April 15, 2014

Google Gigabyte to Help Kansas City Libraries Close Digital Divide

Kansas City librarians and other officials are in a unique position to potentially transform the public libraries and schools into even greater digital education hubs in the near future, with a little help from a new Google high speed digital Internet service.

Last spring, Google selected Kansas City, KS, and Kansas City, MO, as instillation sites for the new high fiber optic network that will allow subscribing Internet users to download and upload files up to 1 gigabit per second, which is vastly faster than the current national average of 4.1 megabits per second.

That would be a huge technological boon to the residents of Kansas City, KS, which has a population of about 145,786 people, and Kansas City, MO, which has about 457,787 people, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.

As part of the deal, Google said it would offer free connections to certain government and commercial buildings, including libraries and schools. Google currently has crews installing fiber lines across the cities and the company hopes to launch the service as soon as it can, Google spokeswoman Jenna Wandres said.

The company initially hoped to start by early 2012. The service has been delayed because it is the first time the company is building a fiber network on such a large scale, Wandres said. The company hopes to provide an update this summer.

The Google fiber network announcement sparked local creative brainstorming sessions in both cities.

Google chose Kansas City because “we were looking for a community who could use technology to make their city an even better place to live and work in,” Wandres said. “There are lots of grassroots and government initiatives that are doing a great job thinking about how to leverage Google Fiber in Kansas City, and the K-20 Library initiative is one of them.”

Chattanooga, TN’s library, also recently upgraded to a one-gigabyte fiber optic network, as LJ reported.

K-20 Librarian Initiative

The Kansas City Kansas Public Library launched the K-20 Librarian initiative, a consortium of several school, public, and academic libraries working together to make the Internet accessible to everyone, and to use the existing and new technology to foster more educational and cultural exchanges.

“Basically, all these libraries are working together to extend distance learning opportunities and resources, and share whatever technology we had before the gig comes, so we know what we can and cannot do,” said Carol Levers, the Kansas City, KS, Public Library director.

The consortium members include the Kansas City, KS, Public Library, which has five public libraries and 48 school libraries; as well as Kansas City, KS, Community College; the University of Kansas Medical Center; the University of Kansas Libraries; Kan-ed and KanREN, the Kansas state research and education network; and the Digital Village technology consulting firm from Sausalito, CA. Other libraries that have been invited to join include Kansas City, MO, Public Library, the Mid-Continent Library in Missouri, and the Johnston County Library and Bonner Springs City Library in Kansas, Lever said.

Levers noted that libraries play an important role in the community by offering free public Internet access and computer classes. She said that the Kansas City, KS, school district also took a big step forward by providing free laptops to all high school students and iPods and eReaders to younger students.

The Kansas City, KS,  Public Library used videoconferencing technology in March to connect with a new sister library—the Pudong Library in Shanghai, China. The Kansas City Kansas middle and high school jazz band performed for the Chinese residents, who, in turn, danced and played the drums.

Levers said she hopes to establish partnerships with other sister libraries across the world, connecting with at least one library on each continent.

Other learning possibilities of the high-speed Internet could include dual-enrollment programs between high schools, colleges, and community colleges via high definition videoconferencing, experiments in three-dimensional computer programs, or even having the Kansas City community evaluate new technologies for outside companies, Levers said.

“The sky’s the limit for the gig,” Levers said. “Companies can come in and test their technologies, let the kids play and experiment with them. There’s just so much to do out there. I’m not a techie, but I can envision of lot of things they can do out there.”

The Kansas City, KS, Public Library is in the process of building the new $6 million Mr. and Mrs. F.K. Schlagle Environmental Library.  Levers said she hopes to incorporate the fiber network technology in the 21,000 square foot building, which is should be completed in August. The library director also said she would like to partner with U.S. National Parks Service to bring parks information into the new environmental library and public schools.

Health and medical uses for the gig 

The other K-20 Librarian initiative project in the works is a proposal to create small public health stations in all five of the Kansas City, KS, public libraries and one inside the A.R. Dykes Library of the Health Sciences at the University of Kansas Medical Center. The stations will have a computer dedicated to health information, as well as books and DVDs, said Levers and Amy Ritterskamp, the community health liaison/biomedical librarian at the A.R. Dykes Library.

The project will also have a website where library patrons can access additional health information and learn more about local resources, Ritterskamp said. Ritterskamp estimated the project would cost about $10,000 per library; she is working on a grant proposal.

In addition to the health stations, the medical center hopes the new network will enable the libraries to connect to other hospitals and local medical organizations to provide other services and projects.

An in-home video monitoring platform to support caregivers and people with dementia is being developed by a faculty member from the University of Kansas School of Nursing, said Steve Fennel, director of telecomunication outreach for the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Two other projects are in the proposal stage. One program would create health information centers in all Kansas City Kansas schools, Fennel said, and the other program would use videoconferencing to provide in-home counseling sessions for at-risk youth.

The gig could also enable the medical center and library to interact with patients through high definition videoconferencing, and the medical center could use three-dimensional medical videos and programs for training and education purposes, Fennel and Ritterskamp said.

Then there’s the possibility of doing more outreach and networking within the community and among college students who might be considering a career in the medical field, Ritterskamp said.

Kansas City technology playbook 

Other groups have been looking into public use of the gig for the entire community as well.

Kansas City Kansas and Missouri created a Mayors Bistate Innovation Team last September to study how to use the technology to benefit the entire community.

The team recently published a special playbook which outlined several suggestions, including the creation of:

• Wi-fi community centers to help underserved areas and target business locations.

• pilot programs to help with teacher coaching and demonstrations for classrooms and libraries.

• innovative digital arts projects.

• telehealth and medical reimbursement projects.

• a “house of the future” to serve as a testing ground for entrepreneurs and demonstrate practical applications for gigabit speed technology.

• programs to create tech districts, promote businesses, and innovate new ways for government to function.

The most important key is community engagement and having public sites where people can see demos of the high speed technology, said Dr. Ray Daniels, the Kansas co-chairman.

“We need places where people can sit down and see demonstrations on how this goes. Libraries are perfect for that. People go there anyway and they are familiar with libraries,” said Daniels, who is also an educational consultant, retired superintendent for the Kansas City Kansas Public Schools, and a trustee of Kansas City Kansas Community College.

Levers and Daniels said the libraries and public schools would be a great opportunity to break down the digital divide in the city and enable the elderly and those who cannot afford computers to participate in the next level of Internet technology.

The Mayors Bistate Innovation Team estimated that about 115,000 residents, or 20 percent of the population of Kansas City Kansas and Missouri, do not currently have Internet access.

On top of that, both cities could harness the fiber network to develop business and technology districts by the Crossroads and West Bottoms in Kansas, MO, and Rainbow Boulevard and downtown Kansas City, KS, said Mike Burke, an attorney and the Missouri co-chairman of the Mayors Bistate Innovation Team.

Kansas City already has a robust tech community, and Burke noted it is already home to notable telelcommunications companies such as Sprint Nextel Corporation and the GPS maker Garmin International.

“What the Google fiber (project) does is, it has made Kansas City even more of a focal point for attracting start-ups, for attracting companies that are not only looking for talent in the technology area, but an environment that is conducive to starting a technical business,” Burke said.

What’s next?

One important issue going forward in implementing all of these technology-based programs is leadership.

Daniels and Burke said some organization or person needs to step up and ensure that the momentum continues once Google’s high speed fiber network is installed.

“We think there’s a tight window, we need structure in place in three months,” Daniels said. “It needs to be an early success, and Kansas City needs to step up to make this a great project.”

Burke said that even though there is a plan in place for both cities, “one of the big takeaways is having high speed fiber in your community in and of itself doesn’t guarantee you success. It’s what you do as a community with the tool that has been provided with you.”

The other important issue, of course, is money.

Google has not mentioned how much the high speed fiber Internet service would cost homes, except to say it would be competitive with current costs for Internet access.

It is also unclear how much it would cost both Kansas Cities to set up all of the technology programs. Daniels estimated that it would take about a half-million to $1 million to get the network organized and started.

The playbook suggests seeking seed money from local government foundations and public grants. Outside companies could also be another funding source or a portion of the proof-of-concepts lab mentioned in the report.

“It’s a daunting task,” Daniels said about the playbook implementation. “It’s complex and it takes resources to do it right.”

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