Just back from a workshop at MIT on technology for community-building in America. The focus turned out to be poor communities. Apparently the middle class don’t need community because they can enjoy their suburban comforts. I reflected that technology has so far mostly harmed the poor in the U.S. In the old days when telecommunications and transportation were expensive there was a real need in our economy for the labor of the lowest economic class. Maybe they’d work in a factory or do some kind of clerical job. In 2004, however, our businesses can get all of the unskilled labor that they want in China or India. Fear of crime was once a motivator for trying to improve poor neighborhoods. But improved management techniques, universal cell phones for calling 911, innovations like the gated community and security cameras everywhere, and pure technology such as the fancy alarm system have lessened this fear.
The elephant in the room that nobody wanted to talk about was education. The non-profit world likes to think about affordable housing, leadership development, better health care, specialized training, etc. If everyone in a poor neighborhood were educated to the standard of the average Harvard graduate all of the other problems would be solved. Someone who is really well educated probably has a good job and makes a lot of money and can afford whatever housing is out there. Someone who is really well educated may find that others naturally want to follow him or her so leadership development isn’t that important. Someone who is really well educated will probably have better habits and won’t need as much health care (it is the college grads who wear seat belts). Someone who is really well educated can read a For Dummies book and learn how to use a computer application.
Schools for poor people are government schools. Everyone who works there is either a bureaucrat or a union member. None of these people incurs any kind of pay loss or risk of firing if the kids remain totally ignorant. All attempts at reform over the past 40 years have failed. So people give up. One community organizing expert sitting next to me responded to my observation that if everyone had a first class education the other stuff would fix itself with “that’s just not realistic”.
Working from the assumption that most people in a poor community are doomed to a third-rate education, what can we do for them with technology? It turns out that the answer is “not much”. Foundations fund thousands of small groups nationwide and they spend $billions on IT (i.e., indirectly the foundations are spending $billions every year on IT). None, however, has a large enough budget to do more than buy packaged software or write some half-working half-documented custom software. All the groups complain that there is no packaged software that actually serves their needs and that they can’t afford to develop full custom apps. Although their IT needs are fairly similar none of them have a large enough budget to attract commercial software companies except for fundraising management software.
You’d think that the open source revolution would have attracted some notice. Programmers who weren’t paid a dime generated a tremendous amount of social benefits worldwide. What more effective use of grant money than to pay some programmers to develop open-source software products and toolkits for common non-profit organization requirements? Yet nobody at the conference had ever heard of a foundation funding an open-source software project.
One bright spot… a handful of folks had set up free wireless Internet access blankets over struggling neighborhoods in various parts of the country. All of the academic papers written about the “Digital Divide” turned out to be nonsense. As soon as a poor person had an opportunity to get broadband without being reamed out for $50/month by the local telco or cable monopoly the poor person was able to leap right over the exotic language and cultural barriers that sociologists had posited. I.e., it turned out that these folks were poor, not stupid.