The Hood Internet
August 9, 2007 3:33 AM   Subscribe

Hood+Tech Filter: Help me give these kids a fighting chance.

I've a friend who's in a newly established community association geared towards sustainability and such. Recently, I, the resident nerd, have been asked to help bring computers/tech into the hood.

This area is, figuratively and literally, the “wrong side of the tracks”. I know, I grew up here. No redeeming economic activity, depressingly high crime rates, awful education. Students are falling behind, in part, because they never learn to type an essay. No PC at home, no internet.

I’ll start with the computers.

Both my friend and I have been involved in the community as volunteers/teachers for a while. We’ve been offered free, used PCs for obviously struggling families by friendly techs at PC repair shops in the past, so we know we can fairly easily score a good number of usable PCs at zero cost (hitting up the middle class areas should also net some more free boxes).

My initial thought is that we should select a “pilot” community – probably a housing complex of 15-50 households, and first give them PCs, and provide some basic training. Once we get this group established, it will (I think) make our grant/support requests more “marketable”, as we’ll have a proven track record.

Back to the PCs, I feel like Linux (I’m thinking Ubuntu?) is our best move, since we’ll be dealing with a bunch of old hardware, and we need things to be unbreakable, free, and include all necessary word processing / browsing software a kid/family would need.

The association is sold on my ideas, and has given me the reins of this operation. To give you a bright-eyed, idealistic roadmap for our future, we want to get every home in the community a computer, get them all free wireless, and then start an online/LPFM radio station as a community central point. One step at a time though – so first the computers, and maybe a little internet (#2).

So – I guess I’m looking for input on the following:
1. Ubuntu (with the included Openoffice, etc): Good choice? Better ideas?
2. We want to also try to get some households online via an ad-hoc shared network during this pilot. I realize that there have been questions about sharing wireless in the past, but things change over the space of a few months…what pitfalls (security, etc?) might be a concern? Any tools that might make this easier?
3. Any funding ideas or people we should talk to about making the wireless thing happen? This is in Southern California.

Any ideas are welcome. Thanks, everyone.
I've read this thread, and am taking some of the advice therein.
posted by dihutenosa to Human Relations (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You might consider Edubuntu instead.
posted by grouse at 3:56 AM on August 9, 2007

In college we had a program to do this -- we took old donated computers, fixed them up, and handed them off to these families. The biggest problem we had was that without high computer literacy in the neighborhoods, any deviation from what the kids used at school was a huge problem -- for example, we gave one family a fixed up Mac, and they basically never used it because their daughter, the only one in the family who had used a computer much, was used to using Windows machines at school, and didn't know how to find the equivalent programs she needed/wanted on this Mac. So Ubuntu/other Linux is great and all, and you can make it look a lot like Windows, but at some point someone's going to go out and buy the Sims and want to know from you why it won't install on their computer, and what did you do to their computer that it's not as good/capable/etc as the one they know someone else has?

So if you CAN get any donations of Windows licenses (or collect old 2k/XP licenses from people upgrading to Vista), that might be ideal.

Also be ready to answer lots of tech support questions. Looots of tech support questions. From "how do I do X" to "what did I set this password to?"
posted by olinerd at 4:03 AM on August 9, 2007

You might want to check out FREE GEEK. They sound like they have been doing successfully what you're trying to do.
posted by philomathoholic at 4:05 AM on August 9, 2007

Best answer: When it comes to internet, you should check out Meraki. They make cheap ($50) zero-configuration mesh routers, which make it dead easy to share a few internet connections between many people. (No promises on the legality of it all - that will depend on your internet service provider.) I'm a happy customer myself.

Also, NetEquality sells Meraki routers embedded into a wall plug, so you can just screw them in and nobody will notice they're there. Good for something like a hallway in an apartment complex where you might be worried about theft.
posted by wyzewoman at 5:52 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you'd like to talk to people who do this on a regular basis you could drop an email to someone at Prairienet. They've been doing projects like this in East St. Louis for 5-10 years.

They decided the most sustainable model was to put computer labs in local community centers: churches, day cares, etc. They use older donated machines that are refurbed and installed by students at the UIUC library school as a class project. We put Windows 98/2000 on the machines because of the issue mentioned above: people need to be able to use the same programs they will be using in a school/work situation. If you're getting your GED and hoping to apply for an office position you need to know Microsoft Word. And while someone with enough computer experience will be able to switch easily between Word and Open Office, I know from working with new computer users like my Mom that people who are new to computers will have trouble with what seem to you to be the simplest things.

Anyway, I'd drop Prairienet a line. They've been doing this for a long time and have a really good handle on what works and what hasn't.
posted by MsMolly at 6:03 AM on August 9, 2007

IANAG (I am not a geek) much to my regret, but I served on the Board of an organization that did something similar to what you're talking about. You could drop them an e-mail or give them a call.

I work in the affordable housing field, and all the funders are pushing for low-cost internet for low-income folks, so I have had some contact with One Economy. To be honest, I wasn't all that impressed with them, but they seem like nice people who would be willing to talk.

Wireless Philadelphia , which has a Digital Inclusion program, is also one of my company's clients. I'm not on that project, so I don't know a whole lot about it, but they seem like smart folks who might have some good info.
posted by qldaddy at 7:01 AM on August 9, 2007

Check out the Digital Divide Network for a lot of folks doing what you want to do.
posted by k8t at 10:01 AM on August 9, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the ideas.

grouse, I did look at edubuntu, but didn't really see what the concrete differences were, other than a prettily stated "purpose". What exactly makes Edubuntu "Edu"?

olinerd - I know where you're coming from, and I've seen people get upset at new OSes (oddly enough, they'll use the thing for 15-20 minutes, and then say "oh btw this is lunix lololol" and they'll then throw a fit). But windows is just going to be too much of a hit to the wallet. We'll certainly let people dual-boot, or wipe the system if they like - but we'll perhaps have to instate some sort of "you screw with it, we can't support it" policy ala the Free Geek people (check the bottom of this page):

It should be noted that we cannot support FreekBoxes that have had a different operating system installed or that have had hardware changes.

posted by dihutenosa at 2:33 PM on August 9, 2007

dihutenosa, you might be interested in the screenshots of some of the educational software Edubuntu comes with.
posted by grouse at 3:24 PM on August 9, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the links. I would mark everyone best answer but that'd be weird (?). wyzewoman, I'm looking at the meraki site now - pretty impressive.
posted by dihutenosa at 1:01 AM on August 10, 2007

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