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The Heroes Among Us.

From the President

The popular press has published numerous stories about technical and business leaders who have contributed to the extraordinary developments in computing during the past half century. But there are many unacknowledged heroes who have worked to bring computer technology to those who need it, but might not otherwise have access to it. In an attempt to bring some recognition to our quiet heroes, ACM has established the Eugene Lawler Award for significant humanitarian contributions within computer science and informatics www.acm.org/awards/laward.html.

I was concerned that ACM might have a problem finding suitable candidates for this award. I've done a little research, and I'm pleased to say that the problem is not finding suitable candidates, but rather selecting from among a long list. Because of space constraints, I can discuss only some of the people I've learned about; I want to emphasize that this is not a list of people who have been nominated for the award, but simply the people I have learned about in my own research.

East Palo Alto, across the freeway from the high-rent district of Silicon Valley, is an economically disadvantaged town with a high percentage of minorities. It is the location of Plugged In (www.pluggedin.org). Founded by Belsian Bart Decrem upon graduating from Stanford Law School in 1992, Plugged Ins mission is to ensure that everyone in East Palo Alto has the opportunity to fully benefit from the information revolution. In addition to teaching computer classes and providing Internet access, Plugged In hosts an after-school program for children, a teen-run Web design business, and an open-access technology center for teens and adults. One of the goals of Plugged In is to be a nationally recognized model for connecting low-income communities with the information economy. An interesting unanticipated side effect has been increased reading skills because children now have an audience for their writing and they now see a purpose for reading and writing skills.

Austin, Texas, another high-tech center, is also separated by a freeway from an economically disadvantaged neighbor, East Austin. East Austin, with a median income of $6,000 per year and a mostly African-American population, is the home of the Austin Learning Academy (ALA), founded by Toni Williams. Symptomatic of the kinds of problems that residents of East Austin experience is an ALA project called ClearCorps, which helps educate the community about ways to reduce lead poisoning. Other ALA projects include adult basic education, computer training, parenting skills, early childhood education, a teen WebWeavers group, a college and career prep program. FamilyCARE (Computer Assembly, Refurbishing, and Enhancement) teaches family members how computers work and allows them to build a computer for less than it would cost to purchase. The ALA provides services and opportunities to residents of East Austin, demonstrating in the process that poverty is not an indicator of intellectual endowment.

While East Austin and East Palo Alto are both close to high-tech centers, there are many areas of the world in which there is not even adequate telephone service, let alone access to the financial and human resources of places such as Austin and Palo Alto. Randy Bush has provided support for networks and related technologies to a long list of countries in Africa, Asia, and South America. Since 1988, Bush has designed, taught, and helped deploy a multi-country (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, among others) network using varying technologies. He also worked on the first networking within Peru, the first IP links in Kenya, Sri Lanka's entry into the Internet, Indonesian's academic Internet, IPTEKnet, and the World Bank's efforts to get Mozambique. He provided technical help for setting up Egypt's IP connectivity, and worked with the Saudi Arabian equivalent of the National Science Foundation to get that country's academics on the Internet.

The economically disadvantaged are not the only ones at risk of being cut out of the IT revolution. Jim Thatcher became involved with developing tools for the blind in the 1980s when a blind colleague was unable to keep up with the email communications others were enjoying. Thatcher developed a tool that combined a voice synthesizer with hardware and software, allowing his colleague to "read" the contents of the monitor. Since that initial effort, Thatcher has been involved in developing products that allow the blind to use services most sighted people take for granted. An example is Home Page Reader, a talking Web browser that allows blind users to participate in the e-commerce explosion in the marketplace.

What are the sources of funding for the work of these dedicated people? Most of these projects have received support from a combination of private and government sources. Because of the success of community technology centers (CTCs) such as Plugged In and the ALA, the U.S. Congress appropriated $10 million in FY 1999 to support CTCs. The administration has proposed a $65 million budget for CTCs in FY 2000. However, tight caps on discretionary spending may put CTC funding in jeopardy. For more information about CTCs: www.ctcnet.org/impact98.htm and www.ctcnet.org/publics.html.

BARBARA SIMONS (president@ acm.org) is ACM's president.
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Title Annotation:Industry Trend or Event; candidates for the ACM's Eugene Lawler Award for humanitarian contributions within computer science and informatics
Author:Simons, Barbara
Publication:Communications of the ACM
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1999
Words:855
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