"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."
The message is timeless. But the medium is quite different in the modern era.
Smart Communities program hosted over 1,000 trainings to educate both adults and youth how to use computers and mobile devices, including setting up profiles on social media, Microsoft Office training and how to find access to city resources. Classes in Spanish proved to be a tremendous asset to the program, as two of the communities were predominately Hispanic.
The program distributed laptops and software to 1280 residents who had gone through technology trainings and supplied 100 businesses with desktop computers. In addition to providing hardware, the city partnered with companies including HP and Sprint to set up large Internet kiosks in public locations throughout the communities and provide WiFi cards to give individuals access at home.
Any benevolent organization can give people a computer or smartphone and say that they have done their duty to expanding knowledge across the world. It is quite another thing to teach them to use those tools to help improve their lives.
Understand Why People Need Technology
In today’s hyper-connected American society, it’s hard to fathom why anyone would want to be disconnected. But there are still many Americans that don’t use the Internet. For the city of Chicago, Rodriguez said it was essential to the program's success to have data on why people don't use the Internet.
Are people concerned about the cost? Are they frustrated by lack of knowledge and skills? What if they just don't fundamentally understand why this Internet thing is in the first place? By understanding the reasons why people don't use the Internet, workshops can be tailored to address what the community needs the most.
Although residents had the ability to connect with broadband access, many of them chose not to use it. For Chicago's neighborhoods, cost was the largest factor deterring Internet use, surprisingly followed by a lack of interest with almost 40 percent of respondents showing no desire to be connected.
Internet.org wants to bring Internet to people like Jennifer in Ghana, a lofty goal considering the immense poverty plaguing many global communities. Photo credit: Selena Larson
Looking To The Future
Educating a disconnected community isn’t cheap. While bold in their goals, the Smart Communities program might have to restructure their ambitions when the initial funding runs out on September 30. Between hardware, staff and curriculum, the costs can add up quickly.
The challenge in most altruistic endeavors is that while hearts are in the right place, checkbooks are not. Facebook and its partners have yet to disclose how exactly Internet.org will be funded, but if it took Chicago almost $7 million to come this far, the early cost projections for connecting the world must be substantial.
The creators of Chicago’s Smart Communities did so with the purpose of elevating the community. The economic benefit to the city might have marginally increased, but it was the altruistic nature of the program that really drove success.
This is where Internet.org partners might find a hiccup. Although Mark Zuckerberg claims the intentions are charitable, it would be remiss to overlook the potential revenue an additional 5 billion connected people would bring. If the project survives, it will be on the shoulders of the companies' good intentions. Otherwise, when the project hits a significant financial snag, they might turn and run.
Of course these two initiatives are fundamentally different. Families living in Chicago’s underserved communities still live in a nation that is well connected and provides tremendous opportunities to rise out of poverty, while many of the people Internet.org will be serving face much larger struggles. However, if we look exclusively at the technology and structure behind the initiatives that focus on closing the digital gap, a fully connected world seems possible.