Testimony on new $15 million state Digital Divide program - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Testimony on new $15 million state Digital Divide program

In a testimony to the House Computer Technology Committee, MPC and CTCNet Chicago offer recommendations on priorities for the Eliminate the Digital Divide program, a $15 million fund for Digital Divide efforts, resulting from last year's telecommunications rewrite bill.

TESTIMONY TO THE ILLINOIS HOUSE COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY  COMMITTEE REGARDING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE ELIMINATION FUND

Submitted by CTCNet Chicago and Metropolitan Planning Council

Good morning.  My name is Bindu Batchu, Technology Associate at the Metropolitan Planning Council.  As part of my efforts at the Metropolitan Planning Council, I focus on community technology policy issues for Community Technology Centers Network Chicago (CTCNet Chicago), a group of organizations providing (or supporting agencies that provide) an important range of services for their communities using and integrating technology.   

I want to thank you for the opportunity to make some brief remarks today regarding the Eliminate the Digital Divide program resulting from the telecommunications rewrite bill passed in 2001.  Over the past several years, community technology centers and many community-based organizations have been using technology tools creatively and effectively to provide important adult education, workforce training, small business development, and youth services to low-income communities.  With the downturn in the economy and a rise in unemployment, the community technology services provided by these groups are more important than ever.  As the Illinois state budget shrinks and federal programs for community technology are being cut, it is imperative that Illinois consider how it can most effectively use the Eliminate the Digital Divide funds to positively impact its low-income communities. 

The Eliminate the Digital Divide fund should encourage Illinois' community organizations to fully integrate technology into program and service delivery in order to improve the lives of low-income Illinois residents. This should be accomplished by funding projects, existing or new, that demonstrate innovative and effective uses of information technology tools to address the needs in underserved communities. 

One key priority for these funds should be on content integration.  Currently, most efforts to close the digital divide have focused on providing low-income communities basic access to computers and the Internet.  Though technology literacy is an important goal, the greater challenge and opportunity is to effectively apply technology in order to improve social, educational, and economic opportunities in Illinois communities.  Whether in providing adults GED preparation instruction or youth after-school educational enrichment programs, technology tools must be maximized and adequately integrated into program curricula to raise the standard of living for low-income residents of Illinois.  We recommend that the Eliminate the Digital Divide fund focus first and foremost on supporting the effective integration of technology into programs by funding the development and/or application of culturally, linguistically, and subject specific technology-based content and curricula that raises opportunities for low-income Illinois residents.  The Eliminate the Digital Divide program should also encourage and fund innovative programs in this area.

Computers and the Internet alone cannot address social and economic community needs without effective, trained and motivated personnel to apply technology to the local context.  Thus, staff development must also be a key priority for the Eliminate the Digital Divide program.  National recommendations suggest successful technology-based community and educational programs allocate approximately 30 percent of project budgets for staff training and professional development.  In a CTCNet Chicago survey, local community technology centers named trained staff second among their future resource needs.  However, many existing funding sources for community technology efforts disallow the use of funds to hire staff or provide professional development training.  We strongly encourage that program and technical support staff salaries and professional training for this staff, outlined under a clear staff development plan, should be eligible expenses under the Eliminate the Digital Divide program.

Up until now, computer and Internet access have been the primary objectives of many digital divide initiatives.  However, specific technologies beyond these basics, such as video streaming through high-speed Internet connections or the use of PDAs or peripheral devices, can dramatically impact the quality of programs and the nature of services delivered, allowing better integration of technology to improve social, educational, and economic opportunities in Illinois communities.  We recommend that the Eliminate the Digital Divide program focus on and fund innovative and cost-effective applications of technology hardware and infrastructure that improve program services and outcomes versus simply funding the basic and traditional set-up of multiple computers in a lab setting. 

Apart from these important priorities, we recommend that the Eliminate the Digital Divide program also set important criteria to qualify for these funds.  All successful efforts are driven by real community needs.  However, in providing technology-based services to communities, the "build it and they will come" philosophy has often been applied, resulting in many underutilized computer labs. We strongly encourage that Eliminate the Digital Divide program require that applicants providing new programs must offer clear and specific evidence of a community needs assessment that validates the need for technology-based programs  and/or a technology center. Existing centers must offer clear evidence of continued dialogue with community participants regarding the quality and mix of services that they offer.

Apart from capital costs such as hardware and wiring, technology-based programs have unique, often challenging, ongoing operational costs such as technical support staff, hardware upgrades, software purchases and professional development training for staff.  Sustaining a technology-based program over the long-term requires planned funding of these often overlooked operational costs.   We recommend that Eliminate the Digital Divide program applicants should present a regularly updated strategic plan and business plan.  The business plan should outline clear strategies for and evidence of sustained funding of the program.  

Tracking and evaluation of program outcomes in community technology programs has often been limited to issues of computer and Internet access, such as measuring the number of participants using computer labs or the number of computers available.   Outcomes measurement must now focus on the tangible results of applying technology in Illinois communities, identifying and assessing social, educational, and economic improvements.   We strongly encourage the state to require Eliminate the Digital Divide program applicants to clearly outline metrics and strategies for tracking these metrics, providing both quantitative and qualitative data on social, educational, and/or economic outcomes of funded programs.  Applicants should be encouraged to secure outside evaluation of the program. 

Lastly, collaborations and partnerships are often strategic means to add value to programs by leveraging the unique strengths of various entities. We suggest that the Eliminate the Digital Divide program encourage proposals that outline strategic and effective uses of partnerships to improve program delivery.  Special consideration should be given to partnerships that provide or receive technical assistance through a formal mentor relationship with other organizations with a proven track record in providing technology-based services in their communities.

We believe that with the incorporation of these priorities and criteria for funding into the Eliminate the Digital Divide program,  Illinois' low-income communities will reap the maximum benefit from these funds.  Thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to address the House Computer Technology Committee today.  CTCNet Chicago and the Metropolitan Planning Council look forward to working with you and the advisory committee for the Eliminate the Digital Divide program, and is glad to serve as a resource to both whenever possible.

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