Facebook’s new Internet.org initiative is the latest in a series of ambitious tech-company plans to solve a global problem: the lack of Internet connectivity across the developing world, and even poorer areas of industrialized nations. Too bad it's so short on the issue of how to get there from here.
But Facebook might be able to take some pointers from an unlikely source: The city of Chicago.
First, some background. Last week, Facebook teamed up with six telecom companies to launch Internet.org, a project that vaguely promises to make the Internet available to everyone on Earth, specifically focusing on underdeveloped countries. Facebook's interest isn't entirely altruistic; like most all the companies working on similar projects, including Google, it has a business incentive. The social network has begun expanding in the developing world with its Facebook for Every Phone program, which now boasts 100 million users every month.
It’s not just the emerging countries that remain largely disconnected. About 20 percent of U.S. adults don’t use the Internet at home, work, school or by mobile device. The Obama administration is making a push to expand online access to citizens, and there are many efforts in marginalized communities to make that happen.
Extending Internet access to the world's underserved communities is a noble cause, but it won't do much good unless people also have the resources to use it to improve their education, economic development and elevate their communities out of poverty. And so far, Internet.org hasn't had much to say on that score.
The City of Chicago may have an answer. One program, called Smart Communities, offers a blueprint that could help bring impoverished nations into the 21st century.
Chicago’s Smart Communities
To tackle the digital divide, Chicago has changed the digital landscape of lower-income communities—bolstered by $6.8 million in federal stimulus funds in 2010.
The Smart Communities project, a program supported by the City of Chicago and a variety of community-driven organizations, set out to increase Internet connectivity in five moderate to low-income neighborhoods by educating residents on the importance and value of technology and providing the tools they need to access it.
After two years, the success was substantial. Over 30,000 households have adopted broadband through this program and over 14,000 people have gone through technology training. People in Smart Communities are 15 percent more likely to be online compared to those in similar neighborhoods.
What numbers don’t tell us is that many people who have gone through the program have gained increases in pay, received new jobs, and connected with their family members across the world. Smart Communities has also sparked new computer-related education and training efforts.
One such story is Englewood Codes, a 10-week summer program that teaches teens how to build a computer with the Raspberry Pi and then design multimedia websites. Its Kickstarter campaign raised almost double the initial ask of $5,500.
Build Trust In The Community
So what can this program teach tech giants like Facebook about closing the digital divide on a global scale?
Smart Communities garnered the support of the neighborhoods it would be servicing by partnering with economic development and community organizations that had already built trust with the residents.
“We really asked the community what their goals were,” said Francesca Rodriquez, a director at the City of Chicago's department of innovation and technology. “They didn’t go out and prescribe for the community, the community prescribed for them.”
No matter how beneficial to education and economic welfare an initiative is, companies might see push back from residents if they try to force connectivity down residents' throats. If Facebook and Google want to make an impact in impoverished areas across the globe, it’s imperative to begin building trust within the local communities.
"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."
The message is timeless. But the medium is quite different in the modern era.
Smart Communities program hosted over 1,000 trainings to educate both adults and youth how to use computers and mobile devices, including setting up profiles on social media, Microsoft Office training and how to find access to city resources. Classes in Spanish proved to be a tremendous asset to the program, as two of the communities were predominately Hispanic.
The program distributed laptops and software to 1280 residents who had gone through technology trainings and supplied 100 businesses with desktop computers. In addition to providing hardware, the city partnered with companies including HP and Sprint to set up large Internet kiosks in public locations throughout the communities and provide WiFi cards to give individuals access at home.
Any benevolent organization can give people a computer or smartphone and say that they have done their duty to expanding knowledge across the world. It is quite another thing to teach them to use those tools to help improve their lives.
Understand Why People Need Technology
In today’s hyper-connected American society, it’s hard to fathom why anyone would want to be disconnected. But there are still many Americans that don’t use the Internet. For the city of Chicago, Rodriguez said it was essential to the program's success to have data on why people don't use the Internet.
Are people concerned about the cost? Are they frustrated by lack of knowledge and skills? What if they just don't fundamentally understand why this Internet thing is in the first place? By understanding the reasons why people don't use the Internet, workshops can be tailored to address what the community needs the most.
Although residents had the ability to connect with broadband access, many of them chose not to use it. For Chicago's neighborhoods, cost was the largest factor deterring Internet use, surprisingly followed by a lack of interest with almost 40 percent of respondents showing no desire to be connected.
Looking To The Future
Educating a disconnected community isn’t cheap. While bold in their goals, the Smart Communities program might have to restructure their ambitions when the initial funding runs out on September 30. Between hardware, staff and curriculum, the costs can add up quickly.
The challenge in most altruistic endeavors is that while hearts are in the right place, checkbooks are not. Facebook and its partners have yet to disclose how exactly Internet.org will be funded, but if it took Chicago almost $7 million to come this far, the early cost projections for connecting the world must be substantial.
The creators of Chicago’s Smart Communities did so with the purpose of elevating the community. The economic benefit to the city might have marginally increased, but it was the altruistic nature of the program that really drove success.
This is where Internet.org partners might find a hiccup. Although Mark Zuckerberg claims the intentions are charitable, it would be remiss to overlook the potential revenue an additional 5 billion connected people would bring. If the project survives, it will be on the shoulders of the companies' good intentions. Otherwise, when the project hits a significant financial snag, they might turn and run.
Of course these two initiatives are fundamentally different. Families living in Chicago’s underserved communities still live in a nation that is well connected and provides tremendous opportunities to rise out of poverty, while many of the people Internet.org will be serving face much larger struggles. However, if we look exclusively at the technology and structure behind the initiatives that focus on closing the digital gap, a fully connected world seems possible.