Creating a town center
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Jun 04, 2001
The Georgetown Community Network, Texas
Like hundreds of municipalities around the globe, the city of Georgetown,
Texas, is trying to strengthen its sense of community through the World
More than a dozen health care, civic, nonprofit, education, government
and business organizations in the growing Austin, Texas, suburb are collaborating
to create the Georgetown Community Network (GCN). It promises to be a central
Internet hub where residents can access local information on health and
human services, youth activities, child care services, community events,
volunteer opportunities, adult education and jobs.
The project would also address digital divide issues by installing public
access computer terminals citywide, providing community and teen centers
with computer training, and supporting a technology internship program for
high school students.
Supporters say the community network is essential because the city,
with its small-town charm and history stretching back 150 years, has been
experiencing growing pains because of the boom in the nearby Austin high-tech
corridor. During the last decade, Georgetown's population has doubled to
"One thing that a network can do is help people stay connected with
each other when there are more and more things going on, when there are
more and more programs and services and activities and community events
happening all the time," said Kevin Marsh, executive director of Information
Access Institute (IAI), the nonprofit group leading the project.
"I see it filling the role of helping Georgetown keep that small-town
feel where everyone knows what's going on and people can share information
and work together," he said.
Whether they're called civic nets, free-nets or bulletin board systems,
locally based electronic community networks have emerged in the last two
decades as a way for people to discuss local issues, increase citizen interaction
and communication, disseminate public information and train people to use
computers and the Internet.
According to the Association for Community Networking, a nonprofit membership
group promoting such initiatives, more than 400 such networks operate around
the world. Some well-established and well-known networks in this country
include the Blacksburg Electronic Village in Blacksburg, Va., Charlotte's
Web in Charlotte, N.C., and Austin Free-Net in Austin, Texas.
Marsh said the difference with Georgetown is in the databases.
Other community networks "build one Web page at a time for one organization
at a time, perhaps customizing each Web page, but not putting up 100 records
about 100 different programs at once," he said. "By doing it hundreds at
a time, we're going to get a lot more information out there very quickly."
He also said several organizations will manage the various databases,
so the workload is spread out. Anyone can submit information online, and
volunteers then key it into databases. Marsh estimates the site will eventually
feature about 4,000 Web pages — half on health care topics — along with
30 or so public access terminals around the city. A local Internet service
provider is planning to donate server space to store all the data.
Marsh floated the idea of a community network when he moved to Georgetown
nearly five years ago. The first meeting included representatives from the
city, library, Chamber of Commerce and several other groups, which are still
involved in the project. "There was certainly plenty of interest. It wasn't
like we had to get out and push," he said.
But lacking a lead agency, the initiative was shelved until late 1997
when discussions began anew. In the following six months, representatives
mapped out a draft outline of what the community network should address
At that time, IAI agreed to take on the operating role in addition to
being a consultant. The Georgetown Healthcare System, a nonprofit health
provider, took on the role of lead agency and fiscal agent.
In 1999, after forming a steering committee, GCN applied to the Texas
Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund Board for a community networking
planning grant. The TIFB gives grants to help spur development of telecommunications
infrastructure that connects public entities.
GCN received a $16,750 planning grant in January 2000. However, the
board did not fund the IAI's application for $87,000 in implementation
grants, the committee's estimated start-up costs.
Instead, the project has relied on smaller grants from various groups,
such as the United Way (which has pledged $6,000 toward operating costs),
donations of equipment and lots of volunteer support. Although interest
has grown, funds haven't kept pace, and the budget has been stretched, Marsh
said. The committee estimated the total start-up and first-year expenses,
including the value of in-kind costs, at $275,000.
Money problems are common among developing community networks, he said,
adding that it's rare these days that such projects would get a big sponsor
or funding source.
"For other community networks, it's been a challenge to put together
what I've heard referred to as a smorgasbord or patchwork quilt of funding,"
he said. "At some point, if a community network is going to be viable and
successful, it's going to be worth paying for by the community in one way
Once the project is complete, Marsh hopes to get sponsors, similar to
those that support public television, to underwrite half the annual operating
costs, estimated at $45,000 per year.
In a deal helped by the local Rotary Club, the project got 100 used
computers. One unpaid high school intern has been helping Marsh assess,
rebuild and install the computers for school credit. Project leaders have
applied for a grant to create several paid internships for high school students
this summer and during the next school year.
Project workers have put computers in several community centers, including
the Getsemani Community Center, which provides outreach services mainly
to the Hispanic community, and the Georgetown Project, which provides services
and resources to youth.
Randy Cauley, Getsemani's community developer, said they have six public
access computers, four from GCN. In March, the center began offering basic
computer, software and Internet classes for adults. Volunteers, including
high school and college interns, teach the classes weekday evenings and
Saturdays. After school on Wednesdays, they train high school students.
Cauley said providing access to computers and the Internet is important
in bridging the digital divide because most of the people served don't own
computers. He said one woman, whose children come to the center for recreation,
works a 12-hour overnight shift but wants a better job, so she is taking
computer classes there on Saturdays.
"Without that, she wouldn't be able to make that kind of change," he
said. "That's a quality-of-life issue for her."
The special projects coordinator for the Georgetown project, Betty Sandefur,
said GCN set up a public access terminal in the foyer of her group's office.
She's seen parents and children use the Internet.
"Sometimes mothers can just come in and show their kids even how to
play games on a computer," she said. "Many of these families don't even
have a computer. It's a great introduction even if it's playing a game with
their child. That's better than never having the exposure."
It's this three-pronged approach — content, access and training — that's
needed to address the digital divide, Marsh said.
"If we don't put the local content online, then there will be a lot
of information needs in the community that can't be met," he said. "But
putting the content online won't do the job if we don't have access points.
And even content and access won't do the job if we don't have enough training
to help people become comfortable with it."
Marsh isn't sure when the project will be up to speed because that depends
on funding. But he said he's gotten positive feedback from several test
databases that were posted online.
"We don't know what all the benefits will be yet from this digital information
technology," he said, "but we know we can't get those benefits if we don't
get a lot of people comfortable with the technology and exploring ways that
we can harness the technology to do things we want to do."