Bringing the Information Revolution to Inner Cities
Metropolitan Area Advisory
Committee San Diego, California
University of Illinois
Chicago, Illinois

It will take a lot more than a substantial investment in infrastructure to make sure the information revolution reaches inner cities. A sustained commitment to training people how to use technology also will be required.

That is one of the lessons that have emerged from two ambitious TIIAP projects designed to connect disadvantaged urban neighborhoods to the Internet. Though their projects are quite different from each other, their sponsors have come to similar conclusions on such issues as the continuing need for training.

Inner-City Net, a 1995 TIIAP project, was launched by the Metropolitan Area Advisory Committee in San Diego, to install computers, provide Internet access, and offer training for both professional staff and clients at five social service agencies serving low-income neighborhoods with large populations of Latinos and other minority groups. The other TIIAP project, the Neighborhoods and Non-Profits Network, was established by the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Information Technology Resource Center, and the Donors Forum of Chicago to provide modems, basic communications software, Internet access, and training for some 50 organizations in the low-income and moderate income Pilsen and Near West Side neighborhoods of Chicago.

Inner City Access to Jobs, Family and Medical Care

Both projects found considerable interest in the new technology among people who work and live in disadvantaged neighborhoods. In San Diego, many members of the public use the Internet for information about jobs, while staff of social service agencies find it most useful to learn about grant programs and other funding possibilities, says Susan Myrland, Inner-City Net's project manager.

In Chicago, where the University of Illinois project involved a more diverse group of organizations, uses have been more varied. One community museum is working to put its entire collection online. Other groups, including family-care and medical centers, use it for access to the latest research on professional issues. A center for the disabled uses it mainly as a source of entertainment in effect, therapy for clients. Others use it to collect information about the community; among other things, they have been able to consult professors at the university and tap into an extensive database maintained at the university's Center for Urban Economic Development.

"The whole phenomenon has been varied and very personal," says Albert Schorsch, Assistant Dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the university.

Myrland and Schorsch agree that training is crucial to the success of a community networking project. "I was surprised how much training was needed," says Myrland. Many existing training materials assume a level of familiarity with computers that many people in low-income communities lack, she adds. "They'd tell you how to do html, when we had people who didn't know what a mouse is," she says. As a result, MAAC found itself developing a lot of training materials on its own.

Inner-City Net faced a particular challenge in dealing with a large non-English speaking population. Often, it was not clear how best to translate computer terms such as "mouse," "bookmark," or "windows," notes Myrland. To prevent mistakes or poor translations, MAAC ran all its translations for online tutorials past instructors at a nearby community college as well as several other people before settling on the exact wording of its Spanish training materials.

Myrland hopes that MAAC will be able to share much of its training material with other groups. But she and Schorsch agree that training must continue indefinitely even in projects that have been running for years. "You have to prepare for decay in personnel and machines," says Schorsch. Rapid turnover at participating agencies requires that new staff be trained continuously. Frequent changes in technology require new training in software and hardware. And as organizations become more technologically sophisticated, their own demands for machines and training mount as well.

All this demonstrates that organizations must be willing to sustain their commitment to a technology program over a long period of time. That, in turn, requires that support for computer networking efforts reach the top of community organizations. "The boss has to be willing to learn about the Internet and to commit some staff to be responsible to do the training and maintain the system," argues Schorsch. "If you don't have continuing organizational and mechanical infrastructure, it's not going to work."

Training Strategies that Work for Underserved Populations

Projects like Inner-City Net have learned a lot about what works, and what does not work, when it comes to specific training strategies. For instance, it was envisioned originally to hold large, one-shot, group sessions that would cover many topics, but it became apparent that this approach is ineffective. "You could see people start forgetting things as soon as they walked out the door," Myrland notes. Multiple, short sessions that give people opportunities to learn from practice work much better, she says.

The exact placement of computer terminals within agencies also has proven to be vitally important. MAAC learned that staff at the agencies generally did not use the system unless they had computers at their desks. Easy access also is important for clients. One San Diego agency, the Urban League, reported heavy use at a public access terminal that it placed right inside its front door.

Agencies where coordinators or trainers are readily available to clients fare much better than those where clients cannot get help as easily. And picking the right people to serve as trainers has proven to be essential. Often, according to Myrland, agencies name a high-ranking staffer who subsequently is too busy to help clients. A far better approach is to assign somebody who can be readily available, such as a receptionist who may sit near a public access terminal, she says.

Similarly, some agencies mistakenly designate whatever staff person is most proficient with technology. "Technology geeks may not be the best people to work with new users because they assume everybody knows what they know," Myrland reports. Much more important than technical skills, she says, is enthusiasm. "If someone likes working with other people, we can train them in the technical stuff," she notes. "But if they don't like working with people, or don't think it's their job, all the technical training in the world won't help."

Incentives for Cooperation in the Community

For all the work that is required, Schorsch and Myrland are both convinced that the effort is worthwhile. Schorsch, for instance, cites growing cooperation among the various agencies that have worked together on the networking project. He reports, for instance, that negotiations are underway with a number of UIC-NNNet organizations to formalize existing partnerships with high schools to develop "community information development centers" at the schools. The centers will put out essential neighborhood information, such as demographic statistics and reports on community meetings, over the Internet. In addition to helping the neighborhoods, the project will teach students skills they can use to find jobs in new scanning, editing, and web design businesses the sponsors also hope to create.

"If we hadn't done all the work we did all the networking, getting to know people and coming to know how hard it is to introduce technology we couldn't be doing what we're doing now," says Schorsch. "There is a growing network of cooperation among dozens of organizations and the university community that is addressing some of our enduring problems."

Susan Myrland
Project Manager

(619) 595-7070

Albert Schorsch
University of Illinois

(312) 996-2177

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Source: U.S. Department of Commerce
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Office of Telecommunications and Information Applications
Last Modified: 18 Dec 97