August 15, 2012
Jason Harper, The Kansas City Public Library
"Google Fiber and Digital Inclusion" Event Recap, With a Lesson from Pendleton Heights
As Google Fiber watchers have noticed, some KC fiberhoods are going green more quickly than others.
This means that while tech enthusiasts in more affluent communities are having an easy time rallying their neighbors in being the first to demand Fiber (in some cases, paying people to take to the streets on their behalf), people in less wealthy, less connected neighborhoods remain at risk of being left behind.
This past Monday at the Fiber Space, Google's Social Justice Team organized a "Google Fiber and Digital Inclusion" event to address the digital divide issues facing Kansas City.
The event was designed as an opportunity for people from nonprofit and civic sectors to share ways of reaching out to folks across the digital divide and get them to buy in to Google Fiber -- or at least the $10 preregistration fee.
Google assembled a panel of locals to talk about their efforts to raise awareness of Google Fiber in their unique communities: Joel Jones, director of Branch and Outreach Services at the Kansas City Public Library (where I work); Kristin Johnson, board member of the Pendleton Heights Neighborhood Association; Chester Thompson, president of the Black Economic Union; and Christopher Leitch, director of the Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall.
Priyanka Chaurasia of Google's product marketing team kicked off the event, first giving a 101 tutorial of the Fiber product offering -- on the off chance anyone in the crowd of 50 or so mostly nonprofit reps hadn't heard the pitch yet. She then gave a rundown of the digital divide report Google released in June, which found, among other things, that 25% of Kansas Citians don't have broadband access, 17% have no access at all, and an alarming number of those without access don't feel it's relevant to their lives.
"We feel the Internet is like vitamins," Chaurasia said on behalf of Google.
She encouraged those people in the community who are focusing on getting their fiberhoods to hit the minimum number of pre-registrations to take things a step further: to raise funds to help the financially disadvantaged pay that $300 construction fee that would get them free broadband for 7 years.
Next, the panelists were given their turn to speak.
- Joel Jones talked about how libraries are on the front lines of the digital divide, evoking a time in the mid 90s when the first KC Library branch got an internet connection: "We didn't know what to do with it at first, but our patrons, especially our teens, figured out exactly what to do with it."
- Chester Johnson highlighted the need to bring new development to the blighted areas around the historic 18th & Vine Jazz District, where new buildings and businesses are needed more urgently than Google Fiber. Drawing applause for his clear passion for uplifting the community, he hinted at a plan to build an information technology center to educate youth in tech careers.
- Christopher Leitch forecast a future when his museum would be able to use the gigabit to bring new dimensions to its collection, such as user-generated historic content and 3D imaging. "We're excited to do the things we already do better," he said, "and to do things I haven't even imagined yet."
All three of the above gave interesting perspectives, but when it came to actionable, on-the-ground efforts for Google Fiber, Kristin Johnson from Pendleton Heights stole the show.
Bridging the Divide in Pendleton Heights: A Case Study
(Photo by Eric Bowers)
Though it's an up-and-coming neighborhood with young, tech-savvy business pros and artistic types moving in steadily, Pendleton Heights in Old Northeast KC is marked by high vacancy rates, a large transient population, lower-income immigrant families, and two housing projects.
The fiberhood definitely had its work cut out for it when it came to hitting the 170+ pre-registration mark to go green.
"When I saw our pre-registration goal, I felt sick," Johnson remembered.
But she and her neighbors did not back down.
In fact, they'd been organizing since February. Realizing early on they would have to be proactive in showing Google they wanted the gigabit, they began collecting email addresses and preparing to promote Google Fiber to technologically disadvantaged neighbors.
Then, when Google made its Fiber announcement on July 26, they sprang into action, taking a series of impressive steps including:
- Used county records to call property owners and educate them about the advantages of signing up their homes and apartment buildings for Fiber. ("Not one person said no," Johnson says.)
- Created a "mission control center" staffed with seven volunteers to coordinate communications and perform organized tasks such as creating more than 150 Gmail addresses tied to properties in the neighborhood,
- Appointed a single neighborhood Google Fiber expert.
- Produced a superb "Pendleton Heights loves Google Fiber" YouTube video that has gotten more than 750 views.
- Began working with a foundation startup expert who will build a nonprofit to get hardware into the homes of Pendleton Heights' families who will have the new broadband connection but lack the resources to use it.
- Walked individuals through the “hurdles” of pre-registration, from paying the $10 fee, to creating a Google account and using Google Wallet.
- Posted a conversation-starting banner on the side of a prominent house in the neighborhood.
- Began networking with business owners who have ties to immigrant populations.
Ultimately, when the neighborhood turned green at 3 a.m. on a recent Wednesday night, Johnson and her colleagues -- up late at work in their mission control center -- fell into jubilation.
As Monday’s event came to a close and people drifted to the Fiber demo space, one takeaway hung over the evening: All fiberhoods should take a lesson from Pendleton Heights.