Case Study: Freedom Rings in Philadelphia
Freedom Rings Partnership Website: http://www.phillykeyspots.org/
Interview with Arun Prabhakaran, Director of Business Development and Strategic Initiatives for the Urban Affairs Coalition
The city of Philadelphia formed the Freedom Rings Partnership to address a daunting challenge—41% of the city's 1.5 million residents lack regular Internet access or basic computer skills. Census figures show that only 22.3% of low-income households have internet at home. Philadelphia is historically a manufacturing town with a large working class population, who lack the skills necessary to meet the demands of the new knowledge economy. There are not enough jobs in traditional industries and not enough skilled workers to fill the knowledge industry jobs.
The Freedom Rings Partnership is a coalition of grassroots organizations, government, and universities working together to drive broadband adoption in underserved communities.
As of December 31, 2011, the project has powered these achievements:
- 70 KEYSPOTS have been opened, a total of 763 workstations across Philadelphia
- 5,853 participants have received 68,757 hours of training
- 57,000 clients have had free computer access
- 1774 (as of Mar 2012) netbooks have been distributed to Philadelphia Housing Authority residents who had completed training
- 113 jobs were saved or created
- 4.1m broadband awareness impressions –reached neighborhoods with campaign to promote keyspots
The project has served tens of thousands of people, giving them a boost of confidence about what they can do with technology.
The Freedom Rings Partnership is part of a $25 million NTIA broadband stimulus grant for an array of projects that are preparing residents for a 21st Century digital economy. Philadelphia had attempted a municipal broadband initiative prior to this, so the community leaders already understood the importance of getting people connected; the leadership was ripe for a new opportunity.
When asked what a community can do if it doesn’t have the benefit of NTIA/BTOP funding, partner Arun Prabhakaran suggests starting small and developing potential partner relationships. He also recommends reaching out to local agents who have been part of a BTOP grant. The nation-wide effort has generated a lot of lessons learned, which recipients should be glad to share. He cites two documents from Microsoft that really helped him lead the Freedom Rings project:
The Partnership is a coalition of 16 managing partners. They are a coalition of different organizational types and sizes, ranging from the city government and large universities to community-based organizations with tiny budgets and few staff. Each partner is recognized for the strength it contributes, whether it’s in the area of policy work, connections in the corporate world, academic experience with technology, or targeted social mission. The group’s actions are rooted in real value-add proposition for Philadelphia communities. They developed a shared vision, with common goals and clear roles, acknowledging that a this comprehensive approach to solving the problem will result in stronger outcomes.
Prabhakaran admits that working with others is challenging but benefits are tremendous. He advises that, with federal funding, there is an expectation that there will be one lead group that is responsible for making sure that everything happens—adhering to the grant rules, finding ways to make each partner’s strengths fit with the work to be done, and keeping everyone focused on the overall benefit to the community.
“You need all of those actors at the table in order to get a comprehensive city-wide solution to the situation that is a seemingly intractable as the one we’re facing”
Articulating the Message
The partnership defined goals to unify the diverse populations targeted by the project. The broad goal to eliminate the digital divide in Philadelphia was made more concrete by emphasizing what people could do to open doors and make their lives better, how the Internet could improve employment opportunities, health care, education, and community development. Messages were seeded at the grassroots through a variety of traditional channels to get deep into neighborhoods where people are least likely to be connected.
The project needed to address a principal barrier to adoption, which is the perception that connection to the Internet is not relevant to everyday life for many. People who do not use technology in their jobs and whose kids don’t ask for it at home may think that their cell phone data plan is enough. Also people are uncomfortable accessing any form of online information due to low literacy levels. The project has defined a standard of digital literacy, what a trained person with a computer in their home with broadband is able to do. Technology is used to teach basic literacy so there is a double win in learners getting familiar with the computer while learning how to read.
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License