Innovation Ecosystem

When good news abounds – and is free

As the Rhode Island Foundation celebrates its virtual 2021 annual meeting, the ongoing work by ONE Neighborhood Builders in building out its own free WiFi wire mesh network has won a national award

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Hawkins

Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, which just won a national award for its development of a free Wi-FI wire mesh system serving the residents of Olneyville.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/13/21
The ONE Neighborhood Builders wire-mesh free Wi-Fi initiative wins a national award on the cusp of the virtual annual meeting of the Rhode Island Foundation.
What penalties and consequences should there be for radio talk show hosts in Rhode Island who continue to present misinformation about vaccines and masks and the coronavirus? What pushback, if any, has there been from Cox and Verizon about the establishment of a free Wi-Fi network in Olneyville? What kinds of correlation can be found with the work by Healthcentric Advisors to develop digital outreach to patients and the need for better access to Internet services? How can the Rhode Island Quality Institute, as it builds out is new opt-out system for CurrentCare, the state’s health information exchange, consider investing in promoting free Wi-Fi access?
As we await the announcement of the four or five big ideas that will be endorsed by the Rhode Island Foundation as the focus of future investments of some $1.1 billion in Rhode Island, the drama being played out surrounding the drastic cuts in services by R.I. BHDDH to recovery programs working on the front lines of the opioid epidemic has been ignored by the news media. Why?
More people in Rhode Island have been dying as a result of the opioid epidemic than from COVID-19, but the failure by the McKee administration to secure funding for these efforts smacks of misplaced priorities.
There is money for overpriced business consultants to do contract work on school reopening, being given to a new consulting firm apparently made up of former executives from Chiefs for Change, incorporated soon after McKee became Governor, but not enough money to prevent folks from dying from overdoses. It is symptomatic of a much larger disease – the willingness by government to invest in business consulting firms to provide the alleged “expertise” already available on the ground here in Rhode Island. That story has been documented numerous times by ConvergenceRI.
The documented success of ONE Neighborhood Builders in its numerous investments at the neighborhood level speaks to the success of bottom-up, placed-based innovation.

PROVIDENCE – When the Rhode Island Foundation convenes its virtual annual meeting on Monday evening, Sept. 13, it will mark the beginning of a hopeful new year after a very turbulent 18 months, a difficult time marked by the devastation and havoc caused by the continuing coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted every facet of Rhode Island’s health, culture, economic, social and educational universe.

By any metric, the Rhode Island Foundation has helped the state stand its ground, serving as a positive beacon fighting against the centrifugal forces that would change the orbit of the Ocean State and pull things apart. By choosing to invest in health equity, in behavioral health, in nonprofit community agencies, and serving as the glue to keep the safety net stitched together in these difficult times, the Rhode Island Foundation has given new meaning to resilience.

As such, when the Rhode Island Foundation salutes its community heroes and its donors who helped to make their work possible, one can expect that good news will abound, reinforcing a sense of hope amid all the lives and families that have been disrupted.

One of the stories that may – or may not – get retold at the Rhode Island Foundation’s annual meeting is that of ONE Neighborhood Builders and its effort to build out its own free WiFi wire mesh network to serve the residents of Olneyville.

The initiative, launched in the fall of 2020, in direct response to what local residents had identified as a major problem during the pandemic – free access to the Internet, is one of those great stories about bottom-up innovation in Rhode Island driving positive change at the place-based, neighborhood level. [See link below to ConvergenceRI, “Healing the digital divide.”]

“What may have been considered a convenience before the pandemic, is now accepted as crucial for learning, working, socializing, and accessing important services,” Jennifer Hawkins, the agency’s executive director, said at the time.

Indeed, there is much to applaud about ONE Neighborhood Builders’ continued efforts in Olneyville and surrounding neighborhoods, including its efforts to change the life trajectories of residences, to build out accessible affordable housing, to promote health equity zones, and to connect residents to services and vaccines. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Investing in neighborhoods and residents.”]

As ConvergenceRI reported: “If Providence had its own home-grown breakfast cereal to celebrate its champions of place-based development, one of the faces on the inaugural cereal boxes would no doubt be Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, who in the last few years has stewarded a series of remarkable achievements and tangible results [though Hawkins would certainly demur and insist that members of her team share in the spotlight].”

National recognition
Last week, WifiForward awarded ONE Neighborhood Builders its “Wi-Fi at Work Award,” one of 16 organizations nationwide to be honored. “The COVID-19 outbreak made clear that, without reliable Internet, children couldn’t attend remote classes and parents couldn’t get telehealth services,” Hawkins said, in response to the award. “Internet access in all neighborhoods, regardless of socioeconomic realities, is essential and not simply a convenience.”

What the data showed
A recent survey conducted of individuals who used the ONE/NB Connects WiFI during the summer of 2021 provided the following data points, Kate Bramson, the director of Policy, Fundraising and Communications at ONE Neighborhood Builders, shared with ConvergenceRI.

• 27 percent of those on the network have in-home WiFi while 73 percent do not.

Translated, that data point seems to correlate with the survey finding that 73 percent of those using the network rent, while only 4 percent own their homes.

“This summer, we have reached nearly 1,000 unique devices that have logged into our network,” Bramson reported.

The data results of a survey conducted in 2020 that helped to prompt the WiFi initiative showed that in Olneyville, only 66.1 percent of households had Internet access between 2015 and 2019, well below the Providence average of 78.2 percent, according to the American Community Survey.

“During the pandemic, it became crystal clear to us that people in the communities we serve did not have as much Internet access as others in the city,” Hawkins said. “We set out to make Internet access far more accessible because we truly believe that such access is a basic right that all people should have. We are thrilled with the fact that 1,000 unique devices have logged into our system. Our other data points indicate that we are reaching the right people – those who didn’t have Internet access before.”

Moving forward
No doubt, the Rhode Island Foundation will also celebrate the launch of its Equity Institute under the leadership of Angela Ankoma at its annual meeting, a remarkable achievement.

At the same time, carrying the message about equity forward in Rhode Island will require a commitment and an investment in building out access to the free flow of accurate information. The opportunity to expand and replicate the ONE Neighborhood Builders free Wi-FI network initiative in other urban areas of Rhode Island, including Newport, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Warwick, Central Falls, and Cranston, potentially funded by the Rhode Island Foundation, represents the kind of challenge of how bottom-up innovation can challenge the status quo – and increase equity.

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