Public interest technology seems to bloom around visionaries with a
strong commitment to local community. As a result, we see vibrant oases of activity around
the country -- in places like Seattle, Austin, and Charlotte. But unfortunately, when we
look at the U.S. as a whole, the "holes" are much larger than the cheese. How
can public interest technology -- this developing family of resources of community
networking, recycling programs, mentor programs, assistance to other nonprofits, community
technology centers -- be more equitably distributed around the country -- especially to
small towns and rural areas?
One way to address this challenge is to look at the states
as the engines of diffusion across the digital divide. Devolution of funding streams to
the state policy level -- especially in areas that impact disadvantaged populations like
welfare reform, job training, and rural development creates new opportunities. All these
issues are ones in which public interest technology (PIT) can make a difference. To
respond effectively, the PIT community needs to organize at the state level to make the
case for capturing funds to address these issues. In fact, PIT has an important role in
citizen education and participation -- as a tool for insuring that disadvantaged citizens
have input into the policymaking that affects their lives -- at all levels of government.
Another important role for public interest technology is
at the intersection of communities and communities of interest. State level associations
are mushrooming for everything from community development corporations and health centers
to libraries and arts organizations. Since these groups usually come together for annual
conferences, electronic communication enables them to sustain relationships in the interim
between face-to-face meetings. PIT makes sense as a way to insure that local affiliates
have the technical support they need to participate in online collaborations and as a way
for constituents to share experiences and understand the power of technology to aggregate
their voices for decisionmakers.
Cross sector partnerships at the statewide level model and
promote local collaborations as well. Public interest technology can help overcome the
"stovepipe" approach to technology planning whereby each institution -- school,
government agency, library, health facility, other nonprofit -- develops an internal
strategy for a narrow constituency that fails to take account of broader community needs.
All the electronic democracy tools of public interest
technology -- public access, low cost hardware and dialup access, training and technical
assistance, online conferencing, non-commercially driven community publishing, web and
listserv hosting -- can be delivered more economically and efficiently when resources are
pooled. Statewide cooperation can allow specialization.
Statewide funding pools through either the state
legislature or the state utility commission offer the possibility of long term
sustainability for public interest technology activities. Examples include the Missouri Express ,
the New York State Diffusion Fund , the Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund , and
the Ohio Community Computing Center Network . Each
state his creating its own unique approach building on local interests and strengths.
Here in North Carolina there is an email list (the North
Carolina Nonprofit Users Group), a website (the North Carolina Community Information Gateway,
which cross-links statewide communities of interest and links statewide issue areas, and
an online database of statewide technology resources (Tech Supports for Nonprofits)..
An email discussion list is a good first step and can
promote development of a statewide wish list and policy agenda. But whatever strategy is
used, facilitation (preferable paid) is a must.
While everyone can benefit from a statewide effort to pool
resources, deploy PIT more broadly and equitably, promote cross-sector policy initiatives
and tap state-based funding streams, it is rarely anyone's top priority. While each state
must find its own unique path, it needs to be somebody's job to nurture and support that
statewide vision. Otherwise, who will fill in the "holes"?