Untangling the Web

An Interview with Sue Beckwith and Gene Crick


photograph by Jon Lebkowsky

Many people are talking about the elitist character of the Internet and a lack of access on the part of the "information have-nots," but in Austin we are, by god, doing something about it. Just ask Sue Beckwith and Gene Crick. Austin has two of the largest nonprofit community networking projects in the world, Metropolitan Austin Interactive Network (MAIN) and Austin Free-Net. MAIN helps nonprofits create web pages, and hosts those pages at http://www.main.org totally free of charge. Free-Net facilitates access by providing machines and training in public places like libraries and community centers. Both receive funding from various sources public and private, but neither would be functional, much less successful, without significant volunteer efforts and dedicated leadership. Beckwith, director of Austin Free-Net, and Crick, president of MAIN, spent a lunch hour recently explaining their unique complementary working relationship, and the Austin Access Model for community networking:

Austin Chronicle: Sue, describe the projects you're working on.

Sue Beckwith: We've got lots of projects: We've got the federally funded East 11th-12th Street Community Network project, for which we need to raise another quarter-million in matching funds. The project is a partnership with the Austin Learning Academy, which does the teaching part.

AC: Do you have to get the whole quarter-million? Or can you raise and match any part of it?

SB: You have to match it incrementally, but actually we're contractually bound to match it all.

AC: How are you going to raise the money?

SB: We are counting on the support of individuals... a whole bunch of $20 contributions goes a long way... so if everybody who reads the Chronicle gave us 20 bucks, we would be a long way toward reaching our goal. We're also starting up a corporate fundraising campaign where we're writing proposals to various companies to support different projects. After the 11th-12th Street project, we have the Media Lab, which is really starting to rock. It's a partnership with SER Jobs for Progress and Our Lady's Family Center. We're submitting a corporate proposal to Applied Materials to fund that project.

AC: Will the kids from the Media Lab be job-ready?

SB: I want to have at least a half-dozen kids (I know it doesn't sound like very many) placed in Summer Youth Employment jobs in multimedia development next summer. And part of that is an Internet access lab, where we'll teach a couple thousand people a year how to use the Net. Then we want to focus on a group of about a dozen teenagers and take them through a comprehensive multimedia development program. We just got a grant from Apple for the lab.

But I really need to pump money into 11th and 12th Street, where Dewitty Training Lab is a central access center, with access stations at the community policing stations in the area, the rec centers, senior centers. Our primary training lab is going to focus on Web development training.

Dewitty dovetails with the Media Lab, which is focusing on multimedia: audio, video, stuff like that, in the context of a website or some other application. So the idea is that the kids at the Media Lab, by this time next year, will be able to hold training classes for the kids that have been trained at Dewitty. One group will be able to train the other in their area of expertise. The kids at Dewitty will be experts in information management, website development... whereas the kids at the Media Lab will know the multimedia tools, and they can teach each other... resulting in the bridging of some cultural gaps, too, which doesn't often happen with teenagers....

AC: How do you define multimedia in this context?

SB: Nitty gritty tools... how to make a multimedia product, how to do a story board, how to do an audio file, how to record it....

AC: CD-ROM, too, as well as web?

SB: Yeah. And as part of the 11th-12th Street Project, we have a digital audio editing station that we just put in at KOOP (Radio). The KOOP volunteers are going to be training kids from 11th-12th Street to produce audio pieces for broadcast on the radio and on the Net.

The other thing is the Southeast Austin Youth Development project, which is a partnership with the Austin Independent School District. We've access to four elementary schools, holding training every day at Mendez Middle School. About a hundred people a week go through that program. It covers the 78744 zip code. State money for juvenile crime prevention. That's a real kick, man, they're doing great. We have some incredible teachers involved. Those who do the best are English teachers, teachers that have writing and information management abilities.

A lot of our kids are using Rocketmail and Hotmail. These are extremely popular free services, and there'll be more like them, so public e-mail is becoming less of an issue for us. It was something we felt was crucial this time last year.

Our one other project is the library, where we have Internet access PCs serving 11,000 people a month.

AC: Gene, how about the projects you're working on?

Gene Beckwith: Well, I'll roll 'em off if you won't print them all, grinning because that could look not only pretentious but stupid... I do have trouble saying "no" to some project that interests me, even when I probably should. I'm lucky my wife Lisa is a good sport. I'm editor of the Texas Telecommunications Journal of course, and president of the Texas Internet Service Providers Association [TISPA]. I really enjoy working with the TISPA people; I don't think most net users realize how hard their ISPs try to give them good service.

But for this interview I know you're more interested in the Metropolitan Austin Interactive Network [MAIN]: which within Austin focuses on access to information. Through MAIN, nonprofit organizations can have access to the Web, and thereby people can have access to information about the nonprofits and other public interest activities at MAIN's website. Like Free-Net we also do some training, including helping our nonprofit customers develop websites and skills. We also have a partnership in support of Free-Net, in terms of physical or direct access to the net, democratic access.

Outside Austin, MAIN and the CRC [Community Resource Center] Project have placed access stations in 25 cities. With this new CRC initiative and funding, we're trying to take some of the things that work, and offer them... not dictate them, not even install them, but offer them as options to communities that want to develop their own Internet resources.

I've learned from Sue to ask the relevant questions... "Are we really doing the job? How is our work affecting this kid on this street corner in this town?" Sue is a strong advocate of the clients we're trying to serve, and hard to fool, and that's good. Because if I don't have a good answer when I get off into some philosophical ramble about this stuff, then I need to re-examine it, don't I?

SB: I love the way you put things. Some people have said that same thing, only they've used the term "brash bitch." [Laughter].

GC: She can be perhaps a touch astringent... but I've come to find that charming. I don't know what that says about me... but there's probably something deeply pathological.... [laughs]

AC: Community Resource Center is a statewide project, right?

GC: Yeah, Austin is the pilot, the incubator, but it's definitely a statewide project. We've got some powerful partners, like the Texas Committee for the Arts and the Texas State Library. Obviously, we're going to be piloting a lot of this stuff in Austin as a laboratory to see what works, which we can then replicate in other communities.

AC: Example?

GC: MAIN itself! MAIN is simply a community information network for the commercially unloved. Everybody wants to put up HEB's Web page, right? Not everybody wants to put up the Deaf Skiers' Web page, because there are only like nine deaf skiers, yet they're an absolutely valid constituency, and deserve to have communication with one another. And there are other community subsets like this... I don't have to sell you on the notion of Internet as a community where you can find people with affinities. Having been on the Internet many years, I know that it has a lot of potential, and if it winds up being some techno-elitist tool that excludes the majority of the population, then I'm embarrassed by it, and feel that we've failed.

AC: You guys are working to make the Internet inclusive, facilitating access... are you successful? Do you feel that more and more people who otherwise would be locked out are actually getting on? Not just in Austin, but everywhere?

SB: Definitely, in the case of Austin Free-Net customers. The main barrier in Austin that I've seen, that probably exists everywhere, is that people don't know how to use the computers that are available. But they go to the library in Austin and use the Free-Net stations, or they go to the library in Bastrop and use the CRC stations, since they don't have computers at home. They begin to see its relevance to their own lives.

AC: How do they learn to use those computers? Do you require that people take some training before they log on?

SB: Oh, no. Netscape's simple.

AC: So you just say, "Use Netscape, and look at Help screens."

SB: Or ask the person next to you.

GC: That's almost the only choice we have in rural areas. In Austin they have more resources, because Sue and other people have worked hard to build a training program. So Austin is not the same situation.

AC: Is the training provided through the library?

SB: It's through Free-Net. One training is delivered at the library, the other one's at Dewitty.

GC: And it's a literal training program that's free. That's not the case in the rural area, because what funding we've had is tiny. Thanks to Applied Materials, AMD, and the Texas State Library we managed to buy the hardware, but the libraries themselves are supporting these machines, in that they're paying for the electricity, etc. They've got not a dime in extra staff. They have little training for staff, and no budget to provide training for the users. Having an access station that people can use isn't as great as having one with a strong training component, but it's better than none at all. However, I find it unfortunate that the Texas legislature put a last-minute rider on the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF) to remove the training component.

SUE: But there's a bunch you can do with volunteers. Our training is like 99.5% volunteer work.

GB: That's true. We also use an all-volunteer training program at MAIN.

AC: What are they funding with the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund... networks for underserved areas?

GB: The most visible goal for them is to provide K-12 campuses with Internet access. Just last Friday we received the announcement of the second round of TIF winners, which is now up on the website. The first round of winners was in January, I think. They've certainly not all completed their projects. But it's not all K-12. A few months ago there was something of a political mandate from the powers that are to say let's get on the stick and get all the libraries hooked up. This sound advice from Olympus was made manifest at TIF, and there's now an RFP upcoming for libraries to be connected.

AC: Back to training: Wherever you set up, the one guy who has an affinity for the Internet will want to start teaching everybody else how to do it, right?

GC: Absolutely, and it's a very heartening thing to watch. However, you can't depend on it unless you've got a mechanism in place. So I'm hoping CRC will facilitate the creation of training programs.

SB: There have to be training wheels. You can train the trainers: provide a curriculum, coach people, and then they're off on their own. What we're doing at Dewitty is providing training for any organization serving 11th-12th Street. Youth Options, Big Brothers-Big Sisters, Girl Scouts, any of them. We tell them to bring volunteers and staff for this kind of training, and once trained, they can train their constituents in our lab.

GC: In putting an organization's content online, on the Web, MAIN won't demand that they become net-cognizant. We provide training facilities, and encourage any group that wants to propagate this skill to use them. Free-Net, for me, is the model for training, because it is volunteer-based. However they run into the same problem we have at MAIN, which is that, if you're not careful, you'll die of success. At MAIN we've got more than 400 organizations either linked or hosted on the site, all nonprofits. Free-Net has well over 300 volunteers. And the problem with that, though it's a marvelous thing, is span of control. How much can Sue Beckwith handle? No way can she handle that much, so you wind up getting into structure and supervision and other administrative skills so difficult for those of us who prefer lighting firebrands and marching on various castles.

SB: Volunteers want and need personal contact and some amount of direction.

GC: Yeah, and organizational structure.

SB: And that's another way that Free-Net could really do better. We grew faster than we could manage.

AC: I think it's common for volunteer organizations to have difficulty managing the necessary bureaucracy...

SB: But that's unacceptable! Completely unacceptable.

AC: I think has something to do with the kind of people you attract when everybody's an early adopter.

SB: Yeah.

AC: The people who are really good at setting up a bureaucracy and managing it tend to be more conservative than the early adopters.

SB: We have a better scene happening now. What we've done is typical of Austin Free-Net, where we like to think of ourselves as very focused. We've focused on 11th-12th Street. We have Ana Sisnett directing that project, and handling its volunteer coordination. So we'll be able to set up management processes and coordination procedures. We've got a voice mailbox... we can advertise our phone number for the first time. "Press 2 if you're interested in training or volunteering."

We were also selected by Impact Online to be one of three community nets in the country to test the concept of virtual volunteering. A virtual volunteer is someone who volunteers to do work that can be handled online. For example, I need somebody to check the links on our site, and read our site every week, and make sure it's updated. I don't care whether that person's in Canada, Honolulu, Cambodia, or Austin... that's a virtual volunteer job that you would post on the Impact Online site.

And with Jen and Dave Evans from Digital Voodoo, we set up a volunteer information system where local volunteers can sign up on line. A lot of people around the country are looking at that.

GC: Austin's Internet leadership is interesting... we get nearly 300,000 hits a month at MAIN, and many of them are from out of the city, out of the state, and out of the country. Surprising, because we're a local information site. How much does somebody in Alberta, Canada care about our content? My presumption is that they care about how we do what we're doing.

SB: We have a name for what we're doing here: the Austin Access Model.

GC: The model has been proved right. Some access projects try to provide free dialup access, but that's competing in the marketplace of providers.

SB: The issue is service. We have people we want to serve... who are they? What do they need? Let's ask them, why aren't you connected?

AC: Most people have a phone, right?

SB: Right, and the cost of an Internet Service Provider is not a barrier.

AC: It's about the same as the cost of phone service, not the true barrier. The real barrier is a lack of knowledge.

SB: And lack of access to a computer capable of accessing the Net. Internet service means nothing if you don't have a computer and know how to use it.

GC: The cultural barrier is massive. If we leave a sizeable portion of our society wholly excluded from the Internet, we're just going to increase polarization.

AC: Everybody sees what we're doing with the technology as magic. As long as it's mystified for them, as long as they think it's magic, they're not on board.

GC: So far, online technology is anything but democratic; whole sections of our population are culturally disenfranchised. The ability and the awareness are there, but not the opportunity. For too many Americans, the Internet is somebody else's world.

SB: And that's why the approach of training people to train others is important. It's about people, it's not about technology. If a Girl Scout leader learns how to do a Surfing 101 class, and then goes and trains his or her Girl Scout troop... look who's teaching them. It's somebody who's already a role model in their life, not just some geek.

AC: Have you been hearing about the proliferation of gated communities? This is something Mark Dery talks about. On the Internet, we start from the ground floor with a gated community. The idea for some of us is to try to tear down the gates, get more people inside.

SB: Uh-huh. Dynamite 'em! We're Austin, Texas, dammit! There's people all over the country and all over the world wagging their academic lips about the haves and the have nots, and whether the networked computer will solve the problem. Who knows?

AC: But you've got a lot of people who've built their whole lives on knowing what other people don't know about the Internet... and I think they're resistant to the kind of demystification we're talking about. They make a lot of money doing the tech, which is really not that difficult.

SB: And they know it. The good stuff is like the difference between a Nikon and a Leica. That extra 10% of quality costs you another 100%.

GC: I'm an Instamatic kind of guy. And I'm saying that the Internet is the strongest potential force of segregation in this country, in this century. The Internet's going to make the poll tax look welcoming and open, so long as the demographics say that the Internet remains a prosperous white person's domain.

SB: The disparity is increasing exponentially every day.

GC: I know it. An e-mail address is an almost absolute predictor of socioeconomic status. Is it cause and effect? Hell, no, but it is a correlation. I'm optimistic though, about what the Internet can become if we work together. For example: I'm an over-aspiring, over-committed and sometimes pompous old fossil...

SB: I didn't say that...

GC: ...so if Sue Beckwith and I can keep a fairly clear picture of what we're doing working together, this can work out... it's gonna work out!

SB: Where Austin is radically different from other cities... there seem to be two models, and then there's ours. We are Austin, Texas, after all, are we not?

There's the model where the city actually does public access, the nonprofit content, and the city's content.

Then there's the model where one nonprofit group does all of it, both access AND content. And it's overwhelming for them. Overwhelming. You can't do it all in one organization unless you're extremely well-funded and incredibly well-managed from the get go.

GC: Jon, I hope readers will visit the MAIN site at http://www.main.org and tell us about any other nonprofit groups we might add. And maybe volunteer to help; MAIN is an all-volunteer group and we always need people who are interested in public service uses of the Internet.

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