Silicon prairie – Chicago embraces digital future

By Todd Cohen

CHICAGO — The Windy City aims to become Silicon Prairie – a transformation that would give nonprofit groups in Chicago greater access to tech resources.

Mayor Richard M. Daley wants to create a digital economy in the city by pushing a host of public-private tech initiatives, including efforts to get technology into the hands of community-based groups.

And in making hardware contributions to local nonprofits, both the United Way/Crusade of Mercy and BP Amoco want to ensure that those nonprofits receive tech planning and training.

“Clearly, the technology needs of nonprofits are on the radar screen of both city government and major funders,” said Deborah Strauss, executive director of the IT Resource Center and a member of the Mayor’s Council of Technology Advisors.

A report issued recently by the tech council urges “everyone with a stake in our high technology economic future” to “join forces.”

The tech council calls, among other things, for creating a public-private digital civic network, integrating technology into the public schools and undertaking broad-based efforts to bridge the “digital divide” between those with access to technology and those without it.

The council, for example, wants to establish a city-wide program to “actively recruit corporate donations of complete packages of technology equipment and services that meet the needs of community-based organizations.”

It also wants to put innovative tech programs into effect at the neighborhood level to recruit, train, hire and mentor young people 15 to 21 years old.

Wedding contributions of technology to tech planning and training is a key strategy of the IT Resource Center, or ITRC, a nonprofit group in Chicago that provides tech assistance to local nonprofits.

Last year, for example, the United Way/Crusade of Mercy made a grant to ITRC to work with its 25 smallest members to assess their computers for potential problems that might occur because of the change from 1999 to 2000.

ITRC found that one-fifth of the machines either had Y2K problems or would not be able to handle software that was ready for 2000.

In response, the United Way agreed to buy equipment for the nonprofits that had potential Y2K problems. The United Way and ITRC, in turn, teamed up with CompuMentor, a tech assistance provider in San Francisco, to purchase software for the Chicago nonprofits donated by Microsoft.

ITRC has helped the nonprofits assess their tech needs and prepare tech plans, and also is training the nonprofits to use the hardware and software.

ITRC also will provide tech training for 100 local nonprofits that each will receive $5,000 in computer hardware from BP Amoco, which is moving its corporate headquarters from Chicago to London.

In addition to receiving hardware, each nonprofit will receive planning and training from ITRC, and also will participate in a one-day tech conference sponsored by the Chicago Jobs Council, a nonprofit group that promotes job creation and training. A project of the Jobs Council is to help nonprofits in the Chicago area strengthen all aspects of their management.

BP Amoco’s total grant to support tech assistance in Chicago is more $700,000.

“Funders are saying, ‘We want to tech you up,’ instead of the nonprofits saying, ‘We know we need to tech up, please give us a grant,’” Strauss said. “And they’re including planning and training in their understanding of what nonprofits need.

“This is real capacity-building,” she said. “To have technology fully supporting your mission, the human investment has to be there as well as the hardware and software investment.”

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