Connecting Philly

Communities / Article

This week in Philadelphia, just ahead of Philly Tech Week, we helped introduce a new tool to the public.  It aggregates locations across the city that provide access to the Internet.

The tool, called Connect Philly, helps people find free, or affordable, online access and also computer training opportunities. It allows residents to send their address via text message to 215.240.7296 and find the closest available Internet access point.

In a city, where according to a 2008 report, 40% of households lack broadband access, finding a connection is critical to promoting informed and engaged communities.

I had the pleasure of kicking off yesterday’s launch with Technically PhillyJ-LAB, the city of Philadelphia, KEYSPOT and the Free Library of Philadelphia in City Hall’s Conversation Hall.  Brian James Kirk, co-founder of Technically Philly, demonstrated the website and SMS text application.  Chris Wink, co-founder of Technically Philly, moderated a great panel discussion on the progress that we’ve made in Philadelphia since the 2008 report as well as the challenges ahead.  The panel featured  Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Brigitte Daniel, executive vice president, Wilco Electronic Systems, Charles Kaylor, visiting assistant professor in the department of geography at Temple University,  Bryan Mercer of Media Mobilizing Project and Bret Perkins, V.P. government relations, Comcast.  

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter also spoke and emphasized the need for digital literacy. He highlighted Digital On-Ramps to Success, which promotes anytime, anywhere learning. The project won the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge along with a recent MacArthur grant to begin development of its first two modules. 

The launch of Connect Philly is part of Knight Foundation’s overall effort to promote an informed and engaged Philadelphia.  It supports the work of our partner, Free Library of Philadelphia Hot Spots and builds upon our Code for America work in Philadelphia, which helps connect government to citizens.  In addition, it complements our Project Liberty new media incubator with Ben Franklin Technology Partners, where we are incubating technology companies inside the Philadelphia newspaper group. 

Last year, I wrote why a new Knight-funded project, Change By Us, is perfect for Philadelphia. However, until all of our city’s residents have access to technology and the training to use it, they cannot all take advantage of these types of platforms. 

When you walk into one of the Hot Spots or Keyspots and see the joy from a person who is sending their first email or finally able to apply for employment, it suddenly becomes crystal clear exactly how important it is to ensure that all people have access to the Internet.  Connect Philly is a tool that anyone can access from any mobile phone so that they too can send their first email, find a job, or check on their child’s progress in school through Family Net (an online portal at The School District of Philadelphia).

When all of our city’s residents have access to the Internet and the information and learning that it provides, they will possess even greater power to make their neighborhoods, communities, cities and even themselves better. 

By Donna Frisby-Greenwood, program director/Philadelphia at Knight Foundation

Earlier this week, Knight Foundation released a report around its efforts to bridge the digital divide in Detroit. The report could provide lessons on what works and what doesn’t for communities trying to digitally connect the 100 million Americans without home broadband access.