Michael Maranda posted a comment recently to my testimony before the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee. He asked me to expand on one of my recommendations:
- Promote horizontal relationships among stakeholders rather than hub-and-spoke relationships that all connect to this committee or to any one person or organization.
The original promise in Philadelphia was to tie the city together with “invisible thread.” That’s what Dianah Neff told National Geographic. It hasn’t happened.
In planning the network and passing it through City Council, Wireless Philadelphia solicited input and testimony from a variety of nonprofit organizations. All of those organizations care about the issue of Internet usage and all work with overlapping constituencies. Yet Wireless Philadelphia did not take any steps to foster relationships among them that would encourage synergistic collaborations.
Instead, WP is forming “Wireless Internet Partnerships” or WIPs, a series of one-one-one relationships between Wireless Philadelphia and individual organizations. I am not aware of any plans to connect these WIPs to each other so the groups can form their own partnerships. At best, maybe we’ll see a WIP cocktail hour.
Ideally, the horizontal relationships would extend beyond the organizational level. I’d like to see local conventions where all of the users of the network could gather, and the people who make up these nonprofits’ constituencies could get to know each other. I think these municipal wireless projects will benefit by emphasizing their local-ness and I think the users/local residents will benefit from having stronger social bonds.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Wireless Philadelphia or Earthlink want their customers to have the capacity for collective action or self-management. Not surprising for a for-profit company with meager customer service. But the nonprofit should be trying to build community, not disempower users.
The problem for Wireless Philadelphia is that the only reason for them to exist is to mediate the relationships between the City and Earthlink, Earthlink and the poor residents of Philadelphia, and the WIPs and Earthlink. If all of those entities could relate directly to each other, they’d quickly realize there is no reason for WP to exist.
I think the system in Minneapolis, where the Minneapolis Digital Inclusion Fund Advisory Committee has just released it’s RFP, is better, but not perfect. There, the people that pushed for digital inclusion funding organized themselves, though the efforts were soon co-opted into an official “Task Force.” The result is a community-advised fund at the Minneapolis Foundation, funded primarily through a revenue-sharing agreement with US Internet, the local network operator.
The participants in that Advisory Committee have horizontal relationships with each other instead of all having separate relationships with a new nonprofit, as in Philadelphia. However, I can’t find any list of the members of the committee online (though I know Peter Fleck is one because he’s blogged about it). That makes me concerned that those relationships won’t grow beyond the Committee’s boundaries.
If they want to push that network further, they are going to be swimming upstream. The process of soliciting grant applications from 501(c)3 organizations is notorious for pitting groups against one another and creating secretive one-to-one relationships between applicants and funders.
Minniapolis Digital Inclusion Advisory Committee should consider setting up something like GiveMeaning.com – not to let people vote for recipients of the Committee’s funds, but to promote awareness of the broad variety of initiatives people in the city are doing and to give those initiatives an avenue to raise additional funds.