The middle-aged woman has never used a keyboard before, but after some initial faltering she begins to pick out letters. Gradually they fall into a pattern. She’s writing a letter.
She’s one of the 1,967 people in the Salvation Army’s day program last year who was introduced to the joys of computers.
The woman is thrilled she can write to her family and, if all goes to plan, she and others like her will become part of a grandiose, yet down-to-earth, scheme to link some of the city’s most disadvantaged to the information highway. It’s all thanks to the Infoport Community Empowerment Project.
The move began after the 1988 Winter Olympics when a long-range plan was drawn up for Calgary, part of which was to foster the rapidly expanding information and communications technology sector through what is now known as Calgary Technologies Inc.
As a result, Calgary has become the most highly connected city in Canada via fibre-optic cable and satellite. It also has more homes connected to the Internet than any other city in the country.
On the other hand, it’s estimated that on any given day there are 15,000 people at risk in Calgary, including women leaving abusive relationships, homeless people and those in trouble with the law.
The annual cost to the taxpayer to look after these people in Calgary alone is estimated at $350 million a year.
In 1999 the federal government launched its Smart Communities program, one for each province, one for the North and an aboriginal project. Calgary Technologies’ Infoport Community Empowerment Project won the bid for Alberta.
“Every other project in the country is very similar, but we are the most comprehensive and the most focused on individuals at risk,” says Bill Croft, former head of Calgary Technologies Inc. and interim executive director of the empowerment project.
“The trick will be to link individuals.”
At the core of the vision, personal access terminals (PATs) will be installed in core agencies like the Salvation Army, The Calgary Drop-In Centre and the Mustard Seed and clients will be taught how to use them.
From there, the clients will be able to call up a “portal” which will lead them to the services they need — housing, food, health, employment, etc. This information will be supplied by 700 connected agencies.
An inter-agency information exchange system would also be developed that would speed up such processes as finding emergency housing for a family in dire straights.
The goal, says Croft, is to transform the delivery of social services into a more effective, co-ordinated and interlinked set of Smart Services, accessible to social workers, people in need and the public.
Clients are already instructed in the use of computers at the Salvation Army’s day program. Last year, almost 2,500 individuals participated, spending an average of 6.24 days acquiring skills.
As a result, about 600 were able to write their own resumes and 225 acquired confirmed employment as a result.
“Finding out information that is useful to them — that, I think, is the key,” Maj. Reg Newbury says, adding it’s also a confidence-building exercise for people who often have very little sense of self-worth.
In total, Calgary will receive just over $4.5 million from Ottawa for the project and it is hoped to raise another $5 million from the community. The Salvation Army’s slice of the pie will be used for PATs in its new building, but the benefit won’t end there.
Newbury explains that because all the agencies are on the same system, clients will be able to transfer their skills easily.
While the money hasn’t come through yet, parts of the process have already been launched.
The Calgary Regional Health Authority and the city joined forces to produce an electronic directory called Inform Calgary that will become part of the Infoport project.
It doesn’t just assist people in this area, says Sharon Nettleton of the CRHA. If you live in Toronto and are looking for care for an elderly parent in Calgary, you can plug into www.informcalgary.org and get much of the information you need.
Joy Zerke at the Calgary Homeless Foundation is developing an online housing registry that will provide a one-stop listing of affordable rental housing, using family resource centres across the city and other linked agencies liked the Aboriginal Resource Centre Association.
For some clients, learning disorders and illiteracy will still be a barrier to making the most of what will be offered. Zerke says that on the other side of the fence, some of the homeless are showing a much higher degree of sophistication with the Internet than anyone had anticipated.
“Clients appreciate being able to do independent research because they have control over what they are doing and not relying on someone else,” says Kay Wong, an issues strategist with the city. “They can go to the system (www.calgary.homeless.org) and play with it.”
The Calgary Public Library, where many homeless people use the computers, will also be part of the project.
Nettleton sees the project in its widest perspective. “Often in the health portfolio,” she says, “we think of the most critically ill, but it’s often people in the community facing mental health issues, poverty and family issues who need help to prevent them from becoming more ill or disabled economically — and their children, too, because poverty is so cyclical.”
Not only does the project make good sense for those at risk, says CTI’s Croft. It also benefits the wider community.
And, he says, if it works in Calgary, why not Red Deer, Edmonton, North Bay or even Halifax?