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Measuring an Era

Demond Drummer wasn’t at all shocked to get such a heartfelt endorsement of the impact of what he teaches as the tech organizer at Teamwork Englewood. But how it was delivered was a bit of a surprise.

One afternoon, while walking down the street in Englewood, one of his former students from a computer class came up and hugged him. “He said that using the CTA bus tracker application on the computer means that now he knows when the next bus is coming, so his kids can stay in the house longer. They’re inside, safe and warm. He’s an ex-offender, he’s at culinary school right now, and he says he just appreciates that extra time with his kids,” Drummer says.

Taking stock of the pilot phase of the Smart Communities program, which drew to a close at the end of 2012, it’s easy to see that the numbers are impressive. But the stories behind those numbers—and the underlying impact of the program—may be even more remarkable.

Participants in tech trainings in Englewood recieve their new netbook computers.

More than 3,000 participants engaged in more than 9,000 technology training courses during the two years that the Smart Communities program was supported by a federal Broadband Technology and Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant. In the five Smart Communities—Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Pilsen—1,280 residents in the earned a free netbook computer for taking three of the computer classes.

A third of the 300 neighborhood small businesses that worked with the Business Resource Networks earned a desktop computer to help support their firm. All of the 120 youth who enrolled in the Digital Youth Summer Jobs program received a MacBook at the end of their eight-week internship, and another 300 students participated in the afterschool Digital Youth Network to build their multimedia skills. More than a quarter million individuals visited the five community portals.

The Smart Communities pilot program was created to help increase digital access and use in moderate- and low-income Chicago neighborhoods, to build a culture of digital excellence that supports neighborhood goals such as economic development, education, and civic engagement. And for that mission, the BTOP-funded program has been a model.

“It’s been pretty phenomenal how successful Smart Communities has been. It’s changed people’s lives and moved the mindset about what digital technology can mean for families, businesses and community leaders in these neighborhoods,” says Susana Vasquez, the executive director of LISC Chicago.

"Thanks to the work of LISC, all of the community partners, and the City's ARRA grant, these five communities are more connected—both digitally and economically—and therefore stronger and better informed," says John Tolva, the City of Chicago's chief technology officer. “This program truly helped to close Chicago's digital divide.”

Built to Have an Impact

Smart Communities began when LISC Chicago was asked by the City of Chicago to help think through how to bring ideas and ideals in a report by the City’s Chicago Digital Excellence Initiative, “The City that Networks,” to life in low- and moderate-income communities. Vasquez, then the head of LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program, used the NCP network to engage with residents and institutions in the five communities to determine local needs and goals. The resulting Smart Community plans were the blueprint for the BTOP grant request.

Celebrating the first year of partnerships as Smart Communities, at at event in Humboldt Park.

The overarching goal of the BTOP grant, augmented by support from the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago, the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, was to learn more about how to close the gap in broadband usage between more affluent sections of Chicago and more disadvantaged neighborhoods. Here too, the Smart Communities program has scored well, although the results are more ambiguous in some ways than the summation of the program participants.

Karen Mossberger, a researcher at the University of Illinois-Chicago, recently released a study that showed that from 2008 to 2011, the five Smart Communities saw a 15 percent higher increase in broadband usage than other Chicago neighborhoods. Her team controlled the results for demographic such as gentrification and types of community, and she says the results are surprising.

“We thought it was impressive,” Mossberger says. “It was such a large change over these community areas. I know of no other way to explain it other than the impact of the Smart Communities program. Something like this doesn’t happen by chance.”

Mossberger’s report also indicated, however, that the percentage of homes that added broadband in the Smart Communities was roughly equivalent to other Chicago neighborhoods. She postulates that it could be due to the expense of adding broadband—cost was a big factor in why households didn’t have broadband in her baseline study before the BTOP program began. Another factor might be that the rise of wifi hotspots over the last few years (libraries, restaurants, friends’ houses, etc.) leaves local residents with less pressure to get broadband in the home. 

Changing Mindsets

As Vasquez points out, when the New Communities Program neighborhoods started quality-of-life planning in 2003, the technology landscape was vastly different. There was next to no social media and few smart phones. Only half of the NCP lead agencies even had a website. Residents and community groups in low-income neighborhoods were unlikely to imagine that technology needed to be a part of their vision for the community's future. That is no longer the case—but how to join the digital revolution isn’t always clear.

Small business owners in Pilsen learned about technology, marketing and business plans in a series of classes.

At the community agencies that worked on Smart Communities, there’s no doubt that the programs had a direct impact on participants.

“Pilsen really took advantage of this. Residents aren’t just using the computers, they’re using them to communicate with their neighbors, help their kids with their homework, learn how to use the City of Chicago website,” says Elizabeth Rosas-Landa, Pilsen’s Smart Communities program manager at The Resurrection Project. “They’re learning how to save money and time, just like all of us with computers, to make their lives easier.”

It isn’t just residents who’re seeing things differently when it comes to technology in the community. The lead agencies are changing as well. “I think the organizations really saw the value of the work. As we move forward, I see it becoming part of their mission to ensure residents and small businesses become digitally connected,” says Dionne Baux, the Smart Communities program officer at LISC Chicago.

“From the vantage of SWOP [the Southwest Organizing Project], we learned that technology is a really wonderful way to engage parents in local schools,” says Jeff Bartow, SWOP’s executive director. “It’s beginning to really spark our imagination of how to incorporate it with our local leaders—how should we see technology beyond the question of do we have enough computers in the community?”

Local kids get a taste of what's available at the FamilyNet Center in Humboldt Park during a roll-out event.

Leveraging a change in mindset about technology at a community level is an ambitious goal. After all, tens of thousands of people live in each of the Smart Communities, and the programs themselves, for all their reach, can only directly serve a fraction of the local population. From the start, the idea was that a core of residents who were experienced and excited about what technology can bring could be a catalyst to talk with and show their neighbors what’s possible.

Mossberger points out that the sheer number of people who’ve started using broadband in the Smart Communities can be seen as an indirect indication of how the program has had an impact beyond those who have taken classes or used the FamilyNet Centers. “The tech organizers may have played a role in spreading the culture of digital engagement,” she says. “The portals may play a role in reaching out to people. These things are unique in BTOP programs.”

The BTOP Legacy

Although the BTOP-funded pilot program is now over, the Smart Communities work is not done. LISC will continue to support the FamilyNet Centers, portals and tech trainings through investments by the MacArthur Foundation, the McCormick Foundation and LISC. And LISC’s economic development work now includes a recognition that today’s economy is digital and regional and that broadband adoption is part of a strong neighborhood.

For example, the staff at some FamilyNet Centers, which are embedded in the Centers for Working Family offices, have worked closely with the team at their local CWF. LISC’s analysis shows that clients who participated in both the Everyday Digital tech courses and received employment services through the CWF had a job placement rate that was just about 50 percent higher than for those who took the employment services alone. And so LISC will work to incorporate those connections at all the CWF sites across the city.

A meeting in Chicago with Smart Community partners and U.S. Department of Commerce officials.

Others certainly agree. The U.S. Department of Commerce is evaluating the BTOP pilot to determine if the results of its various programs have had a positive effect on local small businesses. The department’s Federal Telecommunications and Information Administration has already cited the program as a best practice.

One of the biggest forums to discuss and plan for Chicago’s future—World Business Chicago’s Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs—has included broadband adoption as one of its 10 strategies, and Vasquez is on the committee that is exploring how to best make that happen.

In the neighborhoods, the seeds planted by BTOP are growing as well. The Business Resource Network operated by the West Humboldt Park Development Corp. has received a grant from Google for ongoing workshops for local firms, for example. In February, more than a dozen small business owners came out to learn about how to get the most from LinkedIn.

In Englewood, Teamwork is focusing on “hard skills” for residents to get certificates and find jobs. It’s working with Lumity and Microsoft on the MSIT Academy for MS Office certified technicians.

And in Chicago Lawn, when SWOP recently received a MacArthur Award for Creative & Effective Institutions, the organization noted that it will be using some of the funds to build its technology capabilities.

“Bringing the lens of technology to comprehensive community development is changing how we work,” Vasquez says. “Broadband adoption is an economic development issue and a neighborhood issue and all the partners involved in Smart Communities have proven that we can address these issues in ways that are effective.”

Posted in Smart Communities News

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