City computer centers look to close divide 

No longer do mere stern looks and lofty rhetoric accompany discussions about the "digital divide." Now, money -- major money -- is following. President Bill Clinton recently announced private-sector tax incentives worth more than $2 billion to close the divide -- the gap between individuals and communities that have computer and Internet access and those who don't -- and he proposes that an additional $100 million be allotted for municipalities to build community technology centers. In an effort to bridge that gap, Atlanta has become one of the first municipalities in the nation to offer a program of computer literacy training. The Atlanta Community Technology Initiative will also be one of the nation's first projects to test the widely held but unproven assumption that providing Internet access and introductory computer training to residents will markedly improve a person's educational potential.

Mayor Bill Campbell tapped his former communications director, Jabari Simama, to head the effort. The Initiative's first two projects are neighborhood training centers inside the Workforce Development Community Center on Pollard Boulevard, and the Bessie Branham Recreation Center on Delano Drive; both opened Monday. SkillLearning.com, an Atlanta-based computer training outfit, is providing 80 computers, six printers and Web-based software for the two centers. The endeavor is being funded by $8.1 million from the city's sale of several access channels to MediaOne, but the city will likely seek to avail itself of some of the $100 million-fund should Congress approve the measure.

"The mayor has been extremely active on the national level with telecommunications and technology issues," Simama says, noting that Campbell chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Transpor-tation and Communication committee. Simama brings similar experience to this venture, having helped develop the public access station, People TV, in 1980.

Following Campbell's initial announcement of the project in December, Simama began analyzing studies on the divide, conducted surveys and last month convened a summit in the Pollard center. That work resulted in a 134-page strategic plan detailing the effort to boost computer literacy. The plan also anticipates the venture will be self-funded after the initial seed money expires.

The first areas involved in the initiative will be those in and around the city's Empowerment Zone, where "(t)he transition to a technical and information society is adding an additional burden to this population and separating it from the necessary tools that modern society uses to knit itself together," the plan says.

And as expected in a high-profile venture like this, many of Atlanta's most visible companies are expected to contribute. The initiative's Blue Ribbon Panel is a "Who's Who" of local heavy-hitters including Dr. Wayne Clough, president of Georgia Institute of Technology; David Ratcliffe, president of Georgia Power; Tom-my Dortch, national chairman of 100 Black Men and Charles Brewer, chairman of EarthLink. BellSouth and Gateway have joined EarthLink and SkillLearning .com in providing services whose combined value exceeds $500,000. In return, these companies (along with others who will be expected to spend at least $150,000 for similar sponsorship opportunities) will get to promote themselves to varying degrees in and around the centers.

All this is an ambitious program for a city government that has not always been successful in resolving its own technology problems. In March, a computer glitch in the city's new payroll system caused some city employees to get overpaid some $67,000. This followed a January discovery that a glitch resulted in incorrectly calculated or distributed paychecks to some city police officers. These and other problems arose in new systems that were installed to avoid Y2K-related glitches.

Simama is sensitive to the criticism, and called a comparison between this venture and the city's problems a classic case of apples and oranges. He indicated the level of private-sector involvement should mitigate any confusion. "When you talk about Atlanta's information management networks, you're talking about technology at a very high level," he said testily. "I told you we're going to be training people like your mother, who has never touched a computer, [to] turn a computer on, how to cruise the Internet, how to build a Web page. The two programs are fundamentally different."

Ultimately, the initiative's greatest challenge may be in discovering whether providing a person computer access translates into an improvement in his quality of life. As analysis of the digital divide evolves, some have begun to posit that training in information-retrieval is neutral, at best, and may actually be harmful if unaccompanied by the cognitive skills needed to differentiate between the useful and the trivial.

Simama says that this is just the first step in a broad task. "Ultimately, people have to use technology as a tool for empowerment and lifelong learning. When people are able to get the information quickly and have the information result in real knowledge, then that's when we've gotten to where we need to be."

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