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Pittsburgh CONNECTS Charts a Better Digital Future with Public Computer Centers

Published:  March 8, 2012

As part of an ongoing effort to understand the broader impact of Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grants, this week the Open Technology Initiative takes a look at a collaborative community-driven project in Pittsburgh that bundles civic engagement and services with broadband adoption work.

Funded by a BTOP grant, the Pittsburgh CONNECTS project is a partnership between the Neighborhood Learning Alliance (NLA), the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, Centre Avenue YMCA, Homewood-Brushton YMCA, and the Hill House Association to open Public Computer Centers (PCCs). NLA, the prime partner, has worked with underserved communities in Pittsburgh for over ten years and uses technology to provide services and support for other community-based organizations.

“The PCCs are becoming a focal point for a lot of activity, and we are encouraging them to work with local neighborhood organizations,”says Jim Lenkner, project coordinator for Pittsburgh CONNECTS. Along with community engagement, these PCCs focus on education, employment, and community health education. The four PCCs offer a variety of programs and services in their respective communities, including basic computer classes, blogging, Internet access, employment support, community wireless technology installations, financial literacy programs, and health education video conferences. “We want to extend health education into the community using these BTOP centers as a point of contact for the community to reach experts, ” Lenkner explains.

Impacting the Community

All of Pittsburgh CONNECTS’ PCCs operate in underserved neighborhoods where residents suffer high unemployment rates, and enjoy few social services aside from libraries. The PCC staff - mostly residents of these communities - want the PCCs to serve as safe, educational, and recreational places for community members to convene.

A women’s shelter is located behind one of the PCCs. Women who live there have to leave the shelter from 8am to 2pm every day. They often end up at the PCC, which provides a safe neighborhood gathering place for them, where they are welcome to use the facility, relax, talk to people, and learn. In this way, these PCCs have become hubs for building intimate relationships between community members and staff.

Another of the PCCs, the Hilltop YMCA, primarily serves youth under the age of 26 who regularly come after school to access the Internet. Staff sit with the youth as they surf the web in order to understand their interests, guide them, and help channel their creative energy into productive online activities. While the youth gain a lot from these interactions, their development as digital users and creators is also facilitated by the open environment that the center creates for them.

Nicholas Jaramillo of the Hilltop YMCA explained that while these PCCs engage individual community members, they also work with local community-based organizations to extend their services. For example, one social services organization uses the Hilltop PCC space to conduct workshops that teach residents how to use the Internet to apply for online civic services. By doing so, this organization is able to provide more varied services to more clients than it had been able to reach previously.

Making the Community Impact Sustainable

One year into the program, staff are prioritizing program and site sustainability. Marselle McNeezer of the Homewood-Brushton PCC raises money in small batches towards this purpose. Staff at this PCC show movies and football games, order pizza and other food for clients, and hold community gatherings. Lenkner is working with local foundations to explore opportunities to sustain the program after the BTOP grant ends in 2013.

McNeezer explains the need for these programs. “When computers first came out, only the affluent had them. Now, from ordering a plane ticket, making a phone call over a computer, shopping for clothes, looking for information about medicine, to typing a paper, taking a class, and being able to upload information, it’s all done at the touch of a finger. If you don’t have access to this technology, you are left behind.”

Pittsburgh CONNECTS PCCs offer a free, safe, and educational community space for residents. Its programs provide digital training for those who need it most in order to meet the demands of the 21st century -- but in doing so, the project demonstrates that broadband adoption programs can serve as a nexus to serve multiple community needs.

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