Close the Digital Divide and Protect the Environment by Providing Refurbished Computers to Individuals and Families

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Submitted by ushnish.sengupta 2010-07-08 15:09:20 EDT

Theme: Building Digital Skills
Idea Status: +1 | Total Votes: 7 | Comments: 0

The problem of the digital divide, i.e. too few computers, and the problem of electronic waste, i.e. too many computers, can be used to solve each other.

Too few computers

There is a digital divide in Canada where a significant number of families do not have access to computers and the internet from their homes. According to recent Statistics Canada Data, 27% of people in the lowest income quartile do not have internet access from their homes. Although some effort has been made in providing public access to computers through libraries and schools, not having a computer limits economic opportunities, such as job searching, self employment, and electronic commerce. Many job postings and networking events are only posted online. Having a home computer allows individuals to offer services from their homes, including the micro-projects that can be completed part-time. In terms of electronic commerce, the lowest prices for even basic household items can often be found online. Not having a computer also limits civic participation, including knowledge of local events and connectivity to similar individuals.

Too many computers

The Auditor General of Canada released a report in the Spring 2010 describing the looming problem of Aging Information Technology Systems within federal government departments and agencies. The government will need to replace its aging information technology. An Ontario study estimated that 384,000 PCs and 84,000 laptops were discarded in 2004. The majority of desktops and laptops are discarded before the end of their useful life, and can be refurbished to be used for a number of years. Unfortunately, the majority of discarded computers ends up in the landfill as electronic waste, or is shipped to developing countries where the components are extracted through unsustainable and unhealthy processes using extremely low cost labor.

The Canadian government should encourage scalable computer reuse and refurbishing organizations, such as Reboot, Planet Geek, and Free Geek. Both Reboot and Free Geek have multiple locations in different cities, and have therefore demonstrated scalability across the country. Reboot primarily services nonprofit organizations, while Free Geek enables people who cannot afford new computers to earn one through volunteer work. Reboot is also a primarily Microsoft Windows based operation while Planet Geek and Free Geek are Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) based organizations. Free Greek is also an open source organization, i.e. it publishes a detailed organizational model on the Internet, freely available for anyone to use under the Creative Commons license. Since Free Geek started in Portland, Oregon ten years ago, ten other Free Geeks have started up in different cities, including Free Geek Vancouver and Free Geek Toronto.

The software installed on computers for needy individuals should be free and open source software. The total lifecycle cost of using proprietary software is not only the initial installation whether at a low subsidized cost, or donated, but there are lifetime of costs for upgrades and potential support. Open Source Software (OSS) also enables users to become valuable contributors in the OSS community. Individual contributions to OSS are recognized, and may even enable people to get employment and self-employment over the long term. Analysis indicates that differences in income in the IT sector are less dependent on formal education which can be substituted by self taught skills and experience.

For examples of organizations "Turning the Needy into the Nerdy" please see the websites of Free Geek Portland (in operation for 10 years), Free Geek Vancouver (in operation for 3 years), and Free Geek Toronto (in operation for less than one year).

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Suggested URL: Free Geek Toronto

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