Wi-Fi and Social Justice

A failed wireless deal has San Francisco's CIO pondering tough moral questions.
June 2009
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

You won't hear much about the digital divide in San Francisco. Not because there isn't a technology gap between those who have home computers and Internet connections and those who don't. It's just that the city's chief information officer prefers to call his close-the-gap efforts "digital inclusion."

CIO Chris Vein (pronounced "VEE- in") was supposed to oversee an EarthLink/Google deal for wireless Internet.When that deal vaporized--as similar Wi-Fi deals did in other cities--Vein had to look for other ways to open the digital world to those without access. San Francisco's mayor had decreed that government services had to be developed in a different way. When it came to technology, that meant gathering missing demographic data on the people the city thought it was trying to serve and working from there.

Tackling a topic that Vein calls a "social justice" issue is an unusual role for a CIO, whose job typically includes such responsibilities as maintenance of the mainframe, purchasing computers and making the political rounds to line up funding. "When the project started, not only was I, as leader, a fish out of water," Vein says, "but I didn't have any staff who had done it, either." Eventually, Vein marshalled savvy people to go out into communities and accumulate knowledge on how to think about it.

One finding was clear: Connecting the digitally underserved to the Internet would take more than a computer and a connection. The city needed content and applications to keep users plugged in. What emerged to fit these needs is a program called Tech Connect. Three pilot projects are now operating in public housing, education and health.

For housing, the IT department was able to quickly connect 2,500 federally subsidized units to the Internet because those units were located close to San Francisco's speedy fiber-optic network. Another 2,500 units are scattered throughout the city and beyond the city's fiber lines. Those connections are being built piecemeal.

In education, Vein's staff has run fiber to the new California Academy of Sciences building, and to local Boys and Girls Clubs in poorer neighborhoods. At the same time, he is trying to make the technology relevant for kids. With the help of the Academy of Sciences, gaming technology designers and NASA, Vein's team is working on a curriculum based on things kids can do in their immediate areas to help combat global climate change. The idea is to build games that use scientific data, excite students about learning and the environment, and encourage them to get involved.

For health care, a community clinic in the Tenderloin District serves a large population of HIV/AIDS patients. That clinic now is connected by broadband to the University of California, San Francisco. A telemedicine link allows physicians to provide care remotely, doing intake, recording diagnoses and reviewing patient histories for people who rarely, if ever, go to a hospital.

EarthLink's hasty departure was a setback for the city in many ways, but San Francisco has rebounded. "We thought they would come in and do all this great work and provide a great solution," Vein says. Instead, the city had to be inventive about how to serve its citizens.