KC is quickly gaining a reputation as a well-connected tech hub. Connecting For Good wants to make sure everyone gets to see the rewards.
If you live in one of the 98 percent of U.S. households with high-speed Internet, life without connectivity might seem unfathomable. In an increasingly digital society where one-third of recently married couples met online and 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies require online applications, Internet access has gone from luxury to social justice issue: another marker of inequality but also a promising vehicle for empowerment.
Though Kansas City boasts the second-fastest Internet of any U.S. city, there are still pockets within the urban core where up to 80 percent of households are without Internet access. To Connecting for Good (CFG) President and co-founder Michael Liimatta, addressing this digital divide is essential in the Information Age. “When we think of digital inclusion, what we’re talking about is helping people become full participants in a digital society,” he says. “We believe technology has a transformational element to it; technology is empowering.”
In the year since Connecting for Good opened its first community computing center, the organization has trained 1,000 people through its digital life skills classes, refurbished and sold 600 donated computers at low cost to qualifying students and provided free home Internet service to more than 500 households in key low-income neighborhoods through innovative microwave and Wi-Fi mesh technologies. The initially all-volunteer organization now has five employees and recently opened a second community technology center, yet its progress pales in comparison to its goals for the future, according to Liimatta.
Connecting for Good was founded in 2011 by Liimatta and Rick Deane, whose combined backgrounds in nonprofit consulting, tech support and education led them to recognize the unmet tech needs of often resource-strapped nonprofit organizations. Paired with the serendipitously timed announcement of Google Fiber coming to Kansas City, Liimatta and Deane sought to conquer the digital divide.
While Google Fiber presented technical hurdles to CFG’s efforts to provide wireless Internet on a large scale, Liimatta also credits Google for shining a spotlight on the many possibilities of community-wide connectivity. “We saw an opportunity not just for nonprofits, but for individual citizens to be connected,” says Liimatta. “In some ways, they created the opportunity for a group like us to get some good attention and be creative ourselves.”
CFG’s true kick-starter came in the form of a large donation made via KC mobile apps company One Louder. The $10,000 influx allowed Connecting for Good to begin its efforts as a Microsoft-registered refurbisher, set up a computing lab and class space, and begin providing wireless Internet. It has since moved its operations to 3101 Troost Ave., opened a second location—The Northeast Wyandotte County Community Technology Center—and installed Wi-Fi networks in four low-income communities and housing projects.
Connecting for Good sees closing the digital divide not only in the context of correcting a social injustice, but also as an enormous opportunity for Kansas City and KC-based employers. “We have a dream of creating an urban geek culture in Kansas City so (that) high-tech companies won’t need to look to other cities to recruit their employees,” says Liimatta.
Considering all that Connecting for Good has already accomplished, Liimatta’s dream may not be out of reach. Its broad and accessible approach increasingly proves that cost-prohibitive technological hurdles are no match for innovation and good timing.
If you would like to get involved with CFG as a volunteer or through hardware or monetary donation, visit www.connectingforgood.org.
Story and Photos by Lindsey Kennedy