Hey, Facebook! Connecting The World To The Web Isn't Enough
Facebook’s new Internet.org initiative is the latest in a series of ambitious tech-company plans to solve a global problem: the lack of Internet connectivity across the developing world, and even poorer areas of industrialized nations. Too bad it's so short on the issue of how to get there from here.
The initiative began with founding members Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung, eventually government and industry leaders will also be involved.
But Facebook might be able to take some pointers from an unlikely source: The city of Chicago.
First, some background. Last week, Facebook teamed up with six telecom companies to launch Internet.org, a project that vaguely promises to make the Internet available to everyone on Earth, specifically focusing on underdeveloped countries. Facebook's interest isn't entirely altruistic; like most all the companies working on similar projects, including Google, it has a business incentive. The social network has begun expanding in the developing world with its Facebook for Every Phone program, which now boasts 100 million users every month.
It’s not just the emerging countries that remain largely disconnected. About 20 percent of U.S. adults don’t use the Internet at home, work, school or by mobile device. The Obama administration is making a push to expand online access to citizens, and there are many efforts in marginalized communities to make that happen.
Extending Internet access to the world's underserved communities is a noble cause, but it won't do much good unless people also have the resources to use it to improve their education, economic development and elevate their communities out of poverty. And so far, Internet.org hasn't had much to say on that score.
The City of Chicago may have an answer. One program, called Smart Communities, offers a blueprint that could help bring impoverished nations into the 21st century.
Chicago’s Smart Communities
To tackle the digital divide, Chicago has changed the digital landscape of lower-income communities—bolstered by $6.8 million in federal stimulus funds in 2010.
The Smart Communities project, a program supported by the City of Chicago and a variety of community-driven organizations, set out to increase Internet connectivity in five moderate to low-income neighborhoods by educating residents on the importance and value of technology and providing the tools they need to access it.
After two years, the success was substantial. Over 30,000 households have adopted broadband through this program and over 14,000 people have gone through technology training. People in Smart Communities are 15 percent more likely to be online compared to those in similar neighborhoods.
What numbers don’t tell us is that many people who have gone through the program have gained increases in pay, received new jobs, and connected with their family members across the world. Smart Communities has also sparked new computer-related education and training efforts.
One such story is Englewood Codes, a 10-week summer program that teaches teens how to build a computer with the Raspberry Pi and then design multimedia websites. Its Kickstarter campaign raised almost double the initial ask of $5,500.