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Connecting for Good wrestles Kansas City's digital divide

Matt Hamblen | April 17, 2014
The digital divide isn't some esoteric, policy-wonk concept to Michael Liiamatta, president of Connecting for Good, a nonprofit IT support group based in Kansas City, Mo.

"I want to learn more to prepare for online classes [in nursing], and I really need to search for resumes," she said in an interview. "I knew a little bit about using a computer, just the basics, but this helped because they spent time with me one-on-one, step-by-step."

Jones has a smartphone and even has a Google Fiber link to her home, but said she needs more computer skills to "open up more choices."

"For many people, computers are intimidating," Liimatta said. That's where free, hands-on courses come in, with assistance at home to make an Internet connection and to set up a computer.

Last September, the Pew Research Center survey found that 15% of American adults don't use the Internet at all, with about one-third of them saying the Internet wasn't relevant to them, and another third saying it was frustrating or difficult to use.

To Connecting for Good volunteers and many others, those numbers aren't acceptable. "Whether it's the intimidation factor or too difficult or too expensive, our whole focus is to the lower the threshold," Liimatta said.

Some groups have accused Google Fiber of not doing enough to promote Internet connections in poorer areas of Kansas City, though others counter that the Internet firm's arrival helped activate the community and raise awareness of the city's digital divide. There's plenty of blame to go around for the divide — it could be shared with the area's prior Internet providers, such as Time Warner Cable and AT&T.

"It's not fair to ask if Google or Time Warner or AT&T is doing enough," said Rick Usher, Kansas City's assistant city manager, in an interview. "Really, the question is, is the community doing enough? There's a groundswell of activity that's much larger and more visible than when Google Fiber came. It's put the K.C. digital divide on the agenda in a way that it wasn't before."

At the very least, Liiamatta said, Connecting for Good has "become a lightning rod for socially-minded geeks. They might not be the ones who serve a meal at a soup kitchen, but they have technical skills."

For Liimatta, an ordained Christian minister who works as a full-time dean at a local college, the digital divide is something to get passionate about.

"You have to be digital to live in a digital society," he said. "More than ever, information is power. Bandwidth really is the new water."

"The digital divide is the same old divide that splits America between the haves and have nots, between black and white. It's the same socioeconomic divide that has already divided cities. I believe an underclass is emerging in America that separates the connected from the unconnected," he added. "This is a social justice, economic and educational crisis and I think corporate America has to step up to this. Our government policy is not reaching the grass roots level we work at every day."


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