Summer-Fall 2001

The Atlanta Community Technology (ACT) Initiative
by Lynette Kvasny

“Science and technology can sometimes be dazzling. Still human knowledge has not made life secure and happy for most people.”—cyber center client

Jabari Simama
Jabari Simama keynoting at the CTCNet conference in Atlanta last June.

In December of 1999, the City of Atlanta embarked on an effort to redress the digital divide. Mayor Bill Campbell charged Jabari Simama, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Technology, with developing and implementing a Community Technology Initiative for the municipality. The mission of the Atlanta Community Technology (ACT) Initiative is to “ensure that technology and new media improve the quality of life of Atlanta residents by providing public access to training, equipment, information and knowledge.”

Local business leaders, researchers from academic institutions, labor and education specialists, and administrators of city agencies with relevant experience in technology in low-income and under served communities of Atlanta were brought together to form committees and development teams to assist in the planning process. Drawing on the collective expertise of these diverse stakeholders, the ACT Initiative developed a strategic plan and opened the first cyber center in June, 2000, coinciding with the 9th annual conference of the Community Technology Centers’ Network.

Program Synopsis

The community cyber centers are funded by $8.1 million generated from the city’s Cable Franchise Agreement. Cable companies pay franchise fees to cities in exchange for using public spaces to lay their cables. The funding for the ACT Initiative was obtained in exchange for the city returning unused cable channels and foregoing a partially funded fiber optic municipal network that was part of the original Cable Franchise Agreement. The cyber centers have also received about $600,000 in donations from private corporations. Partners run the gamut of public, private and non-profit organizations, such as, 3-Com, Earthlink, BellSouth, Gateway, the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library, Atlanta Public Schools and Hands-On-Atlanta. These partners provide hardware, software, Internet access, and training course. In addition, the city is seeking additional partnerships for future centers.

The ACT Initiative is ambitious, but as Microsoft CEO Bill Gates stated, “just focusing on access to computers is a fairly narrow way to look at these problems.” This is perhaps the first and the largest initiative funded by a major municipality. Some of the highlights:

  • Promotion and Community Education and Outreach
  • Community Technology Centers
  • “One Stop Digital Shop” Resource Center
  • Basic Literacy and Computer Literacy Programming
  • Job Skills Programming
  • A Virtual City Hall
  • A Virtual Community Portal
  • Public-Private Partnerships
  • Fundraising for Program Sustainability
  • Challenge Grants for Best Practices

The plan calls for 15 centers to become operational with an 18-month period. Six community centers are open as of May 2001 and each center houses 30-45 computers with Internet access. The city will include at least one in south Atlanta with a bilingual emphasis to give special help and encouragement to Spanish-speaking residents. Others will include a special center for seniors, and another devoted to wireless communication on the campus of Morris Brown College.

At the cyber centers, any citizen can use the computers and take courses free of charge. To date, over 5000 residents have participated in the programs, one third of those are senior citizens. The centers offer two adult training courses: Introduction to Computers and Computer Applications, as well as After School and Summer Cyber Camp programs for teens. All courses are conducted in six weeks sessions. The cyber centers are staffed day and evening Monday through Friday with some centers providing hours on Saturday.

The Virtual City Hall is currently under construction and will be brought online this fall and integrated with a Virtual Community Portal being funded by a $100,000 grant from 3Com. The Virtual Community Portal will be a large Web site featuring content on the City of Atlanta, community and neighborhood services, neighborhood histories, homespun recipe books, and other forms of local content. Local residents enrolled in courses will help develop content for this Web site.

Meeting Community Needs

The intent of the program is to establish cyber centers in city-owned and designated facilities within approximately two miles of every resident who lives in a community where the majority of households are likely to be without computer and Internet access. In Atlanta, the inner city population has the greatest need for access. These target communities are best represented by the Atlanta Empowerment Zone and linkage neighborhoods. The Atlanta initiative faces the challenge of developing and implementing programs to serve communities in which over 60% of the adult population functions at the lowest literacy level Adults at Level 1 literacy cannot usually locate an intersection on a street map, locate two pieces of information in an article, complete a social security card application, or calculate total costs of a purchase from an order form.

Therefore, developing computer-based literacy in this community is an even greater challenge. How are those less literate to deal with the overwhelming amount of materials on the Internet? How are they to master the research skills necessary to seek out information? Perhaps more importantly, how are they to create content that is pertinent to local needs and interests? Clearly the initiative needs to be prepared to offer both computer literacy and computer-based literacy programs.

Given all the challenges detailed in a fuller examination, it is nonetheless fitting to conclude on a hopeful note with a client’s perspective of the program.

"I cannot simply express the gratitude I have for Mayor Bill Campbell and the City of Atlanta staff that are primarily responsible for giving me an opportunity to obtain the computer skills that have now become almost necessary to obtain many entry-level jobs in today’s job market. I’d like to offer my support and prayers that this program will remain intact for our future generations.”

Lynette Kvasny, Ph.D. Candidate in Computer Information Systems at Georgia State University. This is edited from a longer report that contains a fuller look at the Atlanta Empowerment Zone, an analysis of the more subtle issues related to the notion of access, with reference notes and a bibliography.

Atlanta Area Community Technology Centers

Atlanta area community technology centers: Numbers 1-6 are part of the Atlanta Community Technology Initiative. Numbers 7-21 are members of the DeKalb County Family Technology Resource Centers.

1. Atlanta Cyber Center HQ
2. Bessie Branham Recreation Center
3. Atlanta Fulton Public Library
4. John Birdine Community Center
5. Collier Heights Recreation Center
6. Morris Brown Cyber Center
7. Cedar Grove High School
8. DeKalb Life Skills Academy
9. Egleston Hospital
10. Escuelas del Condado de Dekalb

11. Gresham Park Elementary
12. Hooper Alexander Elementary
13. Kingsley Theme Elementary
14. Max Cleland Center
15. McNair Middle School
16. Nicholas House
17. Oakliff Theme Elementary
18. Rainbox Charter Elementary
19. Rehoboth Instructional Center
20. Robert Shaw School
21. YMCA

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