Check Out the Internet & Internet to Go: Two Library WIFI programs funded by the Knight Foundation

We’re here at the MIT Knight Civic Media Conference, where Alberto Ibarguen and John Bracken have just announced the winners of the latest news challenge, which asked the question “How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?Sands Fish and I were there to liveblog the presentation of grantees. Willow Brugh contributed artwork.

Two of this round’s grantees went to public libraries that are planning initiatives for community members to check out WIFI hotspots for their neighborhoods: the New York Public Library’s “Check out the Internet” project and “Internet to Go” by the Chicago Public Library. Here’s what they said when they went onstage:

Check Out the Internet – @NYPL works to bridge the digital divide by allowing New York residents with limited Internet to borrow portable WIFI hotspots (Tony Marx, James English). Tony describes the New York Public LIbrary as a 19th century institution trying to transform itself for the 21st century. The NYPL is the largest library system in America. Combined, they have 40 million physical visits, more than the cultural institutions and sports events combined. The NYPL is the largest free provider of computer training in New York. A third of New Yorkers rely on them because they don’t have computers at home.

Tony Marx gets on stage to tell us more: when first arrived at the library, he was dismayed that publishers weren’t allowing libraries to borrow electronic books. He worried about a future where people would not have access to books if they chose to read them electronically. A technology designed to increase access to knowledge was going to reduce that access. Lending electronic books is now an opportunity for all libraries.

Through their partnership with the Digital Public Library of America, the NYPL is excited to create a future vision where everything is online for free any time. That’s the holy grail. In the meantime, they noticed that 46% of New York households with incomes below $35k have no broadband access — around a third of all New Yorkers. In the South Bronx and Harlem, around 90% people can’t afford Internet access. The NYPL could have all the content in the world and pump it out for free, and people couldn’t get it. When they open the library, there’s a line. When they close, people sit on their stoop to get WIFI.

Libraries are no longer constrained by walls — provision of access should not be constrained. Since NYPL is in every neighborhood, they decided to let’s leak purposefully. They’ve designed an approach that uses MIFI hotspots, testing with 100 hotspots. With Knight Foundation money and another $1.5 million they’re raising, they want to provide 10,000 hotspots to people involved in their education programs: the 8k students involved in out of school learning, the 10.5k ESOL students, and the 1.5k students involved in technology training. To demonstrate that this is nationally possible, the NYPL is partnering with Brooklyn and Queens libraries, as well as libraries in Kansas and Maine.

This is about everyone in America, sys Tony. Close to 100 million americans don’t have the Internet access we take for granted. If America leaves a third of its population behind, we will not have an economy that works and we won’t have a democracy that works.

The Internet To Go at the Chicago Public Library is offering communities WIFI hotspots to check out to access information (Brian Bannon, Michelle Frisque, Andrew Medlar)

Andrew Medlar gets on stage to tell us about The Chicago Public LIbrary, which is already in every community in the city of Chicago. Their new Internet to Go project will distribute WIFI hotspots to community members in areas that have limited access to the Internet. The library already loans fishing poles, school backpacks, and robots. They’re giong to start by rolling out 300 of these hotspots in 3 branches in targeted communities. They plan to triple that after the initial pilot. They will double this number after 3 months.

The library hopes that these WIFI hotspots will help community members to learn how the Internet can be relevant to them. They hope to reach 10,000 people in their first year and create a proof of concept that can inspire other libraries to do similar work.