I must admit that I have a bias. I have a strong bias towards the positive potential information technology. I envision information technology as a key part of the solution to many of our local, global, environmental and social problems. I beleive that information technology is also a great equalizer, a motivated person with basic reading and writing skills can over time be a competent self taught technology professional At the same time I have found that the full potential of current information technology has not been realized, and that is largely due to the fact that everyone does not effective access to information technology. In order to bring the full capability of information technology solutions to local, global, environmental and social problems, to enable people to collaboratively create solutions to these problems, access to technology must be universal.
I consider information technology access as a two way street. The vast majority of Canadians have access to information technology through home computers and internet access. The majority of the remaining people are able to access information through mobile devices. I consider mobile devices as a primarily one way mode of information technology access. Of course people can take and upload pictures, email, tweet, and blog from a cell phone today, but mobile devices are not suitable for even the simplest of information technology creation tasks, such as the of development of a website. The majority of information technology creation tasks require access to a desktop or laptop. It is this ability to contribute meaningfully to the information economy, through creation of websites, content management systems, etc. that I would consider to be true access to technology.
The problem of access to technology is significant, whether its mobile devices, home computers or internet access. Most of us know about the worldwide digital divide, but few of us know about the digital divide here in Canada. According to the latest Statistics Canada data 18% of Canadians do not have a computer at home (Statistics Canada). Correlating the data with income statistics shows that individuals in the lower income quartiles have disproportionately lower access to computers. Libraries and schools offer limited access hours. To be full participants in not just the local, but global information economy, individuals need access to tools of information and technology creation 24 hours a day seven days a week from their home. Lack of computer access from a person’s home effectively limits economic opportunities including self employment and creative projects. Lack of computer access from a person’s home also limits civic participation, knowledge of local events and connectivity to like-minded individuals.
It’s the search for a solution to the problem of computer access that motivated me to join Free Geek Toronto. Free Geek Toronto is one of the organizations that have a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) where the vision is to make our city a place where e-waste is disposed of responsibly, safely and ethically, and where everyone has access to computers and the Internet. Another reason I joined the organization is that it is built on a successful model of other similar organizations, including the original in Portland, Oregon which has been going for 10 years and Free Geek Vancouver which has been in operation for almost 5 years. Built on a successful open sourced franchise model Free Geek Toronto has the ability to modify the business model and scale up as required to meet its BHAG.
The Free geek model has three essential components to distribute computers to the maximum number of households at the lowest cost possible. First, the collection of used computers, often considered to be electronic waste, include components that still have a number of years of useful life remaining by design. Second is the use of volunteer effort for refurbishing of used computers, in a “teach a person to fish”, rather than a “give a person a fish” model. Individuals are granted a computer after putting in volunteer hours learning about repairing, refurbishing and testing computers, developing increased knowledge about the use of technology. The third factor in keeping the cost of computers as as possible is the use of Free and Open Source Software, specifically the Linux Ubuntu operating system for desktops. Open Source software also allows individuals to develop those technology creation skills through customization of the software.
The other reasons I joined the technology nonprofit organization Free Geek Toronto is the ability to contribute to the development of the organization from the basement upwards (literally, as the organizations beginnings were meetings in a church basement). I have also been able to put my business skills to use in a very different nonprofit and volunteer context. I have been exposed to old and new hardware and software and my information technology intelligence has increased exponentially. I have also been able to learn about other people I would not normally come across in regular professional work, who have taught me a lot about diversity and resilience in the face of scarcity. It is these individuals with various levels of technical knowledge who will soon be our system repair technicians, system administrators, testers, developers and even creators of new technology. According to a report by the Ottawa-based technology and communications councils Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) and Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), the perennial IT skills shortage is increasing, with a significant deficit for specific roles like system administrators (ITAC - ICTC report).
If we are to increase the capability and capacity of the information technology sector as a whole, a proportional investment needs to be made in increasing technology access to individuals at the bottom of the technology pyramid. With some training and self taught learning, many of these individuals will be the solution to filling the labor shortage in Canada’s technology sector. By providing the example of my involvement in Free Geek Toronto, hopefully I have emphasized that the investment needed is not necessarily about direct funding, but more about investing our volunteer time as IT professionals in teaching others what we know. We need technology professionals to volunteer a small but reasonable amount of time teaching people basic, intermediate and advanced technology skills. We also need more organizations to donate their used technology to reuse organizations that will use the equipment as teaching tools rather than disposing of the equipment as waste. If we collectively put in whatever volunteer effort we can, a vision ofa city where everyone has access to computers and the internet will be possible, and the sector will be much stronger and highly resilient for the future.