SJSU in the News: Staff Member Helps Re-Purpose Computers

Cannibalized computers organize San Jose neighborhood

Originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Feb. 22, 2011

By Joe Rodriguez
Mercury News Columnist

From her small, second-floor apartment in central San Jose, Silvia Montano logged onto her new computer to check her e-mail. Well, it’s not new at all. It’s so old, it almost became e-junk. But after some local geeks reformatted the machine, it has become her favorite tool for organizing and improving a neighborhood on the have-not side of the digital divide.

“At first, a computer was not that important to me,” said Montano, a Mexican immigrant, wife and mother. “Now I use it so we can have a better neighborhood, one that will become better for my children later.”

She is a block captain in McKinley Bonita, one of several working-class neighborhoods where 42 natural leaders just like her have received similar computers. They use them to report everything from broken streetlights to gang fights, organize after-school events, get newcomers to attend free English classes and generally get involved in their community. And all this cost taxpayers about $30. That’s right, no missing zeros here.

It would be nice to say this project was somebody’s brilliant idea for empowering the powerless and disconnected, but no. You could say it was the accidental offspring of a more modest idea.

A few years, ago Nvidia, a computer graphics company in Santa Clara, started Project Inspire. Rather than throw holiday parties for its own people, Nvidia invited schools and community groups to apply for $250,000 improvement grants. The catch was that Nvidia employees would work side-by-side with school parents and neighborhood folks.

The McKinley Bonita neighborhood association and elementary school teamed up with the city to apply, and they won. In 2009, about 1,000 Nvidia employees repainted the school and community center, landscaped the grounds and hooked up 74 computers for students and teens.

Almost as an afterthought, a few of those computers went into a small room in the community center for local adults to learn computing skills but not necessarily to organize themselves.

“It was great, people came,” said Paul Pereira, a neighborhood manager for the city’s Strategic Neighborhoods Initiative. “But then they told us, ‘What good is it to have the computers here when we could be using them at home?’ ”

That’s where Sami Monsur literally came in for a look. She started the neighborhood association after buying a house there in 2007 but was having a hard time recruiting low-income Latino and Asian families. The group communicated by the cheaper and faster Internet, not by snail mail or fliers.

“Nobody had computers,” Monsur said about the poorest families. “They can’t afford them.” What to do?

A research analyst at San Jose State, she managed to scrounge up six computers on her own, hardly enough. But then she learned that the Upward Bound program on campus was getting new computers. Monsur persuaded a dean to donate 80 of the units to the McKinley neighborhood center.

She and Pereira found six computer geeks to cannibalize and rebuild the old machines. Basically, they combined chips and other stuff from the computers to produce 42 units that were able to navigate the Web and send e-mail at a decent speed. Two of the geeks were interns at a computer-repair training program for disabled students. Two were at-risk youth from a local summer program. The other two were neighborhood volunteers.

Some new parts had to be purchased, Pereira said, for just over $30 after rebates.

“You can’t complain about that!” he said.

Meanwhile, Pereira and Monsur looked for trustworthy low-income residents already active in local affairs; the ones who wouldn’t abandon e-organizing to play video games or gossip on social networks.

What keeps the project a bargain for taxpayers is that the families must pay for Internet service. Montano found a $39.99-a-month introductory offer she liked, but it will double after six months. She thinks she can continue to afford it, even though she and her husband, a landscaper and general laborer, are barely surviving the recession.

Pereira isn’t sure all of the 42 families receiving computers will do as well.

“Do you want Internet access, or do you want food?” he asked. “We don’t want families to get to that point.”

So he and Monsur are looking for a telecom do-gooder to donate low-cost “air cards” that could bring down the cost of Internet access to $15 or $20 a month.

No matter the price, Montano said the computer has made organizing her neighbors “easier and faster” and is surprised at how quickly she took to the Internet.

“I log onto it about eight or 10 times a day,” she said with a sheepish laugh. “Is that a lot? I don’t really know.”

It’s too early to tell how well the young project is doing or if it will continue. San Jose State could run out of old computers to donate, or the geeks may leave for real jobs. The project doesn’t even have an official name, because it is like the seed, carried by the wind, that flowers on a hill far away.