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'Free Geek' program seeks to increase computer ownership

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Free geek
Free Geek Twin Cities is accepting donations of unused computer equipment to refurbish. Volunteers who donate a certain number of hours to the program can take home a free computer, complete with software. The program recycles any computer equipment that cannot be repaired and reused.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

It seems virtually everything is online these days, but studies show the digital divide remains a problem and low-income people are still less likely to own a computer or have access to the internet at home. 

A new program called "Free Geek," opening next month in Minneapolis, aims to help close that gap. 

It's lunchtime at the downtown campus of Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and students sit around the student lounge working on laptops. Brian Maddox says he wishes he could do the same thing, but he says, "there is no way I can afford to buy a computer." 

The 47-year old nursing student is disabled and lives on a fixed income from Social Security. Going back to college has been a big adjustment, especially when it comes to technology. His professors require assignments to be submitted online.

"My first paper that I had to upload to the website here I couldn't do it and I couldn't figure out why," he says. "Well, what happened is that I have such an old word processing program."

So, turning in his work means a lengthy bus ride across town to campus, where he prints his papers out and hands them in in person.

"It's kind of embarrassing to be the oldest student in class and to be the most challenged and then to have to hand in the paper hard copy. They just look at me and think I'm a grandpa," he says. 

Maddox won't have to be embarrassed much longer. In a few weeks, he plans to sign up for Free Geek Twin Cities, a program modeled after a similar project in Portland with the mission, as they say, to "help the needy get nerdy." 

Here's how it works: Free Geek repairs and rebuilds unwanted computers and gives them to people who need them. Volunteers who donate their time get to take a computer home for free. Free Geek will also sell refurbished machines for a very low price.  

About 20 minutes away in South Minneapolis, spokesperson Amanda Luker shows off their new facility. The concrete space is empty right now, but Luker says they've already collected a few dozen computers and lots more parts that would otherwise go to landfills. 

"There is all this computer equipment that is being dumped," she says, "some of it being shipped to other countries."

Computers and other electronic waste contain hazardous materials that are toxic to the environment and human health. Much of it ends up in developing countries with lax environmental enforcement. 

Free Geek's combination of environmental responsibility with its mission to bridge the digital divide has Twin Cities social service providers talking. Sarah Koschinska from the non-profit Project for Pride in Living is planning to refer many of her clients to Free Geek. 

"We have more families calling us and requesting all the time, 'how can I get a low-cost computer, how can I get more training on having a computer at home,' than we are able to meet.  Having another resource, especially one right here in South Minneapolis, will be really, really helpful." 

Income remains a major dividing line between the computer haves and have nots. In 2007, the Center for Rural Policy and Development found that at least four-fifths of Minnesota households with incomes over $50,000 a year own a computer. The same study found that only about a quarter of households earning less than $25,000 a year have one. 

As more and more everyday tasks move online, not having a computer at home puts people at a real disadvantage. Cathy White, who is living in a homeless shelter while she works to get back on her feet, said she and her kids spend hours each month waiting to use a computer at the shelter or the public library. 

"There is a time limit, of course, when other families need to use it so you're on the computer and you're trying to find a job and somebody else is trying to find the same thing and housing," she says, "and you give that time up to them because we are all looking for the same thing."

Not owning a computer also makes it tough for her kids to complete their online school work. Once Free Geek opens, White plans to volunteer so she can get a computer for her family.