The Hidden Human Cost of Government Going Green

In the necessary push toward a greener nation, we are leaving some of our most valuable citizens behind. While I am all for “œgoing green” and the overall “œgreen technology” movement, I can’t help but notice that the way the government has chosen to go about doing it is disenfranchising huge segments of the population.

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with a number of people about the issue of the poverty gap and how it relates to technology, and the internet. Noticeably, the topic of green technology kept popping up in the discussion. Specifically, how the drive for forced compliance with new green tech standards like a paperless government is leaving our nation’s poor in the dust.

The problem arises when lack of knowledge and inability to access (or afford) the necessary technology now required to obtain benefits or jobs comes in contact with the immovable wall of government mandates. As our government makes its move to a paperless model it has begun requiring those applying for benefits, jobs, job training and other government services to apply via the web.

In many cases there is immediately an issue ““ either the applicant does not have access to a computer or the Internet or, if the government office provides access, there is a knowledge gap. The applicant often has no idea how to use the technology presented to them. According to people like Shireen Mitchell of Women Wired In this has been an ongoing issue reaching as far back as the misguided introduction of the ATM-style benefits cards several years ago.

When the three main technology issues facing the nation’s poor – lack of access to technology, inability to afford technology, and a lack of knowledge of how to use technology – meet the push by the government to go green and the enforced paperless standards, people are inevitably being left behind. On the surface it seems like an unsolvable problem, but I don’t think it has to be.

Granted, if we wait for the glacial process of government to a) realize there is a problem and b) do something about it, it may never get solved. We will continue to lag behind other nations in broadband access and slowly see our standing in the science and technology fields drop ever lower and less and less of our citizens find themselves able to compete in the global market, much less their local one.

To that end, I don’t believe that lobbying your representatives will do much in the short term. I think we should be lobbying for both equipment and access, but I don’t believe we should put all of our eggs in one basket. This is a problem that needs a proactive solution.

That being the case what can the technology community do to address the issue?

The answer lies in using the tools we few are so privileged to have to leverage our influence. Because we are influential. People do hear us outside of our bubble. Some of us are heard more than others, but everyone has a voice and, more importantly, a network.

We need to leverage that on and off line network, our social media contacts, our groups, web sites, and communities at the national and local level to exert pressure to fix this problem. Who do we exert pressure on? To a certain extent the government. To a greater extent the companies that control the access to the necessary equipment and pipelines that will get people online.

Now more than ever technology has become a basic human need. In order to compete locally and globally, people need access to a computer and to broadband Internet or they will be left behind, causing us to be left behind as a nation as well. We are the biggest users of this technology. If we organize, and speak with both our wallets and our voices, we will be heard.

Will it effect real change if we push companies to start donating computers and Internet access to the nation’s most needy? I would hope so, especially if we all make the effort to create one voice for change. Programs like One Laptop Per Child are a start, but they are not enough. We need more.

In addition to pressuring the big telecommunications companies and equipment makers to acknowledge and assist those who need it most, we need to pressure ourselves. Doctors and lawyers do pro bono work all of the time in their communities, and we should be doing the same. Go to your local centers and volunteer to train people how to use the tools of technology.

If you can’t volunteer, help find people who can. Use your network to touch and help people who need you, whether it is a church outreach program, an urban high school or a government training office. The first thing you have to do is be proactive, and you don’t even have to get off your ass to do it.

Leveraging Yesterdays Technologies for Tomorrows Innovations

Perhaps I’m getting old fartish, but I’m mildly disturbed by some of the “innovations” that are coming out these days. It once was cool, but now it’s just getting obnoxious. Take Cumul.us for instance, a service I just discovered today thanks to my friend Frank Gruber over at Somewhat Frank. This service tries to take the Twitter meets Facebook approach by asking what the weather is like now, and pulling in friends to figure out what everyone is wearing. I’m sorry, but I don’t see value in this iteration of social media.

Since when does anyone ask other people what to wear? I check out the temp and figure out for myself if that hoodie is going to get use or if the tee-shirt from Lijit is going to see the light of day. This is not rocket science, and it certainly does NOT need a social network built around it – at least not funded (and to be fair, I have no idea if they are).

I pick on Cumul.us because they are fresh in my mind, but they are not the only company doing stupid things. But let’s not focus on the negative. I’m certainly a fan of services and technologies that bring real life usefulness to real life people in very real senses.

The trick, in my mind, to a valuable company, is in using yesterday’s technologies to bridge the gap to tomorrow’s innovative new services. These are the valuable services. These are the ones I want to latch on to and evangelize. These are the ones that, if I were an investor, I’d be tossing money at. The bridge to Web 2.0 was on the back of billions of dollars of investment in fiber optics during Web 1.0, which allowed us the bandwidth to have the rich applications we enjoy today.

So let’s look at some successful companies that have real life application, that were built on the back of yesterday’s technology.

Utterz

Utterz is a viable player because it is based on the cell phone. You know, the thing that came out in the mid 90s that is attached to everyones hip today? Utterz allows you to call a phone number, leave a message similar to what you would do on any voicemail system, and then publish the message to the web, in various places. That’s a useful way for an everyday kind of person to experience today’s web.

Twitter

Twitter is a great crossover from another mid-90s technology, Instant Message, as well as text messaging into the great wild of the microweb. Again, Twitter is a valuable tool that builds community on the back of technologies that we have all enjoyed, and in some cases come to rely on, in an everyday world. Twitter is sticky among common users (and trust me, it’s more than just us early adopters using Twitter) because the obstacle for mom and dad is non-existant. Since everyone has a cell phone, everyone can use Twitter – regardless of if they even have internet access.

It’s even possible to have engagement in the Congo, where few people have internet access, but the wireless telecom industry is booming. That’s actually useful.

Tripit

Tripit is a valuable company with real world application because, let’s face it, just about everyone rents a car, takes a flight somewhere or stays in a hotel and it’s really damn hard to keep track of all those confirmation emails. Then you have to print them all and trifold them so you have a thick stack to take with you just to keep you on track with what you’re supposed to be doing and when.

Tripit offers absolutely ZERO obstacle to use. Not even an account. One will be created for you automatically if you don’t already have one. Simply forward your confirmation email from U.S. Airways (or any airline itinerary, hotel reservation, car rental, etc) to plans@tripit.com and looky, you now can login with your email address and print your itinerary. Travel alot and have lots of confirmations emails? Forward them all. Tripit is smart enough to organize them.

Tripit was built on old world technologies – email and confirmation sheets. Everyone understands these, but Tripit makes sense of it and helps everyday users save hassle, headache, time… and for the green among you, paper!

The challenge for all innovators is coming up with the idea no one has thought about and doing it in such a way that anyone, and I don’t mean early adopters, can use and immediately benefit from. Lots of cool gizmos out there, but if there’s no real world value it’s just noise. We need less noise.

Update: After re-reading this several days later, I realized that it sounded like Tripit was only for US Airways. I was using that as an example. Any airline confirmation email, hotel reservation or car rental can be forwarded. I’ve updated the entry too to reflect that.