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A Diamond in the 'Hood: The Digital Inclusion Project

In an "aha" moment several years ago, the People's Emergency Center Community Development Corporation (PECCDC) decided to expand their educational program for shelter residents and nearby low-income neighbors by providing technology services. Under the leadership of Gloria Guard, CEO—and with a collaboration of the United Way, Cisco, and One Economy—the PECCDC received a grant to start the Digital Inclusion program in West Powelton.

PECCDC was founded more than thirty years ago to provide shelter to the homeless; it services such West Philadelphia communities as West Powelton, Saunders Park, Mill Creek, Belmont, and Mantua. Located in close proximity to the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and the University of the Sciences, these neighborhoods represent a microcosm of urban life where significant economic disparities can be found with a matter of blocks. Simply put, it's a matter of the "haves" and the "have nots," with race being a factor, as one might expect.

Gloria Guard, PECCDC's founder and visionary, approved the mini-WiFi network in March 2003; it now has 100 subscribers at $5 per month. In contrast to the proposed citywide project covering 135 miles, the PECCDC's network reached about five blocks. Yet, unwittingly, it has become the go-to project for the team at Wireless Philadelphia.

According to the December 2004 Civitium Digital Divide Case study Wireless Broadband: A Silver Bullet for Poverty, "[T]he network took only two months to complete and included the deployment of five Cisco access points throughout the five-block neighborhood" of West Powelton. [10] Guard states, "Once people have [broadband] access and a computer, they are hooked." Further, she indicates that many residents don't want to leave the area because of this asset.

Onsite training of both students and adults is a year-round component, and the existence of a neighborhood WiFi network has spawned several home-based businesses. Former students have been employed as service technicians, refurbishing computers and installing them within homes free of charge.

In cooperation with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW), PECCDC pioneered the development of a pilot e-government system so that families who are eligible for public benefits can transact business electronically with the government. Studies show that most women on welfare spend from 11–14 hours per month traveling to, waiting for, and meeting with caseworkers, [11] "making it difficult, if not impossible, for someone to keep a job," according to Guard, who believes that Internet access helps make the transition to self-sufficiency. Beehive, the network's web site created by One Economy, also connects to vital resources such as banking, medical care, and childcare.

In a world transformed by technology, large segments of the population having access to the Internet is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Learning to function in this world is what Guard sees as "a silver bullet for poverty."

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