Bridging the digital divide: Vermont gearing up for digital makeover

March 2, 2015       Mark Hrywna      

Vermont is known for its maple syrup, craft beer and skiing. Broadband? Not so much. Like most rural areas of the United States, the Green Mountain State struggles with the digital divide.

The Vermont Digital Economy Project, a two-year effort by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), aimed to bridge that gap while also creating greater resiliency and expanding the use of online tools. The project was funded by a $1.8 million disaster relief grant from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration. Vermont was walloped by Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and one of the keys was to “get nonprofits — especially service groups that work in resilience — to get to the next stage of using digital tools,” said Paul Costello, executive director of the VCRD in Montpelier, Vt. Working from March 2013 to September 2014, the project’s three goals were to create resilient communities, build effective organizations and bridge the digital divide.

VCRD also worked closely with IBM, the Snelling Center for Government, Vermont Department of Libraries, Vermont Small Business Development Center, Microsoft, Front Porch Forum, and the Vermont State Colleges.

Rob Fish served as nonprofit advisor and community advisor with the Vermont Digital Economy Project (VDEP) and man­aged the nonprofit advising aspect, helping to build or redesign nonprofits’ websites. He estimated that about 40 per­cent of Vermont “probably has no good cell signal” and until recently much of the state didn’t have broadband. “Most rural areas, where broadband does come in, it doesn’t get to the ends of dirt roads,” he said, while some people simply can’t afford the monthly $50 connection fee at home.

“Without broadband service, it’s not part of people’s daily lives. Rural areas are saying, ‘how do we use social media to communicate with volunteers, raise funds? It’s all new to them,” Costello said. “Some don’t know what they want to do on a website, others don’t know how to message in the digital age,” he said.

For small organizations or small towns, there’s just not the staff to build a website, even if there is broadband.

So the Vermont Digital Economy Project set out to build simple and effective websites for municipalities and nonprofits. The 26 WiFi zones and hot spots established in 40 small downtowns covered a combined 7.3 square miles of free Wi-Fi coverage.

Some WiFi zones might be as small as 200 or 300 yards while others are nearly a mile. “They are designed to cover a range from a park to a downtown main drag. These are mostly small towns with small businesses,” Costello said.

A WiFi zone can become a key component of communications in a post-disaster situation, enabling coordination of community efforts more quickly. When not in the midst of a disaster, the WiFi zones can bring rural communities together. Especially in a disaster situation, the benefit of a public Wi-Fi zone is that it doesn’t require significant amounts of power to continue operating, he said.

“Local folks are interested in how to connect, reach out to tourists, package local events. Local businesses and chambers are trying to do that but it’s all new to them,” Costello said.

Tourism is a huge part of the Vermont economy. “People come downtown to connect, may sit in the park, the library, tourists who come into towns,” Fish said. “Even in small towns with the smallest amenities, people want to know where campgrounds are, trails, stores. Having a hub in downtown overcomes the digital divide for those who don’t have service and provides a connection to visitors,” he said.

“We deliberately built this. We weren’t trying to provide long-term services. We knew this was a shot in the arm. We were not trying to build dependence, but a jumping off point,” Fish said.

In some towns, the municipality was behind maintaining the WiFi zone while in others it might be a downtown association, chamber of commerce or library – “whomever the leadership group is in that community,” Fish said.

Working with the local Code for America chapter, Code for Burlington, the VCRD recruited volunteers from around the state for 14 “social media surgeries” and 10 hackathons, assisting 150 nonprofits in 15 towns that suffered considerable damage after Hurricane Irene. Nonprofits received hands-on advice about their social media strategies while the hackathons reinvigorated local nonprofits’ websites.

“We rebuilt about 50 websites through the hacka­thons. Some we built internally, some others with vol­un­teers,” Fish said. Some organizations had websites but they were six or seven years old or entirely corrupted at this point.

Websites were rebuilt “with the idea of making organizations more efficient and effective, something they can manage themselves,” Fish said. “We tried not to do something too complicated but help with donors and their communities,” he said, adding that many were very small with few staff, such as senior centers, historical societies and rescue squads. “It’s not in their budget to build a website but they needed a web presence,” he said.

During its annual subscription drive, the Wilmington, Vt.-based Deerfield Valley Rescue (DVR) received a note from a regular donor that it would be last time he would donate to the organization until it accepted donations via PayPal. Its annual budget typically runs about $300,000 to $350,000, according to Bobby Maynard, one of three full-time employees, along with about 25 volunteers at DVR.

So DVR was among the nonprofits that revamped its website through the project, transitioning from Microsoft FrontPage, which has since been superceded by newer products, to WordPress. The group’s home page now has a PayPal link that receives donations regularly, in addition to linking the site to its social media pages. Once someone gets familiar with WordPress, Maynard said it’s definitely easy to update the organization’s website.

With the help of the Vermont Digital Economy Project, the Black River Academy Museum (BRAM) in Ludlow, Vt., set up a Square reader to accept payments on an iPad for its annual gala fundraiser. BRAM volunteers and staff, comprised mostly of retirees, also got an education on using Facebook and have since launched and maintained a page.

The great lesson for nonprofits, according to Fish, was how to organize their content if they want their website built, how to ask for help, and the basics of how to build a website. Most organizations went from no knowledge about websites to at least a basic understanding, and some now even accept donations via Square on iPads during their events.

Some charities were still recovering from Hurricane Irene, which walloped the Green Mountain State in August 2011. The initiative helped build a website where supporters could find them and also donate online. During Irene, Fish said the food shelf in Bethel, Vt., served meals for two weeks straight but could not accept donations online.

VCRD also helped nonprofits prepare for disaster through cloud back-up and other apps that shorten the time needed to be up and running to serve displaced constituents. They teamed with IBM to help the Vermont Foodbank develop tools to streamline delivery to food shelves across the state.

Fish and two VCRD advisors provided one-on-one digital skills and tools advising 266 small businesses, 127 nonprofits and 123 farm and forestry businesses in 18 months.

“Philanthropy hasn’t fully realized how important this is; there’s almost no money in it. Philanthropy is very thin for rural areas,” Costello said, grateful for federal leadership to support this effort.

With the two-year effort concluded, Costello said it’s time to model and share best practices throughout Vermont and beyond, and be useful as a convener. “Everyone can do this; it’s not rocket science. The challenge is, you have to come together a little and talk about what your template should be,” he said. “In the digital age, we need to be deliberate in using digital tools to strengthen local community, local commerce and local opportunities.”  NPT