Gig 101: Austin Free-Net’s Excellent Adventure

We had traveled from Austin to our Google Fiber sister city to participate in a one-day workshop entitled Gig 101 on 19 April 2017. The stated purpose of the mini-conference was to demystify the high-speed internet and explore the opportunities that access affords diverse communities. Mozilla and Google Fiber invited educators interested in leveraging the gigabit internet ecosystem for learning to participate and Austin Free-Net was fortunate to be selected for inclusion. When we arrived in the beautiful city of Kansas City, we had no idea that our perspectives of high-speed internet would change.

Our day started at the corner of 18th and Wyandotte St, at one of downtown Kansas City’s many coffee shops. We’d made arrangements to meet up with Aaron Deacon, the Managing Director of KC Digital Drive, an initiative dedicated to expanding economic opportunity and innovation by ensuring universal high-speed internet access across all of Kansas City. After an exchange of ideas about how KC Digital Divide and Austin Free-Net can each bridge the digital divide in our respective cities, we split ways with both parties en route to the main event of the day.

Google Maps guided us to a site occupied by the grand edifice that once housed Westport Middle School. The historic site is being re-developed into what will be the largest co-working space in the world.

Vacant classrooms are taking on new life with modern lighting and sleek furniture ready to accommodate a new kind of student. A mural on one of the upper floors, intricately patterned ceilings and a magnificent assembly hall will bridge the building’s 1923 roots and its modern derivation.

It is poetic that a remarkable, abandoned schoolhouse will create a new history: one paved with new innovations in technology, new ways of collaborating and new ways of working in a modern age. We were impressed with the variety of flexibility, accommodating any workstyle, being built into this façade tagged as the “next generation workstation.”

In one of the classrooms soon to be conformed, Gig 101 kicked off with a series of icebreakers and activities designed to physically engage. Our hosts Mozilla and KC Digital Drive walked us through the mechanics of the internet with the aid of easy-to-understand exercises that channeled our artistic and inner youth.

The afternoon exercises became progressively more sophisticated with attendees musing aloud about technological advances that could alleviate crime in low-income housing areas and extend the uses of virtual reality to combat social ills. Equitable access underpinned many of the ideas.

The day’s notable standouts included the sparks of innovation propelled by the carefully constructed program developed by Mozilla’s Janice Wait, Katie Hendrix and Robert Friedman. Workshop participants established an easy camaraderie developed quickly with the opening activity. Collaborations appear to be one legacy that will far outlive the day-long event. The simplistic explanations will make understanding the internet far easier and less fearsome for some. During the Spectrogram activity, it was enlightening to see how viewpoints spanned widely across individuals; the findings could lead to breakthroughs in how newcomers to the digital access and the guardians of the space find common ground and team up.

Conversely, a few improvements can better a solidly good workshop. The content during the workshop ranged from basic internet literacy education, with a more kinesthetic style of learning, to sessions requiring more complex technical savvy. Gigovate! project and A Gig Idea Activity, the last of the exercises, entailed keener understanding of how technology can reduce some of today’s pressing social challenges like crime prevention in low-income areas or poor reading literacy amongst latchkey kids. Gigovate! spoke directly to idea incubation for our emerging ideas and its result was a four-page project charter replete with technical detail.

The obstacle for many organizations is giving employees enough time to aspire to be innovative and the aforementioned exercises illustrated this challenge unapologetically.

Mixed content can be problematic. Splitting the day into two separate conferences will better align with the different audiences, create a better flow in the agenda and ensure better engagement with the intended audience. The differentiation between the two proposed groups is largely the takeaway; the takeaway for one having a greater understanding of the internet and the other a tangible plan to take to our organization and cultivate.

Lastly, one of the videos on display during the day depicted a day in the future in which technology becomes like an integrated, ever-present virtual assistant to every member of the family. With so much focus on digital equity, we found ourselves wondering how an audience representing those who currently cannot afford or cannot access high-speed internet could identify with this future family whose greatest concern was finding a missing baseball mitt versus not being able to have the ability to apply for Food Stamps or medical benefits online.

Westport Commons converted classroom

We return to Austin grateful for the new friendships and potential partnerships, the openness and willingness to share that KC’s servant leaders extended to us and the culinary delights of burnt ends BBQ.

Thank you, Mozilla and Google, and our best to Westport Commons and PlexPod as you continue to create space for new innovations in technology!

Alix Potter and Cassondra Taylor are ‘architects’ at Austin Free-Net, a nonprofit dedicated to bridging the digital divide in Austin, Texas.