Thursday, October 28, 2010

DC Office of the Chief of Technology Officer Digital Literacy Meeting

What Does it Mean for the Humanities?

The District of Columbia is poised to offer increased broadband internet access to underserved areas of the city. The infrastructure is largely in place, but so is the legislation that prevents the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) from turning on the juice. At a digital literacy summit in Deanwood yesterday, the agency sought to encourage conversations between stakeholders in an effort to rollback these roadblocks and level the information technology playing field in DC. What does this mean for the humanities?

The humanities disciplines can give a voice to overlooked populations, but an idea without a medium for transmission is often extinguished before it has a chance to make a difference. Inexpensive broadband connections in underprivileged communities will allow a new segment of the population to send and receive creativity, intellect, and experience. The humanities can help people understand one another. Training Grounds Inc, a non-profit based in Southeast DC, seeks to connect economically disadvantaged young people with mentors via distance learning technology. The organization's founder Tom Brown believes that broadband technology used in this way can help people with bridge generational and socioeconomic gaps, improving the lives of youth participants and mentors alike. The humanities disciplines can help people take ownership of their history, heritage, and culture – a major goal of the Humanities Council of Washington, DC as exemplified in the DC Community Heritage Project and DC Digital Museum.

The DC Community Heritage Project, a partnership between the Humanities Council, the DC Historic Preservation Office, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, provides grants to grassroots history and heritage preservation groups in the District. These small organizations have taken relatively small awards and done impressive work in the three years since the funds were first offered. Some have made professional quality documentary films, others have published neighborhood cultural guides, a few have staged moving oral history projects, but the projects rarely take the leap into the digital age. The DC Digital Museum, an evolution of the Humanities Council's Humanities Resource Center, is an effort to digitize as many of these grantee projects as possible, organize them in an online catalog, and use them to curate digital exhibitions. The ultimate goal is to allow former grantees, community historians, and others interested in DC culture to organize their own exhibitions and contribute to the collection digitally.

This ambitious project is already underway; the catalog, based on the George Mason University Center for History and New Media's Omeka program, is available at The DC Digital Museum's beta exhibit is based on the life of Flaxie Pinkett, a noted pillar of the DC community and pioneering business woman who advocated for improved housing conditions and education reform.

The city currently offers WIFI hotspots at all public buildings including schools, libraries, recreation centers, and fire stations, while the mobile technology lab (pictured at left) roams the District offering free computer and internet access. OCTO's efforts to improve broadband availability in all areas of the city are absolutely vital to the success of digital humanities projects like the DC Digital Museum. Perhaps the humanities can provide some of the compelling content that will maintain interest and motivation for the city's efforts to make IT universal.

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