Sista Hoods Spell Cyber Salvation

digidivBoston’s plan to blanket the city with wireless Internet connections is set to pick up speed this month as companies jockey to play a role and a pilot WiFi project gets underway in a square-mile area of the Grove Hall neighborhood.

But the ambitious plan to create an “open access” wireless Internet environment citywide has hit some speed bumps, including the absence of major donors, delays in launching the pilot project, and blogger protests about Web filtering at WiFi hot spots.

Reeve would not say how much has been raised already, but she conceded that Boston has yet to line up the “key bucks” funders, such as companies, universities, or hospitals, it is hoping for.

The city has signed up about 20 families to give feedback about their ability to access city services, such as paying parking tickets or applying for food stamps, online . Some area residents have been loaned computers through a “taking technology home” program so they can take part in the program. “We do have a strong desire to address the issue of the digital divide,” Reeve said.

from the Boston Globe

The Free Wi-Fi contingent in Beantown is to be congratulated for their vision and humanitarian spirit. The Grove Hall area, where they are running their pilot project, is one of the most benighted of Boston, featuring endemic poverty, high unemployment and widespread gang activity. Just the sort of place that could really use a boost in legitimate economic activity and educational opportunity.

But is it any surprise business and academic sponsors are not lining up to throw money into this pot?

What we have here is a sort of “anti-redlining”, just as destructive, in its way, since it dooms to failure a project with the potential to improve millions of lives on both sides of the “digital divide.”

What is missing from this “Worst First” approach to technological bootstapping is that it fails to provide a Fair and Balanced access to the new technology.

In this kind of development, the haves and the have-nots need to be brought along together, hand in hand. Instead of launching in Grove Hall alone, they should have started in two spots, one from each side of the divide. Say, Grove Hall and the MIT/Kendall Sq. area. Then, maybe Chelsea (largely Latino) and Wellesley (Hillaryville). Then Mattapan and Harvard Square. You get the idea.

Furthermore, if this is a public system it would be in the public interest to encourage partnerships between the neighborhoods matched up from opposite sides of the digital divide. Make bandwidth and access speed in the high-tech areas dependent on the penetration and usage in their cyber “Sister Cities” or perhaps “Sista’ ‘Hoods”. Partnerships could expand to include workshops, joint projects, job training, and cyber-swaps of all sorts.

This way the business pull and corporate clout in the high-tech neighborhoods could find the funding the pro bono approach is missing, and at the same time pull their pre-cyber partners into the 21st century.

Two by two, like animals entering the Ark, the neighborhoods of this multi-faceted city could march into the digital age together.

About dowbrigade

Semi-retired academic from Harvard, Boston University, Fulbright Commission, Universidad Laica Eloy Alfaro de Manta, currently columnist for El Diario de Portoviejo and La Marea de Manta.
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