Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Brooklyn Nonprofits That Shovel in the Digital Divide


The search for Brooklyn nonprofits that are closing the digital divide through broadband installation uncovered a few things. One, dead zones—areas where either cable TV or broadband technology is not supplied—exist in Brooklyn. They exist because the major cable companies don’t believe it is profitable to invest the wiring. Another, nonprofits need to connect with one another. When posed the question, “Do you know of nonprofits wiring buildings or installing Wi Fi in Brooklyn, Mirielle Massac, Child Development Support Corporation’s (http://www.cdscnyc.org/) PR Director, thoughtfully turned the wheels in her mind and came up blank. Massac suggested that this columnist set up an operation. You can imagine that I was honored.

The investigation hit pay dirt. Keep in mind that it takes many wheelbarrows full before you strike gold or oil. It included contacting eleven major Brooklyn nonprofits—nine are located in central Brooklyn. Most didn’t return the call. Two were ardent telephone tagging. One VP of Information Technology said, “…their website is not a priority…” Reaching the Nonprofit Help Desk (http://www.nphd.org/) was the “Eureka!” moment. Nonprofit Help Desk’s Executive Director Chaya Abelsky interrupted her out-of-town vacation to talk about the nonprofit and arrange interviews with three staff members.

Nonprofit Help Desk’s mission is to increase the capacities of New York City's small to mid-size nonprofit organizations through technology and operations management services, education and advocacy. It is one of four arms of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island (JCC). It is recognized to be the first nonprofit to provide technology services to other nonprofits. Nonprofit Help Desk was born from JCC Executive Director’s, Rabbi Weiner, early adoption of the Internet. By 1992, Weiner recognized that the Internet and computers could be powerful social cause and nonprofit management tools. It was a matter of sharing the message to other nonprofits and then getting them computerized and web-enabled. Evidently, he sold his case for technology to the, then, Commissioner of Community Development Agency (now Department of Youth and Community Development), Gladys Carrion. Commissioner Carrion granted funds for the future Nonprofit Help Desk, without a Request For Proposal. Today, Nonprofit Help Desk gives training in computerized bookkeeping, Intenet basics, sets up computer networks and security systems and connects nonprofits to broadband communication technolgy. June 2007, ushered in the online social network for nonprofits called Puzzle http://www.puzzlenyc.org/. Leah Vincent, Director of Development, oversees Puzzle and explained that, though Puzzle is in Beta version, it’s the online space for nonprofits “to gain emotional support, find resources, discuss issues and [just] connect.”

Nonprofit Help Desk’s Technical Services Department arranges the wiring and does the network installation. Yossef Heskiel directs the four-member department. Heskiel is a certified Microsoft Systems Engineer and was an Electronics Technician for the US Navy. He sums up the process in four steps: assessement, recommendation, infrastructure planning & design and implemetation. Three examples of this process are St. John’s Place Family Center (www.stjohns.org), Caribbean Women’s Health Association (www.cwha.org) and Dwa Fanm (www.dwafanm.org). St. John’s Place Family Center is located in a dead zone in the western end of Crown Heights (1604 St. John’s Place). It has an employment center, afterschool center and day care at one end of the block and the administrative office and social services are at the other end. The group had fifteen AOL dial-up accounts which amounted to $700 - $800 in charges a month. Nonprofit Help Desk visited the offices in 2002 and recommended the installation of fractional T1 lines. Fractional T1 is a business class data transfer that is half the throughput of T1 data lines. Though more expensive than dial up, St. John’s Place Family Center experienced a savings of about $10,000 annually. The nonprofit’s Executive Director, Louis Rodriguez is pleased with the installation. Rodriguez says, “The fractional T1 line enabled us to cut internet-related costs. We now have better email service at much less cost…We had SharePoint—an intranet program—installed as part of the T1 installation. This improves our capacity to share information among staff.” Nonprofit Help Desk literally ran 300 meters of wires through 2 feet and 5 feet thick walls in the basement to connect the two ends of St John’s Place.

For Caribbean Women Health Association is was the case of not needing or using the previous communication system which was a frame relay broadband system. It’s fine for frequent international communication but too much for local needs. The solution for this nonprofit was disconnecting the broadband and installing synchronous DSL. The nonprofit had been paying about $1,050 a month in Internet fees for 256 kbs; the new system gives 1.5 megabyte throughput for $329 a month. Dwa Fanm operated using dial up Internet services and didn’t have computer network. Their solution involved signing with Roadrunner and configuring a network. Nonprofit Help Desk monitors and maintains hundreds of nonprofits’ computer systems with their remote technology monitoring system. This software is installed on the network servers and any glitches are emailed to the Technical Services staff’s Pocekt PCs. How’s that for being wired for success?

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