What Digital Inclusion Looks Like in Stratford
Being all of 32,000 people, it’s perhaps easier for Stratford’s sense of human scale to foster an integrated sense of community, including sharing with, and encouraging along, one another. Outreach, support for local initiatives and volunteerism are characteristics of life in Stratford.
However, while the relative costs of broadband and devices are flattening and declining, access to the benefits of technology cannot be treated as a given. Digital inclusion is another way Stratford’s natural social cohesion manifests. The City, institutions and community organizations are leveraging broadband to help along those who struggle to keep up.
“With all of the corporate developments and institutional activity happening in the digital space, City Council is concerned that our citizens are not left behind but share in the city’s prosperity as we vigourously pursue the broadband economy and digital culture,” says Mayor Dan Mathieson. “Including our latest Memoranda of Understanding and pilot projects with Toshiba’s smart LED lighting divisionand home automation company anyCOMM — it’s leading edge innovation, but it will also benefit lower income families by dramatically reducing the electricity it takes to light their homes.”
Another poignant example of technology’s reach was when the City’s decided to make the 2010 municipal election electronic and paper-free. A flight of 16 Wi-Fi enabled laptops connected via Rhyzome Networks were sent out as polling stations at 7 senior’s homes and long-term care facilities so 750 elderly and infirm residents could vote — some for the first time in many years, some for the the first time unassisted.
As an unofficial social experiement, Waterloo software giant OpenText gave the City 15 year-and-a-half old PCs, which were placed in low-income housing homes for a month in 2011. Anonymous analysis of the online activity showed that the overwhelming usage was accessing healthcare, childcare, education, training and job search sites. “This demonstrates that if you get technology into people’s hands, they make constructive use of it to benefit themselves and their families,” says Mayor Mathieson.
INCLUSION AT THE LIBRARY
Stratford Public Library is a local institution that plays a key role in the City’s digital inclusion strategy. While Stratford has a skilled labour base, the prospect of being left behind in digital literacy has been a challenge taken up by the library staff, who have been digital and online early adopters over the years. “We view the internet not as a threat but as another channel for us to fulfill our prime mandate: helping people find stuff,” Sam Coghlan, Library Director and CEO says. “When we applied for and received the grant to promote the BiblioCommons, the library’s online interface, we used the argument that by encouraging readers to use the platform we would be raising the digital literacy among a sector of the community that would not otherwise be attracted to the Web, much less Web 2.0 social media features.”
The Library also held a digital inclusion seminar for parents this year, “Get Connected”, explaining computer and online skills, privacy, security and online safety. “Sometimes it’s the parents of tech-savvy kids who are feeling left behind by the technology their own children are using,” says Coghlan.
INCLUSION, PUBLIC EDUCATION AND OUTREACH
The Avon Maitland District School Board (AMDSB) pioneered online high school education as an expression of its commitment to digital inclusion, e.g. “All courses available to all students, regardless of location.” A tall order, but the resulting Avon Maitland Distance e-Learning Centre (AMDEC) courses were designed to overcome barriers of rural isolation, shift work, illness and disabilities, and religious restrictions.
As educators, the Board is particularly concerned with helping marginalized youth keep up and prosper in the knowledge economy. They created several programs to reach out, including “On-Line Co-Op”, helping high school drop-outs with online reporting to apply work experience for credit to complete their diplomas; and “Reach for Success” teaching at-risk youth life skills, including computer skills and online job searches. These programs were subsequently integrated into the Board’s “Centre for Employment and Learning” in downtown Stratford.
The Centre offers a wide range of computer training and employment services for adults of all ages at minimal cost, from instruction, skills upgrading and hands-on business experience to hiring subsidies for up to 50% of wages for 6 months.
Literacy is a digital inclusion challenge. AMDSB developed The Learning HUB, AMDEC-like online courses for adult literacy training. The government of Ontario uses the courses in programs spanning the province.
THE UNIVERSITY INCLUDES THE COMMUNITY
The University of Waterloo | Stratford Campus is proactive in an inclusive relationship with the community, generously hosting many public events and maintaining open access to seminars and workshops with leading academics and practitioners — usually for free-to-nominal admission.
UW|Stratford and the Canadian Digital Media Network, as sponsors of the “Canada 3.0” annual national digital media conference, offer free admission to the plenary sessions, technology showcase and start-up pitch sessions, for seniors and high school students so they can stay engaged in with Canada’s national and global aspirations to be a digital nation.
INFRASTRUCTURE FOR INCLUSION
As a City-owned broadband platform, Rhyzome Networks maintains free high-speed Wi-Fi access to 18 websites of public interest for all residents and visitors to Stratford — seniors and low-income residents can use the site for free to access 2 local news sources, the Public Library, healthcare, education and government services.
Rhyzome also frequently provides free, in-kind or nominal Wi-Fi service for local public events, such as Canada 3.0, Ontario Small Urban Municipalities conference, the International Women in Digital Media Summit, and the aforementioned municipal election.
In the same spirit of digital inclusion, Stratford shares its experiences with other Ontario communities struggling to solve their broadband challenges. Rhyzome Networks’ Paul West and Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson regularly present to various regional and provincial government bodies to share Stratford’s broadband and Intelligent Community stories to encourage other municipal leaders and managers facing this learning curve.
INCLUSION FOR SMALL BUSINESSES
In 2010, concern that small businesses, home businesses and seniors keep up with, and even leverage, the explosion in social media prompted the Stratford|Perth Centre for Business and Stratford Public Library to collaborate on 12 social media bootcamps held in Stratford and other Perth County locations, presented by local production house, MS2. Attendance was double what was anticipated.
The Centre for Business also conducts an ongoing series of computer-related introductory courses in the city and smaller rural towns.
DIGITAL INCLUSION FOR FOOD
Stratford was chosen as a pilot project location for “STOP”, a local community food centre. The project director, Steve Stacey, is working on a proposal to use the Cloud to network food sources to address “food security” among families who struggle. The project entails bringing Stratford’s 7 food charities and 12 food distribution outlets into the broadband era by networking them to establish food security and improve nutrition. In December, Stratford’s technology association, Avonova, invited Stacey to pitch the project at their holiday social to enlist technical ideas and advice. He left with excellent material and new contacts for expertise in connectivity and applications.
As Kevin Tuer, Managing Director of the Candian Digital Media Network, says, “The extensive fibre network, combined with the initiative to flood the city in wireless coverage, positions Stratford to be a world leader in connecting industry with community services to create a digitally inclusive society.”