Terry  Grunwald
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Notes from North Carolina:
Public Interest Technology and State Policy and Prospects
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Terry Grunwald is a nonprofit strategic computing consultant, and founding project director, NCexChange, Raleigh, NC.

Terry Grunwald

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)..

Public Interest Networking: Building the Case for Statewide Agendas

Helping citizens and organizations understand that they have a personal stake in the information age broadens support for the larger public interest technology agenda. Often overlooked, particularly active communities of interest are mushrooming and can develop as a collective voice to aggregate their clout with electronic democracy tools. More extensive use of virtual volunteering makes sense here. In this way, smaller communities can focus on the kinds of hands-on PIT activities that can only be provided on site.

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"?