A new digital divide? Tech volunteers say support, not access, is the problem

Geraldine Miner watches as volunteer Cate Burlington workes on her laptop. Other volunteers sit behind them. (C.J. SINNER / The Bronx Ink)

Geraldine Miner frequently uses her laptop to navigate around Facebook, play games and keep up with her two children and three grandchildren, and always tries to keep the virus software updated. Still, the 69-year-old checked in for help at the Tech Day being held on a Saturday in mid-November in her west Bronx apartment building to find out why her laptop’s processing has slowed down so much.

The all-day Saturday Tech Day, run by iGotITtoo, a technology outreach nonprofit that volunteers in 10 underserved communities around the city, was the second such event held at River Watch, Inc., a nonprofit outreach organization housed at Riverview Apartments in Morris Heights. Neighbors came by the building and dropped off their computers of different ages and sizes, some heaving large desktop setups over their shoulders. The 11 volunteers were trained to fix many computer issues and they came armed with coffee.

Tables of monitors filled the room and a bin full of mismatched and used internal parts sat on the floor. Power cords twirled on the floor and miniature tools were arranged by color and size in case an ambitious volunteer wished to take the screws off a device. Volunteers and iGotITtoo employees donned T-shirts that read “Smart is the new gangsta” on the back.

The group is responding to somewhat of a new digital divide, said iGotITtoo cofounder Santana Kenner. Low-income communities have more Internet access than ever because of lower prices for small laptops and smartphones. What they lack is affordable access to technical help and it often costs hundreds of dollars to diagnose and repair the machines.

“Normally, access is the issue people talk about, but that has changed. Now, it’s digital inequality – that’s the usage, the fluency,” Kenner said, adding that it’s common for users across the board to unwittingly trust every file download or game. Corrupted material often leads to problems. “We’re out that the underserved communities just don’t have the resources to get things fixed.”

Nationally, studies have shown that the digital divide, typically identified between ethnic groups, has been gradually narrowing since 2000, and a July report from the Pew Research Center showed that more blacks than whites owned smartphones. Morris Heights sits in Community District 5, which is almost entirely black and Hispanic, according to the city planning department’s latest data.

“People know that they should have access and they can get the access, but then sometimes they’re not sure what to do with it,” said Clare Chiesa, the other iGotITtoo cofounder.

Chiesa and Kenner started iGotITtoo in Lafayette Gardens in Brooklyn in 2007 because they were looking for a way to offer computer literacy classes to underserved communities and narrow the digital divide of access. In 2009, the group, whose name is a play on words for the abbreviation for information technology, received a $250,000 grant from Google to expand their reach. They now serve three locations in the Bronx as well as their original Brooklyn centers.

Chiesa said that at the first River Watch Tech Day in August, eight technicians fixed 25 computers in 10 hours. This time around, only 12 people brought their computers by, even though Chiesa said she expected growth.

Head volunteer Ilya Feldshteyn said he didn’t think the event was advertised well enough this time. Most of the flyers were only posted around the building or handed out around the neighborhood on the morning of the event.

Miner, who knew about the event because she sits on the board for River Watch and has taken computer education classes through iGotITtoo, has a laptop for herself and an older desktop computer that she lets her grandson use.

“He downloads all sorts of stuff, I don’t even know what’s on there,” she said. “But I don’t let anyone on my laptop, so I have no idea why it’s slow.”

Ilya Feldshteyn, left, shows what to look for on a computer. (C.J. SINNER / The Bronx Ink)

Free downloads and games are often the culprit, said Feldshteyn. Two-thirds of the issues he handles result from spyware and viruses. In fact, running a virus scan is the first step each technician takes when a computer is brought in.

“It takes a lot of time to fix, and we tell them not to do it, but it’s hard to change behavior,” Feldshteyn said. “We explain it to them, you know, please refrain from the free software and the free music, but they don’t listen very often.”

So the 28-year-old JP Morgan employee and other tech volunteers hunker down in rows of computers, running scans or digging for troublesome programs.

Afterward, Miner, who only brought in her slow personal laptop for repairs, said her laptop was working well, though she wasn’t sure what the technicians did to resolve the problem or how to prevent it from happening again.

“They just cleaned it out, I guess, and they took out whatever was making it slow,” she said. “They just told me to be careful about which websites I go to and downloading things.”