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Miami tries to bridge its digital divide

The city is proof that one doesn't need to leave the U.S. to find the same lack of economic opportunity and technology access that characterizes many emerging markets. It's also proof that with enough investment, the digital divide can be bridged.

MIAMI--In the basement of a Catholic church, a woman loudly shouts the word "three," and a chorus of seniors repeats the word several times as part of their regular English lessons. A few yards a way, a small flea market features a display of clothes and other items. But next door to the flea market is the crown jewel of the Gesu Senior Center: its computer lab.

Click here to read all of the stories in The Borders of Computing series.
Click here to read all of the stories in The Borders of Computing series.

What began last year with only a couple computers in a corner, now consists of two enclosed rooms packed with PCs. This past Friday, about thirty Spanish-speaking seniors learned how to use the computers to make greeting cards. Seniors come to the lab three days a week for the lessons and two other days a week the lab is open for people who want to send e-mail and keep up with friends and family.

Among the first seniors to use the lab when it opened was Maria Rico, 77, who moved to the United States in 1978. As a volunteer at the church that houses the senior center, Rico heard about the class and signed up without hesitation.

Despite having only received six months of formal education, Rico has been one of the lab's most dedicated users, relying on it to keep in touch with her grandchildren in Colombia, who pay to use an Internet cafe to respond to her notes.

A number of seniors look on as they get computer training at Miami's Gesu Catholic Church and Senior Center. Ina Fried/CNET

In another corner of the room, Beatriz Gomez signs in to check her e-mail. The computer allows her to connect with her brother, nieces and nephews, and many friends back in Colombia.

"It shortens the distance," she said.

But many of the economic and social barriers that existed in Colombia have also manifested themselves in Miami. Despite the wealth on display on Miami's beaches and a wave of investment that has modernized the downtown skyline, the city of Miami remains one of the nation's poorest.

The senior center is one component of a citywide program called Elevate Miami aimed at offering educational opportunities to citizens of all ages. Another part of the program called "Rights of Passage," offers all sixth-graders in the city the opportunity to earn a free computer, provided they maintain decent grades and maintain the respect of their teachers. Parents are also required to complete a session.

Maria Rico, who moved from Colombia to the United States in 1978, was only allowed to go to school for six months as a child, but has been an avid participant in the computer classes at Gesu since the lab opened last year. Ina Fried/CNET

"When we've looked in some of our particularly disadvantaged neighborhoods, we see computers in less than a third of houses," said city of Miami CIO Peter Korinis. "We see Internet connections in less than a quarter. Clearly these families and these households are going to have an uphill fight to take advantage of all that a computer has to offer, whether its education or health care or jobs."

In 2004, Miami wired the first of its city parks for Internet access. The city had planned to add parks methodically, but the demand proved tremendous and it connected more than 20 parks that first year with anywhere from a single PC to labs with a dozen or more computers. As of January, the city had 43 parks hooked up with 293 computers in total.

But the city was careful where it put its dollars, Korinis said.

"These are not sumptuous computer centers," he said. "In many cases, these are multipurpose rooms. They roll out the mats and do gymnastics, then they role back the mats and roll out the computers."

The most important things the parks offer is proximity to the people who need computer access most. "That's why we chose these places," Korinis said. "It's safe and its close."

For the PCs, the city found a willing donor: itself.

In the past, the company had auctioned off its outdated but working machines for as little as $5 apiece. Microsoft provided new software for the machines, while AT&T and Comcast are providing Internet access for the parks and senior centers.

Irma Orfila, another of the regulars at the Gesu senior center, said she had never used a computer until the lab opened.

"I always was afraid," she said. "Today you have to do it, to feel alive, to feel younger."