn’t anoint anyone a successor).

Rallied together by a remarkable woman and organizer, Wanda White, who had participated in drafting the national legislation establishing the Empowerment Zone process, what would eventually total 33 Chicago communities
The following principles have been adopted under the Campaign for a Community Benefits Agreement. We believe these principles should guide the development of the wireless network and the opportunities that emerge from its formation.

1. DIGITAL EXCELLENCE IS AN INSTITUTIONALLY FUNDED PRIORITY FOR CHICAGO. Activities promoting Digital Excellence are best shaped and supported through a sustained funding mechanism. A Digital Excellence Trust, diagnosis guided by local constituents and practitioners in the field of Digital Literacy should advocate on behalf of the digitally under-served, and offer programmatic support to establish local capacity and promote the vision of digital excellence.

2. SOUND PLANNING, EVALUATION AND POLICY MEASURES ARE CRITICAL TO DIGITAL DIVIDE EVALUATION AND DIGITAL EXCELLENCE IMPACT. Qualitative and quantitative processes must be established to gather baseline and ongoing data on Chicago’s digital divide, and guide the creation of new policies and practices to strengthen digital opportunities, thereby promoting digital excellence.

3. UNIVERSAL ACCESS TO HIGH-SPEED CONNECTIVITY IS A PUBLIC RIGHT AND NECESSITY.Universal broadband access for all citizens is a public right, not a privilege. Internet access must be available to ALL Chicago residents regardless of where they live, work or learn, furthermore, provision must be made for special access needs. Service upgrades and enhancements must be made available to all communities in an equitable manner.

4. DIGITAL LITERACY AND FLUENCY ARE FORMS OF HUMAN CAPITAL AND REQUIRE PUBLIC INVESTMENT. Comprehensive training for digital literacy must be available in multilingual and varied learning formats. Digital proficiency must be promoted at neighborhood based locations, especially community technology centers, community based organizations and libraries, to strengthen resident understanding of new technologies. Training must be available in multiple formats to promote the inclusion of citizens who are fluent in other languages or disabled.

5. LOCAL INFRASTRUCTURE IS NECESSARY FOR COMMUNITY-DRIVEN CONTENT DEVELOPMENT. Content must reflect the ideas, identities and innovation of community residents and their respective neighborhoods. Local infrastructure must be established to allow for community control over content. Civic, educational and government web sites must be available for free to residents at ALL times through a Civic Garden accessible on the wireless splash page.

6. HARDWARE TOOLS MUST BE AVAILABLE TO ALL. Computer hardware, whether new or refurbished, must be available to ALL Chicago residents free or at affordable cost, and non-predatory mechanisms must be put in place for the acquisition of this hardware for all consumers. Community based organizations, libraries and parks must be equipped and supported to provide free public use access.

7. ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE BEST PRACTICES AND INNOVATIONS IMPROVE THE HEALTH AND WELL-BEING OF ALL NEIGHBORHOODS. The tools of the information age must adhere to and support the highest levels of environmental and economic sustainability. The city should use the new network as a means to disseminate and capture information vital to improving the sustainability of our city, such as gathering air and water quality data and improving transportation choice. Economically and environmentally sustainable processes for disposal and recycling of outdated electronic materials should be supported by the City and technology vendors in all communities, particularly those low-income areas traditionally targeted for the potentially harmful disposal of used and toxic computer hardware. The City and technology vendors should support the creation of neighborhood-based recycling and refurbishing initiatives for environmental remediation and job creation.

8. OUR FREEDOM TO CONNECT DEMANDS NETWORK NEUTRALITY AND ACTIVE MONITORING FOR EQUITABLE SERVICE. Network Neutrality is grounded in Freedom of Speech. For all networks offering service in Chicago the precept of network neutrality must be honored and all features of the network (bandwidth, services and enhancements) must be deployed so as to achieve universal and equitable coverage. The community must have the ability to monitor and verify data on coverage and quality of service, there must be mechanisms for remediation, and the city must take an active role to ensure compliance by vendor and subsidiaries.

9. THE GLOBAL ECONOMY WORKS FOR EVERYONE: ASSURE WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT AND FIRST SOURCE HIRING. Workforce development opportunities that emerge from the wireless network should be made available to neighborhood residents (including the hard-to-employ, youth, and physically challenged) that are identified, trained and employed through first source hiring opportunities and subcontracting opportunities for neighborhood-based businesses.

10. IN STRONG NEIGHBORHOOD ECONOMIES, ENTREPRENEURS AND SMALL BUSINESSES THRIVE. The network must provide mechanisms to expand existing small businesses and cultivate new opportunities in Chicago’s under-served communities. Small businesses and residents must have the resources, training and support to use the access afforded by the network to grow revenue and potential, including training in business development and eCommerce.

The phrase emerged from an idea – to get beyond the sort of cryptic “digital divide” – in an age of PDAs, buy information pills netbooks and smartphones, page the notion that people couldn’t get connected if they wanted was attacked as outmoded – and “digital inclusion” – which was seen as another touchy-feeling condescending phrase cajoling those that had to give to those supposedly locked out.

“Digital excellence”, said Michael Maranda, the man who attached it to the CDAA’s 2007 Community Benefits Agreement, is a standard, a benchmark, representing where we want to go and how we, as citizens in a digital age, define how we use and master technology resources.

It was a standard, said Maranda, that we, as a community set, not one imposed on us. We want to be more than consumers of technology or users of technology, but masters of technology in creating a more open and inclusive society where digital technologies allowed us to connect and share when and where and how we want.

The idea caught on. Julia Stasch, VP of Community Development at MacArthur Foundation and Chair of the The Mayor’s Committee To Eliminate The Digital Divide, convened as part of the process to solicit builders for a citywide wi-fi network, embraced the phrase and the vision it represented. She asked the Chicago Digital Access Alliance to present its vision of digital excellence to the full committee, and on a cold first Monday in February (February 5) of 2007, we did just that, in a Powerpoint slide presentation called “Digital Excellence: The Vision”.

“Digital Excellence: The Vision” inspired and informed the groumdbreaking report, “The City That Networks:  Transforming Society And Economy Through Digital Excellence.”

At the official unveiling of that report, on June 15, 2007, in a speech given by Julia Stasch, Vice President of Community Development,  MacArthur Foundation, at the Community Media Workshop Media Summit,  Ms. Stasch acknowledged the long-standing history of neighborhood technology activism in Chicago and the conceptual framework – created by the community around digital excellence – that was the report’s platform.

“Digital excellence” became the conceptual benchmark adopted by foundations (the Knight and New America Foundation among others), cities pursuing digital inclusion strategies and most important, the Chicago neighborhood technology access community’s self-defining goal and standard.

Chicago’s city government launched what it called its “digital excellence initiative”, embraced and championed the “digital demonstration communities” framework, and presented them as the indicators of a consciousness about digital inclusion in Chicago that other cities could model.

The practitioners, meanwhile, continued to see “digital excellence” as an evolving measurement of a new, more open way of collaboration, information sharing and community development.

And so, three years later, the practice of open stewardship – of information, resources and initiatives – is gaining traction among those who have always practiced a collective not selective philosophy and those who see in the new paradigm an empowerment solution that may break the restrictive lines of suspicion, competition and mistrust that have plagued community efforts for years and decades.

“Digital excellence” – it began as a redefinition, evolved into a benchmark standard and now is the vanguard of an expansive movement. More than just a catchphrase.

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The CDAA: Right Here, All The Time.

Digital Excellence Conference And Technology Fair FlyerWe’re back (so some would say)! But the news is, pancreatitis we never went away, neuropathologist we’ve just been going about our business without a lot of fanfare. Well, I guess that’s all about to change!

The Chicago Digital Access Alliance has news about some exciting and forward-looking projects it is hatching in  the coming months.

10-29-10: The Conference!

First, the CDAA is presenting our upcoming 1st Chicago Neighborhood Digital Excellence Conference and Technology Fair, Friday, October 29, 2010, 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., at DePaul University Egan Center, 1 East Jackson Boulevard, Lower Level.

The Conference features a full day of informative workshops, round-table sessions, a news-making keynote luncheon and recognition ceremony, and a networking social hour with neighborhood technology-digital excellence movers and shakers. But if you want to be there, the time to register is NOW, as registrations will be capped at 200. Want to register now? You can register here.

THE CDAA – WORKING THROUGHOUT CHICAGO

The CDAA has been busy in Chicago – in Bronzeville, Woodlawn, Englewood, on the West Side, in Humboldt Park, on the  North Side, and more. We’ve been establishing CTCs, developing technology plans, and helping residents connect to resources and opportunities. Follow us here to stay tuned to all the latest!

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