Digital bridge

Collaboration aims to plug affordable-housing owners into economy.

By Todd Cohen

In Portland, Ore., 4,000 low-income families have found childcare through a web locator.

Chicagoans now can go online to find local jobs that pay a living wage.

And 45,000 to 70,000 low-income children throughout the U.S. turn each month to a web tool designed to help them with their homework.

Those online consumers are among 275,000 unique visitors a month who use, a web site designed to give low-income people help and information about money, jobs, school, family and health.

The site’s founders, veterans of a big nonprofit developer who concluded that access to technology is critical for people living in affordable housing, now have joined a collaborative effort spearheaded by Habitat for Humanity International to plug Habitat homeowners into the economy.

“What we have found is that once people are able to get a decent, safe and affordable roof over their heads, they then have the ability to focus on other parts of their lives, which is to get connected to economic opportunities,” says Ben Hecht, president and chief operating officer of One Economy and former senior vice president of the Enterprise Foundation in Columbia, Md.

Overseeing the Habitat project is Sonja Murray, who as development director for Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County in Winston-Salem, N.C., launched a pilot project to equip Habitat homes with computers, connect them to the web and provide tech training to their owners.

That project now has spawned the “Digital Bridge” collaborative that is set to expand the idea initially to an entire state and to as many as 40 Habitat affiliates in three regions throughout the United States.

Partners in the project include two other big national nonprofit groups, including One Economy, as well as big technology firms, government and local groups that have yet to be identified.

The idea, says Murray, executive director of Habitat International’s Digital Bridge initiative, is to assemble the kinds of tech providers typically available in local communities, creating a volunteer-based model that could be used anywhere to give people living in affordable housing access to technology, and help them use it to find jobs and meet basic needs.

Spurred by a national philanthropist who in 2000 encouraged it to start putting computers in homes built by its local affiliates, Habitat for Humanity International in Americus, Ga., invited its largest affiliates to considering serving as the pilot site for a tech initiative.

The Winston-Salem affiliate became the pilot, working with two big tech firms enlisted by the philanthropist, and with a local tech firm that on its own had offered work with the affiliate.

All new Habitat homes got computers donated by Dell and by HATCH, the local firm, and internet access donated by AOL Time Warner, with training donated by HATCH and local volunteers.

Dell and AOL also donated $1 million worth of computers and access to equip and connect all homes previously built by the affiliate.

Habitat International now wants to expand the Forsyth County pilot to other affiliates.

And while it recognizes the need to plug in Habitat homeowners, Murray says, Habitat International also wants to keep local affiliates focused on their core mission of building affordable housing.

So Murray has spent the last year looking for the right mix of partners that can provide technology and tech training.

One Economy, for example, will give Habitat homeowners access to the Beehive, and customize it to local markets, said Hecht.

And to serve Habitat families in rural areas, One Economy hopes to help spur the creation of wireless “hotspots” to give Habitat families access to the Internet, and add web content for rural parents who can use laptop computers their schools provide to their children.

One Economy also has enlisted Republican Bill Frist and Democrat Tom Daschle, U.S. Senate majority and minority leaders, respectively, as honorary co-chairs of a push for state housing finance agencies in all 50 states to follow 14 states, starting with Kentucky last year, that now require all housing units they finance be wired for broadband communication.

The third big nonprofit partner in the Digital Bridge initiative is San Francisco-based CompuMentor, which will train and serve as a “virtual help desk” for Habitat affiliates and families, and for volunteers, known as “TechMentors,” who will work through local community technology centers to provide tech training for the families.

“CompuMentor will train the trainers who work with the families,” Murray says. “Habitat builds homes, so we brought on CompuMentor to create this virtual help source to be the volunteer backbone.”

Volunteers will play a critical role in working with Habitat families, she says, driving her strategy of  “building training and capacity to recruit a new kind of volunteer.”

While the typical Habitat volunteer is a male age 55 to 65, she says, the new volunteer needed for the Digital Bridge project is 25 to 35 years old and “has grown up with technology.”

CompuMentor also will give Habitat affiliates, community tech centers and Habitat families access to its TechSoup and TechStock web sites that provide access to tech resources and training.

“Personal computing, wherever else it may happen, certainly has to happen in homes,” says Daniel Ben-Horin, founder and president of CompuMentor.

“If we concentrate all our efforts exclusively on organizational access at nonprofits, or public access nodes like community technology centers and libraries,” he says, “then we’re doomed to failure in terms of truly enabling technology to make a difference in people’s lives.”

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