How hard is it to find a public-access computer in Philadelphia, or a place that offers free computer training, or WiFi access for the disabled?
A lot easier than before, thanks to the launch of a new service, Connect Philly, that identifies more than 200 such sites throughout the city.
Send an address or intersection by text message to 215-240-7296, and you'll get a response directing you to a site that offers access. Add a word such as disabled or WiFi after the address, and you'll be steered to particular kinds of facilities, which can also be found with an interactive map at the Connect Philly website.
Due to be unveiled this afternoon by Mayor Nutter at a City Hall event, Connect Philly was created by Technically Philly, a local start-up that sees itself both as a media company and as a catalyst for the region's technology community. Its texting tool is a low-tech app, available to anyone with an ordinary cellphone, but it has a high-minded goal: directing potential beneficiaries to a multifaceted campaign that aims to bridge the "digital divide" - the large and growing gulf between those of us who use the Internet regularly and those left behind by the digital revolution.
Last week in Tech Life, I told you about the persistence and magnitude of the problem, including data showing that across large swaths of North and West Philadelphia, fewer than one in five households enjoy home Internet access. Experts say it's likely that a third of the city's residents are disconnected from what is plainly becoming an essential tool for participating in the 21st century's economy and culture.
That's where Connect Philly, and the broader program whose resources it highlights, the Freedom Rings Partnership, come into play.
Financed by 2009's American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, Freedom Rings is a collaboration of 16 institutions and organizations, including the city's Office of Innovation and Technology and the Urban Affairs Coalition. Since 2010, it has opened about 70 public-access sites, each equipped with about five to 15 computer work stations, that aim to supplement the heavily used public-access computers at the Free Library of Philadelphia's 53 locations.
With seven more sites due to open by late June, and a handful of movable sites, Freedom Rings expects to have about 80 facilities available by this summer. (You can find out more about the sites, now known as "Keyspots," at the website www.phillykeyspots.org.)
Can a public-access program make a major dent in a problem that's been with us since the dawn of the Internet era - a problem tied, in large part, to the economic divide with which it is highly correlated?
Those who have helped design the Keyspots program, such as Ashley Del Bianco of the city's Office of Innovation and Technology, comanager of Freedom Rings, say the goal is to address the divide at every conceivable level - not just by providing public access to Internet-connected computers, but by offering training and support for people in whatever context they need it.
"It's not just technology for technology's sake," Del Bianco told me this week. "It's about helping people achieve their life and family goals, their workforce goals, and their education goals."
Del Bianco says a key goal is promoting so-called "digital literacy" - helping people learn the language of computing and the landscape of the Web, so they can learn to go where they want, and accomplish what they need to accomplish, without further support.
Each of the public-access centers, many located at city recreation centers or housed within existing community organizations, provides both open-access hours and at least 15 hours a week staffed by personnel known as "Web guides."
If you need help in learning how to search, say, for health information online, the Web guides will help you do that. You can schedule basic computer instruction, training in Internet safety, or a session on using the Web to apply for jobs, build a resume, or improve your employability. Teenagers are learning how to create videos or music - some of the sites are even equipped with Macs, especially conducive to multimedia work.
Del Bianco says people can sign up online at the Keyspots site. But in recognition of the target audience, "we really recommend that people drop by or call," she says. You can find a Keyspot by calling 215-851-1990.
Or you can use the Connect Philly texting app - which includes retail sites such as Starbucks - by calling 215-240-7296.
Technically Philly cofounder Brian James Kirk says connecting the city, on both sides of the digital divide, should be a goal of anyone who wants Philadelphia to succeed.
"My dad was a computer geek, and when I was 5 I had access to a computer," recalls Kirk. "It gave me a significant advantage."
Now a 28-year-old Temple grad and a successful entrepreneur, Kirk wants to share that advantage. And Connect Philly is a great start.