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April 20 2011

How Cities Are Fighting to Close the Digital Divide

The Global Innovation Series is supported by BMW i, a new concept dedicated to providing mobility solutions for the urban environment. It delivers more than purpose-built electric vehicles — it delivers smart mobility services. Visit bmw-i.com or follow @bmwi on Twitter.

When it comes to the Internet, conversations about the “haves” and “have nots” are ongoing. Why is closing the digital divide so important? The access issues are often broken down into a handful of parts:

  • Equality: The Internet is considered as important — if not more important — as access to the telephone. With more and more career, business, civic and social welfare information uploaded to websites, online databases and even social networks, the very people who need this information may be the ones without access to it.
  • Education: With the vast research and information resources available on the Internet, the prevalent use of distance learning and the fundamental computer and Internet skills that are gained by having online access, those without are at a distinct disadvantage.
  • Democracy: As more of our political discourse takes place online — online voting already occurs in some areas — those without access are essentially silenced.
  • Economy: Access to information technologies and other consumers via Internet connections is critical to the growth of commerce and transactional exchanges. The digital divide creates a vicious cycle: Those without economic means cannot access the Internet to take part in — and benefit from — these economic activities.

The issues of the digital divide are complex and can be politically fraught, but there are grassroots projects around the globe that focus on addressing the tangible needs of underserved communities. A number of U.S. cities have deployed digital divide initiatives to address the issues of access to not just the Internet, but also to the rich and valuable data and dialogues that can be found online.

Chicago’s Digital Excellence Initiative

Since 2006, Chicago has addressed this issue starting with the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Closing the Digital Divide. The Digital Excellence Initiative (DEI) came out of the Council’s report, “The City That Networks: Transforming Society and Economy Through Digital Excellence.” According to statistics on the City of Chicago’s website, only thirty-nine percent of Chicagoans have broadband connections to the Internet. Those without it tend to be low-income families, minorities, people with disabilities and seniors, which represents a broad swath of the city’s population that is unable to gain access to crucial information and resources.

The Digital Excellence Initiative stakeholders include residents, businesses, community organizations and education institutions, which work together to provide programming and special projects to close the digital gap. One key project of the initiative was the creation and launch of neighborhood web portals accessible through public kiosks across each of the three communities –- Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn and Englewood. Local institutions can post their events on the portals, employers can post job openings and individuals can have dialogue and share media through comments. Since the portals launched in September 2010, one of the biggest challenges faced by the organizers was getting community members to engage with digital technology in the first place.

Measurements for the portal project include: the number of community members involved in the planning process, the number of new business web presences, the number of businesses mapped and listed on each neighborhood’s portal, attendance at training and workshops, the number of people accessing community and civic resources on the portal, and the number of employment and educational opportunities gained. (See the report on portal growth for each community).

In 2010, the City of Chicago received a $21.7 million grant in federal funds and matching grants to create a broadband infrastructure to increase access to technology starting in urban areas. At the time, Mayor Daley said broadband is as “important to cities in the 21st century as paving streets and building water systems and utility systems were in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

A $7 million grant under the Sustainable Broadband Adoption Program of The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration helped fund the city’s “Smart Communities” initiative. The Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC) was the lead agent for three neighborhoods — Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn and Englewood — that joined forces to apply for grant money alongside the low-income neighborhoods of Humboldt Park and Pilsen.

Defining “Smart Communities”

The World Foundation for Smart Communities, founded in 1997, defines “smart communities” as ones that “use information technology as a catalyst for transforming life and work to meet the challenge of the new millennium.” But merely putting a technology infrastructure into place doesn’t make a community smart. Communities must also provide tools, training and support to residents to foster use of the new technology.

For Chicago’s “Smart Communities” initiative, all five communities sought input from residents and small business owners at multiple town-hall-style meetings, and nearly a hundred community members took part in the Southwest Side planning sessions.

“Nothing came from the top. This was grassroots,” explains Ernest Sanders, new communities program manager and director of communications and outreach at GAGDC.

One grassroots project carried out in collaboration with one of the initiative partners — Southwest Smart Communities Partners — brought together 15 teenagers to participate in a six-week academic print and digital media curriculum. The teens interviewed small business owners, civic and community leaders, healthcare and housing professionals, elected officials and representatives from partnering community development agencies. The content was published in Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn and Englewood print and digital media publications and gave students recognition for their work that these communities could review.

“Sixty-two percent of our folks do not have access to the web primarily because they can’t afford it,” says Sanders. “We work with our residents to provide meaningful ways for them to access the information, whether it be through media or print.”

Sanders went on to say that these communities have not always been spotlighted in positive ways.

“It is always the negative stories,” says Sanders. “To have youth interview our residents, business owners and civic stakeholders gives them a sense of responsibility about their community, encourages good decision-making skills when interacting with others and sharpens their interpersonal skills. This is really an awesome opportunity for them to be publicly acknowledged for their good deeds.”

In March 2011, another partner neighborhood, Chicago Lawn, unveiled The Family Net Center, a computer lab offering free computer training, classes and Internet access to the community. The 14 computers are made available for a variety of activities, including job searches, homework research and social networking.

The Digital Divide Initiative Minneapolis

With a focus to put computers with appropriate software into people’s homes, Minneapolis’ Digital Divide Initiative (DDI) has a mission to provide technological skills and knowledge to participants to help them “succeed in an increasingly digital world.” The program came out of a 1997 IBM initiative called Teaming for Technology (T4T) and in partnership with the United Way of America to bring tech resources to 18 cities across the country. Seven of the cities continued their programs, including Rochester, MN leading to the formation of DDI.

The ultimate goal of the initiative is to foster technological literacy within underserved populations. Their programs include The Computer Exchange Program (CompEx) to distribute refurbished computers to individuals and families through the Computer Take Home Workshop. Once participants learn new computer and software skills, they can take a computer home with them to continue their tech education. They also support education through their DDI Educational Outreach Workshops with an emphasis on science and technology for kids including the TryScience, Digital Arts and Internet Safety Workshops and the KidSmart program for Pre-K to third grade.

DDI is an affiliate member of Computers for Youth (CFY) based in New York along with 37 other affiliate programs across the country to address middle-school-age youth. The DDI is now rolling out Parents and Children Together (PACT), a five-week program for middle school children and their parents to attend the sessions together and, at the end of the five weeks, bring home a laptop.

“I really see DDI as a way to help people catch up and participate in an educational and economic activity,” explains Ken Nelson, Director of DDI. “For different reasons, people have been left behind. I see technology as leveling the playing field to give people opportunity to bridge some of the gaps they’ve had in their own educational experiences.”

While the DDI currently covers the Twin Cities and Rochester, Nelson has set his sights on providing resources to communities across Minnesota.

Creating Technology for Communities

On April 15, the City of Oakland hosted FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski at a press conference to announce the launch of a new national contest, Apps for Communities, in partnership with the FCC and the Knight Foundation to help make government data more accessible to mobile phone users in the community to help mitigate the digital divide. Similar to contests run by other cities, the program offers a $100,000 prize and sets out to engage citizens who don’t have broadband access at home. The challenge submission period ends July 11, 2011.

It remains to be seen if a national initiative focused on mobile app innovation can bring access to data and discourse to members of underserved communities across the country. However, it may be telling that the initiative focuses on mobile access instead of broadband access. With the rapid adoption of mobile and mobile devices to access information, this may be a glimpse of a shift in the digital divide initiatives away from costly broadband infrastructures and more toward the use of portable and hand-held devices.

What Innovations Are Improving Your Community?

Do you know of a forward-thinking startup or technology that deserves to be a part of the Global Innovation Series? Let us know about it in the comments below.

Series Supported by BMW i

The Global Innovation Series is supported by BMW i, a new concept dedicated to providing mobility solutions for the urban environment. It delivers more than purpose-built electric vehicles; it delivers smart mobility services within and beyond the car. Visit bmw-i.com or follow @bmwi on Twitter.

Are you an innovative entrepreneur? Submit your pitch to BMW i Ventures, a mobility and tech venture capital company.

Images courtesy of Ernest Sanders

More About: digital divide, economics, Global Innovation Series, government, poverty, tech

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October 28 2010

Yahoo Launches Zombie Game Just in Time for Halloween

Yahoo’s latest endeavor is as seasonally appropriate as it is educational. The tech company has just rolled out a cool zombie-themed game that teaches the principles of economics.

Called Shambling Hordes, this social game was developed by Yahoo Labs (specifically, David Reiley, John Morgan and the research engineering team at Yahoo). The game was developed because, as Yahoo’s researchers noted, “Zombies are awesome,” but it’s also supposed to help players master the principles of game theory, advanced mathematics, classical economics and budget allocation.

Here’s how Shambling Hordes works: In the zombie apocalypse, each player is a warlord leading a “shambling horde” of zombies. The warlords attempt to capture one another’s headquarters. As they advance, they engage in battles, with each horde divided into three groups. Hence, a warlord can win a skirmish if his zombies win two out of three fights.

It’s simple enough to play, but it’s also the kind of game that could also challenge you to use some strategy. A round of Shambling Hordes takes about 15 minutes, depending on the map you choose and how many battles you enter.

Yahoo says the game play is “grounded in some classical economics and game theory that should be familiar to anyone who’s had a finite amount of anything (budget, advertising dollars, even candy) that they had to spread around in a competitive environment.”

If there’s anything we at Mashable love more than economics, it’s zombies. We are, moreover, quite fond of games, and we have to say that this game is fun, interesting enough for strategy-minded adults and perfectly fitting for the upcoming holiday.

Plus, there’s nothing like having your computer screen tell you, “Congratulations, you are the zombie master.”

Go give Shambling Hordes a try, and let us know what you think in the comments.

Image courtesy of Flickr, flexgraph.

More About: economics, educational, gaming, online game, web game, Yahoo, zombies

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September 02 2010

15 Essential Back to School Podcasts

Podcast Books

Alexander Hotz is a freelance multimedia journalist and public radio junkie based in New York City. Currently he teaches digital media at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Follow Alex on Twitter at @hotzington.

With another long hot American summer coming to a close, many students are scrambling to get back into “learning mode” before school starts. One of the simplest ways to ease that transition is with podcasts. Whether your passion is American History or Algebra, there’s probably an educational podcast out there for you.

While these programs probably won’t mirror your lesson plan, they will explore topics covered in class. Below is a sampling of some of the exceptional podcasts that both teach and entertain. Best of all – they’re free. Read on for your “2010 Downloading Curriculum.”


radiolab image

Radiolab investigates some of world’s most intriguing scientific questions in a unique conversational format. Recent episodes have examined the importance of words in human development and time. First time listeners will probably notice that the show also just sounds different.

Before becoming a radio producer, Jab Abumrad, one of Radiolab’s creators, was as an experimental musician. Abumrad’s passion for ProTools is apparent in the show’s textured soundscape, which is layered with a variety of sound effects and quick edits. Perhaps the show’s only downside is its frequency. There are only a handful of episodes every season because one Radiolab episode requires months to produce.

Outlet: WNYC, New York City’s Public Radio Station
Time: An Hour
Frequency: 5-6 every season

Additional Listening: The Naked Scientists Podcast


dan carlin image

In Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, Carlin, a veteran journalist turned podcaster, dissects the textbook version of events. In shows that often run over an hour, the host passionately retells some of history’s best stories.

Hardcore History has become one of the most downloaded podcasts on iTunes, and Carlin’s widespread appeal can also be attributed to his insight. One podcast asked, “Could widespread child abuse in earlier eras explain some of history’s brutality?” Another show was based off the question, “Does the toughness of peoples play any role in history?” Don’t let the name fool you; all material is appropriate for younger listeners.

Outlet: Dan Carlin
Time: 1 – 1 1/2 hours
Frequency: 5-6 every year

Additional Listening: Stuff You Missed in History Class


planet money image

Planet Money is NPR’s podcast on global economics and business. Initially created by veteran public radio reporters Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson to explain the recent financial crisis, the show quickly became one of the most popular and praised podcasts available.

Planet Money’s success lies in how it tackles complex subjects with great storytelling. A financial instrument like a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) may sound impossibly boring, but Planet Money routinely makes these types of things the heart of a thrilling narrative. The team continues to explore the financial collapse, but they’ve expanded their scope to include all aspects of the global economy.

Outlet: NPR
Time: 15-30 minutes
Frequency: Twice a week

Additional Listening: Freakanomics Radio

Disclosure: The author interned at NPR.


cliff notes image

For those of us who couldn’t make it through Wuthering Heights, Cliff Notes Cramcast would have been a lifesaver. This free podcast reviews some of the stuff you need to know for the big test and does it in three to four minutes. Of course, these podcasts can’t cover every detail. To do that, you would — you know — need to read the book.

Outlet: Cliff Notes
Time: 15-30 minutes
Frequency: Twice a week

Additional Listening: Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips

Foreign Language

radio lingua image

The Internet is full of podcasts that cater to students learning foreign languages. For those interested in the major European languages, Radio Lingua is a good bet. Another reliable hub is Open University, which in addition to the European languages also has a set of Mandarin podcasts. These outlets are mainly for beginners or students who need a quick review. Both are rated highly on iTunes by users.

Outlets: Radio Lingua and Open University
Time: 15-30 minutes
Frequency: Lesson plan

Additional Listening: Other reliable podcasts include Discover Spanish and Learn French.


math dude image

For those of us who struggle to calculate a 15% tip, The Math Dude’s podcast is a must-listen. Every week, affable nerd Jason Marshall explains basic concepts like how to calculate the area of an object or how to add faster. When Marshall isn’t podcasting, he researches “infrared light emitted by starburst galaxies and quasars” at Caltech, which just means his left-brain knows what’s up.

Outlet: Quick and Dirty Tips
Time: About 7 minutes
Frequency: Weekly

Additional Listening: Mathgrad.

Current Events

the bugle image

Every Sunday, comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver recap the week’s events in The Bugle, a satirical podcast that is easily one of the funniest listens on the Internet. Think an audio version of The Daily Show, where Oliver is also a regular. The Bugle’s focus tends to be on the biggest international news, but the duo’s separate locations – Zaltzman in London and Oliver in New York City – ensure a focus on the English-speaking world’s antics. Although the pair has a leftward slant, there are no sacred cows. The Bugle even takes aim at itself in its tagline: “An audio newspaper for a visual world.”

Outlet: The Times (UK)
Time: 30 minutes
Frequency: Weekly

Additional Listening: NPR News, BBC World Service

More Educational Resources from Mashable:

- 10 iPhone Apps to Get You Back to School
- Why Online Education Needs to Get Social
- 5 Innovative Tech Camps for Kids and Teens
- 5 Organizations Helping Women Get Ahead in Tech
- 5 Fun Ways to Help Your Kids Learn Math Online

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, mattjeacock

Reviews: Internet, iStockphoto, iTunes

More About: back to school, cliff notes cramcast, current events, dan carlin, economics, education, english, foreign language, history, itunes, math, planet money, podcast, podcasts, radio lingua, radiolab, Science, the bugle, the math dude

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