Tech is fair game in Illinois

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"Marketing 101"

At a time when advertising dollars are shorter than people's attention spans, Illinois has found that technology education goes better with a corn dog and funnel cake.

For four summers now, state officials have set up shop at the Illinois State Fair, showing fairgoers what the state can do with technology through an exhibit called Tech Town (www.state.il.us/tech/town).

And Tech Town is by no means the boring spot amid the rides and games. It has a couple dozen interactive displays, including live video feeds featuring wildlife from Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and Brookfield Zoo.

About halfway through the exhibition's week-plus run, chief technology officer Mary Reynolds estimated that 100,000 people had been through Tech Town, which takes up an entire barnlike building on the fairgrounds.

All of those people got a taste of the state's e-government services.

"The people who go to a fair are not the type of people who go to a tech show," Reynolds said. "You couldn't buy this type of advertising."

Tech Town is sponsored by the Illinois Technology Office but subsidized by a number of private companies including Ameritech, Dell Computer Corp., Apple Computer Inc. and Microsoft Corp. Reynolds said the state doesn't pay much more than the time for those who set it up and staff the booths.

Reynolds doesn't let just any old agency enter a display in Tech Town. It's competitive. Agencies must apply for a spot, and only those with interesting, interactive exhibits make the cut.

This year, exhibits are arranged by "neighborhood." For instance, "Business Boulevard" features the Illinois Skills Match system for finding jobs and electronic tax filing. "Public Service Parkway" includes assistive technology such as a one-handed keyboard and a foot-pedal mouse. At "Public Safety Place," people can test out a digital ID card system, browse current road conditions and take an Internet safety quiz.

For even more free publicity, a corner of the room has been set up to accommodate a local TV station's daily news show. "Fairgoers like seeing the local news personalities, and all day long they say on air that they're broadcasting live from Tech Town," Reynolds said. "Again, that's advertising I couldn't buy."

Although the elaborate exhibit takes months to plan, Reynolds said it pays off.

"I've been standing behind a curtain and heard people walk by saying, "I had no idea the state could do that,'" she said. "That makes it all worthwhile."

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