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Agencies Harness the Power of Technology for the Greater Good

Government agencies and nonprofits are finding innovative ways to use mobility to further their missions.

In 2000, the Community Preservation and Development Corp. began outfitting its Edgewood Terrace building in Washington, D.C., with Internet access. Residents could get online for just $24.95 per year, which was unheard of, says Pamela Lyons, senior vice president of community development programs at the nonprofit. Now, CPDC provides free Wi-Fi.

The agency, which owns affordable housing communities throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, has spent the past few years deploying wireless networks in its properties as it renovates them. “When we started offering Internet access, the digital divide was huge, and there’s still a divide,” says Liston Dickerson, director of IT for CPDC. “We bring Internet service into affordable housing so residents can get online, do job searches and take courses.”

As mobile and wireless technology become ubiquitous, government agencies and nonprofits like CPDC are finding innovative ways to use mobility to further their missions. Rather than simply arming employees with devices and software to do their jobs, these organizations are getting technology into the hands of citizens for the greater good of their communities.

CPDC residents have been thrilled with the service, according to Lyons. Parents in particular have found it invaluable because many students have access to notebook computers and tablets from school. “The response has been one of shock and surprise,” she says.

Providing Home Networks

CPDC has been surprising its residents for years. It was one of the first affordable housing developers to provide wired Internet access and a computer center offering after-school and adult education and training. “It was an exciting time,” says Lyons.

Over time, as more and more residents began using mobile devices, CPDC couldn’t keep pace with network upgrades. “As the cost of wireless and devices became less expensive, offering the service made more sense,” says Dickerson.

Dickerson was particularly impressed with the wireless equipment available from Cisco Meraki. In the past, the IT team needed to go to the communities to perform repairs or updates. “With Meraki, everything’s web-based, so we can reconfigure any of this equipment without even driving to the site. That saves hours,” he says.

CPDC has been using mesh networks in its garden-style apartments, and access points are mounted on the outside of buildings. In its midrise buildings, including Edgewood Terrace, APs are mounted on the ceilings and wired into a core switch.

Because of the ease of installation and management, CPDC plans to offer free wireless in additional communities as it renovates them. “It’s something we’ll continue to do,” says Lyons, “and something we’ll continue to be excited about.”

Internet Access for Children

Located in Northwest Minnesota, rural Thief River Falls has pockets within the region that still can’t get Internet access because they’re so remote.

“It’s important for us at the library to have the Internet and technology available for families,” says Pauline Helgeland, technical services/automation coordinator and collection development librarian for the Northwest Regional Library.

The five-county library network has long provided computers and Internet access in its locations. When it was time to replace some of the PCs in the children’s sections last year, Helgeland had an idea. Several schools in the area had recently announced one-to-one notebook or tablet programs, and Helgeland sought a way for the library to support them.

“What about the kids who need a little practice on iPads before they get to school?” she wondered. “And what about the schools that aren’t going to one-to-one programs yet? How about making sure those kids are up to speed on iPads?”

Since last November, the Northwest Regional Library deployed 14 iPads for the children’s sections in nine locations. The library also bought rugged Kensington cases, steel cables and anchors to keep them from being damaged or stolen. The new equipment cost about half of what the library would have spent on new computers and accessories, Helgeland says.

The library also purchased child-sized headphones that are safe no matter how high children turn up the volume, as well as audio splitters so parents can listen along with their children using their own earphones.

Helgeland purposely keeps the iPads disconnected from the Internet and uses parental restrictions to keep them child-friendly. But, she admits, “Those little ones can figure out things I haven’t figured out yet.” She has since learned how to refresh the devices back to her original configuration.

“I see everything from toddlers on there playing to the lower elementary students,” says Helgeland. “The kids are so engaged. They’re having a great time.”

Combining Recreation and Technology

Most first-time visitors to the Southern Regional Technology and Recreation Complex aren’t sure what to make of it. That’s essentially the point, explains Shante’ Stokes, assistant manager of technology for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Prince George’s County Department of Recreation in Maryland.

The community spent 10 years lobbying for and planning the facility, which celebrated its first anniversary in June. “They wanted it to be innovative,” says Stokes. “There was a need, because there’s nothing similar to this in the community, and since technology is such a huge part of our daily lives, we wanted to have a center that can focus on technology.”

For instance, the cardio room has high-tech fitness machines that can track users’ progress, then transmit the results to their mobile devices. The teen fitness room has dance machines, a lighted “Extreme Teens” sign powered by the movement in the room and other equipment that’s likely to appeal to teenagers.

The technology wing houses a mobile computer lab with Apple and HP notebooks and interactive whiteboards. The recreational complex offers classes throughout the day as well as open computer lab hours. “Our population is multigenerational — senior citizens, youth and pretty much everything in between,” says Stokes. “So we have classes for all ages.”

People can congregate and take advantage of free Wi-Fi in a lounge area, where plasma TV screens feature interactive public art pieces that create pixilated colors and shapes that follow visitors’ movements. “It makes them want to keep moving,” Stokes explains. “Our goal is to integrate technology and recreation.”

With a science lab for hands-on projects and a full recording studio, the recreational complex is high-tech on every level. Prince George’s County IT communications department handles support — installing and maintaining equipment, maintaining security, applying web filters and parental controls — and Stokes coordinates all the technology or STEM efforts within the facility. She conducts monthly focus groups and regular surveys and technology assessments to keep track of the types of services the community would like to see offered by the center.

“Our major challenge is to make sure that we stay connected so we can be on the cutting edge,” Stokes says.

Jonathan Timmes
Jul 17 2014

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