Fla. offers digital divide directory

Florida Digital Divide Council

Florida officials recently unveiled a portal that will serve as a repository and directory of the state's myriad digital divide programs and initiatives.

The Digital Divide Council's online clearinghouse is set up to help people see what programs are being offered in their region as well as to provide a "best practices" index, said Stacey McMillian, director of the Digital Divide Council. The council, created by statute in July 2001, is an advisory group composed of legislators, agency technology heads and private-sector leaders.

"Everybody's doing a little something," said McMillian, adding that the piecemeal efforts statewide are not fully known.

She said the clearinghouse's creation and state funding for several pilot projects in underserved areas, which were announced just before the holidays, are significant for Florida to produce a high-tech workforce to stay economically competitive with other states and countries. Currently, the state is ranked fifth in the nation for high-tech workers and 26th overall for average high-tech wages and support, she said.

With the advent of online government, McMillian said Gov. Jeb Bush wants the public to keep up. But a digital divide does exist. Citing other sources, she said 76 percent of Florida households earning less than $15,000 do not own a computer; about 57 percent of residents 25 years or older and employed use a computer at work; and among children, 9 percent, or 289,000, do not have a phone at home.

So far, the council has listed more than 600 sites on the portal, listing locations, contact numbers, addresses, links and services offered, ranging from Internet access to computer training to certification. The clearinghouse enables other organizations involved in bridging the digital divide to register their services, she said. A registrant is given a log-in and password to input the information, which is checked by the state before being posted.

The portal allows any user to search for services via a ZIP code or city. Another portal feature, still in development, will allow people to donate equipment as well as look for needed equipment, she said, a "sort of matching service."

McMillian said it's too early to tell how many people have registered, but she added that the state has received positive feedback. She said the state is marketing the portal through brochures, billboards, cable television and grassroots efforts, including talks and posters. The council also announced that workforce boards in six regions — Tallahassee, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Tampa, Gainesville and Miami — would receive $75,000 each, totaling $450,000, to sustain computer labs and programs by providing "wrap-around services," such as transportation and child care.

Another $469,000 was provided to 28 of the 65 existing PowerUP Florida sites. PowerUP Inc. is a nonprofit, Virginia-based group that teamed up with Florida officials two years ago to address the state's technology gap. Grants ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 can be used for educational instruction, nonsoftware curriculum materials, recruitment of mentors or volunteers and technical computer lab support.

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