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North Carolina Connects

by Carl Hoffman

Gary Steeley climbs onto a chair at the Northwest Child Development Council (NCDC) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, pushes up a panel of the suspended ceiling, and fishes out a small box attached to a multitude of cables. "This," he says triumphantly, "is a 20-port hub." The object of his pride looks remarkably unremarkable. But it is the heart of what computer gurus like Steeley, who is special projects coordinator for the Northwest Piedmont Council of Governments, call a local area network, or LAN, a complicated name for a simple concept: a group of computers connected to each other.

In the coming months, the LAN will enable the NCDC, a sprawling organization that oversees 12 child-care centers in four counties, to save money by standardizing office software, cutting long-distance communications costs, and consolidating email accounts. Connected by computers hooked to the Internet at each of its centers, the NCDC will have the same sort of information management power that allows giants like Wal-Mart to maintain the cutting edge of efficiency. Its central kitchen, which supplies meals daily to 800 children at the 12 centers, will be able to determine the exact number of meals to prepare every day, saving money. The time it takes to process accounts payable bills has already been cut by two days, and the NCDC will be able to take inventory and order supplies for all of its centers over the network. The play equipment it sells to day-care centers in the region at cost will soon be available on its forthcoming World Wide Web page.

"Being able to network has gotten us into a whole new way of thinking," says Paula McCoy Corbin, NCDC executive director.

The network—called the Early Childhood Development Regional Network—is one of the first seven projects funded by Connect NC, a statewide program initiated by the Office of the Governor that hopes to speed up the integration of telecommunications technology into the daily lives of North Carolinians, setting the stage for improved services and communication and making the state an attractive place to do business. "We wanted to get people thinking about what telecommunications possibilities were available," says Barbara Levine, Connect NC's director, "and to develop a planning process for telecommunications that would cut across county, regional, private, and public lines."

Planning for Telecommunications

The first phase of Connect NC was begun in 1996 in Appalachian North Carolina with a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), along with state and local funds. Wanting the impetus for the projects to come from local regions, rather than from the governor's office, state officials invited community leaders from the 29 Appalachian counties to a series of monthly meetings and presentations on telecommunications technology. The meetings helped community leaders understand what connectivity was, what telecommunications services were available, what the ramifications of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 would be, and how to gather information on what was already happening in their regions.

"It was remarkable," says Levine, "not only how little people knew about what systems, lines, and services were in their area, but how little they knew about what others in their region were already doing. Telecommunications technology is not cheap, and there were a lot of redundancies where there could have been sharing."

Armed with $6,250 in planning grants from local and ARC funds, local groups, with representatives from county commissioners, local school systems, community colleges, hospitals, county extension agents, chambers of commerce, government social service agencies, and nonprofits—all the key elements of a community—assessed their areas' existing telecommunications services and struggled toward consensus on what the community might want and need in the future. "For a lot of the people involved, this was not a natural process," says Connect NC's Levine, "because they were used to working in single cities or agencies. But it's just too expensive to fund technology on a county-by-county or agency-by-agency level. We wanted them to think out of the box."

Since the five counties of the Northwest Piedmont Council of Governments already had a fairly good telecommunications infrastructure, "We focused on issues that stood in the way of greater connectivity," says Steeley. Over and over, it came back to the "glaring issue," as Steeley puts it, of the fast-changing technology needs of nonprofits and their lack of technical expertise. The committee found that even as local governments were being forced to rely on computers and the sharing of information by the recent changes in welfare law, for instance, the nonprofit agencies who played a pivotal role in providing social services (like the NCDC) were the least likely to have telecommunications technology or the funds or expertise to purchase and use it. Even worse, these same nonprofits were particularly isolated, while the people they served had the least access to telecommunications technology.

"In a lot of ways, nonprofits are an extension of government, especially in health and human services," says Steeley, "and if the government starts using technology, then its partners have to be brought up to speed or the different agencies can't work with each other. But nonprofits can't afford technical staff, and they often just don't know how to do it." Paula Corbin couldn't agree more. "We serve a low-income population, and a lot of our teachers come from that same environment," she says, "and they've never been exposed to computers."

Funding Community Projects

In the second phase of Connect NC, the various county and regional committees were invited to submit grant proposals for projects of their choice, and seven "community implementation plans" were funded in August 1997 with ARC and Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, and local matching contributions:

  • the counties of the Southwestern North Carolina Planning and Economic Development Commission established a North Carolina Information Highway site at Tri-County Community College, allowing local colleges to share courses through videotelecommunications;
  • Polk County installed public-access computer terminals in the county library;
  • Madison, Buncombe, Henderson, and Transylvania Counties, working together, established public-access computer terminals in libraries and also established a "regional connectivity commission" to help their local governments improve services through technology applications;
  • McDowell County undertook several projects, including training low-income students to refurbish computers for use by low-income and rural residents;
  • Rutherford County concentrated on providing Internet access for the residents of a senior center and establishing an intranet for county organizations;
  • Caldwell County chose to continue expanding the county-wide computer network and to increase public Internet access;
  • and the counties of the Northwest Piedmont Council of Governments region banded together to create the Early Childhood Development Regional Network.

"We thought, let's put computers in day-care centers," says Steeley. "On the one hand, the [NCDC] is under pressure to lower costs and improve services, and on the other, computer literacy is important and the population who uses the centers doesn't have computers at home."

With grant money from ARC, CDBG funds, and local matching funds, the network installed 31 computers in 12 child-care centers and LAN equipment in the NCDC's headquarters. "It's really basic technology, but this is all about getting technology out there and hoping it will change basic work practices," says Steeley, who envisions recreating the shared passion and brainstorming typical of, say, a child-care convention, in an online community. Says Steeley: "The computer is a tool to create a community in the midst of rural isolation."

After the computers were installed, the staff at the child-care centers received basic computer training. Instruction in using email, navigating the Internet, and designing World Wide Web pages will follow. Steeley thinks it will take two years for the NCDC and its centers to fully assimilate the technology into their work practices. But he's also finding that when people get hold of computers, they often don't wait around for experts like Steeley to show them what to do. "The network was a prayer answered for us," says Corbin, "and we're beginning to see the difference already."

Indeed, the comments Steeley and Levine are hearing about economic efficiency and a new way of thinking are music to their ears. What apostles of telecommunications connectivity ultimately hope to see isn't computers as glorified typewriters or telephones, but as tools that revolutionize how people interact with each other and their government, making services more cost-efficient even as they make them better. "Why not put government services of all kinds on the Web?" says Steeley. "You want to provide as many gateways into the system as you can so that people can get the help they need. The working poor get discouraged because they work all day and then can't visit a job training center or register their car or find information about child care. Why not put public-access terminals in supermarkets and malls and libraries? Employment, job training, child care, and transportation are all linked, and when someone inquires about one, they should get connected to all the others."

Making Connections

The projects coming out of Connect NC are just the beginning of Steeley's vision, of course. And nascent though some of them are, they hardly seem pie-in-the-sky. The Mocksville Developmental Preschool, in rural Mocksville, North Carolina, one of the council's 12 child-care centers, now has two computers that have interactive educational software and are connected to the World Wide Web and to the NCDC itself. On a hot spring afternoon, teacher's aide Vivian Settle gently scolds a visitor for being too loud and extols the virtues of the new machine while her charges, 13 special-needs children ages two to six, snooze. The kids made fancy cards for Mother's Day, she says, and daily learn basic sizes, numbers, and letters through the interactive software. Recently the speech therapist discovered the computer's prowess, and it has become an integral part of her work. "We've had about as much fun on the computers as the kids. The children's eyes light up at the stories, and being able to incorporate speech and language is wonderful for us."

Settle hasn't even taken Internet training yet, but she's already navigating the Web looking for financial aid information for college, where she's hoping to get her teaching degree. That's exactly what Levine and Steeley are hoping for—a flourishing of information and professional development available to a traditionally isolated rural staff with little training.

Soon the center will let the children's parents use the computers, and suddenly, employment opportunities listed on the Web, professional-looking resumes, and everything else computers can offer will be available to people without computers of their own. "It's like an ever-widening series of circles that will eventually connect everyone," says Steeley. "I'm passionate about this. Telecommunications technology isn't a panacea, but it can fundamentally change attitudes toward community and government. Information is power, and done right, connecting people empowers them."

An administration office and a day-care center 30 miles away, two seemingly unconnected places, each fielding relatively simple technologies that may just turn into a revolution. "We're having a great time brainstorming about what can happen with this network," says Paula Corbin. "We've always seen ourselves as leaders in the field of child care, and it's definitely helping us to realize our vision."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.