I’m in the US this week, mainly to speak at the SHLB (Schools, Health, Libraries, Broadband) conference – but of course also to meet people and hear about their digital inclusion experiences across the pond. It’s strange being so far from home and for lots to be so different, but for so much to be familiar too.
One thing I was really looking forward to was the trip I made yesterday to Philadelphia. In the US there was a big federal funded programme called BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunities Programme) and the City of Philadelphia and partners received a three year grant to establish 80 Public Computer Centres, to train people to use the internet and to encourage Broadband Adoption. Obviously this echoes the UK online centres network, and I was curious to see the results of this model in America.
The programme was in fact a great success and completed in June 2013. The City of Philadelphia is now supporting 44 of those centres – 19 run by the Parks & Recreation Department, 5 run by the Free Library of Philadelphia (the public libraries), and 10 supported in the community. Yesterday I visited two centres in North Philadelphia; the Mercy Neighbourhood Ministries centre supported by the Philadelphia Free Library (PFL), and the Martin Luther King Rec Centre supported by Parks & Recreation.
The communities these centres serve are ones where unemployment and poverty are high, and opportunities are limited. The learners I met were mostly looking for work, and just like with the UK’s Universal Jobmatch system, they needed needed to be looking and applying online. Health was another key theme, which also echoes our priorities back home. Ben – a manager for Parks and Recreation – said that when Obamacare was launched they set the homepage for all of the computers in their 19 centres to the Obamacare site.
At the Mercy Neighbourhood Centre I met Executive Director Sister Ann. Her centre is a multi-use centre focused on supporting local people – adults, children and families. The Sisters are committed to doing what’s needed to make sure local people are safe, supported and fed. They have a day centre for adults with severe disabilities and dementia, providing essentials such as food and showers. The support for children looks exceptional – day care, pre-school breakfast clubs, after school ‘cold supper’ and homework clubs.
The computer centre is well used by local people – looking for work mostly, plus people who have never used the web before and need help with the basics. They get support from Ashton – the Digital Resource Specialist (DRS) provided by the Library, and the broadband is provided by the Library too. I was impressed that you can join the Library online and get the online services there straightaway – so in theory someone can join the Library at the Mercy Neighbourhood Centre and then get help and support from Ashton to download an e-book onto a phone, tablet or e-book device. The multi-use centre is bright, sunny, and colourful, and it truly does feel safe, full of love and opportunity.
I don’t think we have anything like the Parks & Recreation Department in the UK, and if we do I’ve never met them on my digital inclusion visits before! In Philadelphia there are about 150 Rec Centres – a building alongside a community basketball court, a baseball pitch and a children’s playground. The buildings support indoor sports and after school clubs.
In the UK the closest thing we have is probably Leisure Centres (big places in the centre of town usually). In Philly a Rec Centre is much more of a community space, and much less plush. Philly has a similar population to Birmingham UK, and has 150 Rec Centres. That’s pretty impressive. Ben and Kevin support 19 computer centres inside the 150 Rec Centres, and the Martin Luther King Rec Centre is one of the larger ones. They encourage the Seniors (adults) to come before 3pm to get quiet time and more one-on-one support from the Centre Support person. After 3pm it’s all about the children, who arrive and spend time playing games, using the computers, kicking a ball around or climbing in the playground. Krystal runs this centre and is clearly adored, trusted and respected in equal measure by adults new to the web and the after-school kids alike.
The City has stepped up and sustained this programme after the federal money ended. It is clearly making a lot of difference to people’s lives and the benefits we often talk about around tangible outcomes such as jobs, communications, access to benefits, and saving money. What’s more, the less tangible benefits are also there in spades – improved confidence, self esteem, and perhaps most importantly, aspiration.
The only thing missing in my mind was Learn My Way – or something like it. The excellence of the support in the centres depends very much on the number and previous web-experience of centre users coming in at any one time. Krystal told me that if someone completely new to the internet comes in and she’s busy she books a session with them to come back at a quieter time – as her only resource is herself. Both Krystal and Ashton help people learn how to use the web in their own way and using their own knowledge and experience. While it’s clear they’re brilliant at their jobs, I wonder if sharing this knowledge and experience and building on something like Learn My Way might make them more effective in busy times? What’s more, they’d have the data on performance, too, and the evidence to show why they should keep being supported to do what they do so well.
I want to say an enormous thank you to Ashley Del Bianco who I met last year at SHLB (after doing some research on the web and already being impressed with her work). I am sure that much of the success in the Philadelphia partnership is down to Ashley’s collaborative style, expertise, strategic vision, and sheer hard work. Thank you to Ashley for showing me around, and for her hospitality. And the very best of luck to her, Eliza, Sister Ann, Ben, Kevin, Krystal, Ashton, Harry, Brian, and Scott – just a few of the fantastic and inspirational people I met.
I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.