Editors’ Update, Oct. 18, 2006 – This article has been edited since original publication.
LISBON, Portugal, Feb. 1, 2006 – It’s a typical winter morning in the small, bustling town of Zambrow, Poland. Chatty youngsters make their way to school, fur-capped and booted men and women head to work, the occasional nun walks briskly by and lorries rumble through town.
Under the surface of this lively scene looms a reality as ever-present as Zambrow’s stately, twin-steepled church: a chronically depressed economy. Situated in north-eastern Poland, one of the poorest areas in the European Union, Zambrow suffers from 20 percent unemployment.
Positive changes are coming to the town of 20,000 residents, however. A window manufacturer and other small businesses have moved into the empty textile factories on the outskirts of town, creating hundreds of new jobs. And the benefits of Internet access have taken hold in the community.
Thanks to a partnership between the regional government, Microsoft and local non-profit organizations, public computer workstations have been installed at the local library in Zambrow and at 117 additional locations in the surrounding region. Soon the Zambrow library will house a 15-PC classroom, also funded by Microsoft, where members of the community will be able to take classes to develop IT skills.
The workstations and training in Zambrow are examples of the new economic and social opportunity being fostered in communities large and small, urban and rural, rich and poor around the world by Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential (UP) program. Microsoft launched the global initiative three years ago, committing to help a quarter of a billion disadvantaged young people, adults and others in underserved communities receive technology and other skills training by 2010.
Microsoft has taken another step toward fulfilling this pledge with the latest round of UP grants, the sixth of its kind. Today, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates announced the US$25.2 million in grants during his keynote address at the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum (GLF) Europe 2006 in Lisbon. He detailed how the grants will provide cash and software to help 126 non-profit organizations to expand existing programs or open new community technology centers (CTCs) in 64 countries.
“The power of information technology to transform lives and build economies is no longer restricted by the technical limits of computer processing power, memory or software,” says Akhtar Badshah, senior director of Microsoft Community Affairs. “Instead, factors that even our industry’s best technical minds will never overcome – access and training – restrict the use of IT, The IT access and training provided by the Unlimited Potential program is helping people realize their full potential.”
Centers Reflect Local Needs
The UP program is one component of Microsoft’s global digital-inclusion efforts, which also seek to make technology more accessible, affordable and easy to use, and create economic opportunity through its products and services. By helping a quarter of a billion people acquire technical skills and training, Microsoft expects the resulting social and economic opportunity to not only improve lives, but also transform communities and, ultimately, nations, Badshah says.
Since launching UP in May 2003, the company has awarded a total of $152 million in grants, which have helped sponsor 6,000 CTCs in 95 countries. In all, the centers have enabled an estimated 15 million people worldwide to receive training.
Microsoft offices around the world work with local agencies and other authorities in their regions to identify groups of people who are the most in need of technology and training. It then awards UP grants based on the ability of local non-profit organizations to meet those needs. In Latin America, for example, UP grants help fund 19 centers, including 11 newly funded CTCs; all focus on providing training to disabled people. In Korea, a country with a rapidly aging population, the focus is on helping elderly people with limited resources develop technology skills. One of the latest UP grant recipients will help women in Palestine create Internet-based businesses at home.
Microsoft is also expanding the scope of the UP program to help meet the growing need for job-preparedness and workforce training in developed nations, Badshah says. The company has pledged to help the European Commission meet its Jobs and Growth Strategy goal of improving education, employability and digital inclusion in Europe by providing training to 20 million people by 2010.
These efforts include new, workforce-specific UP offerings, such as free, three-day training and support courses that will be available at centers throughout France for micro-entrepreneurs. On an even broader scale, Microsoft is working with the Clothing Industries of Portugal (CITEVE) to help at least 3,000 textile workers in Portugal acquire the skills and qualifications needed in their communities to transition to new jobs.
The Technology, Innovation and Initiative program (TII) is a three-year initiative designed to offset the impact of global competition on Portugal’s textile industry, which is currently coping with an estimated 20,000 unemployed workers. Along with providing the workers training, CITEVE and others partners will work with local companies and unions to help trainees find new jobs or start new businesses.
Centers Reflect Local Needs, Economies
The local partners use the UP grants to help hire and train technology instructors, expand course offerings and reach a broader base of underserved community members. In addition, Microsoft provides computer software for use in technology labs or elsewhere in the centers. The grant recipients also have access to a basic IT skills curriculum, developed by Microsoft, that emphasizes real-world technology applications and is available in 15 languages.
The local partners take it from there, shaping the curriculum to suit local training needs. Badshah considers the UP program’s flexibility to be its greatest asset. “From the outset,” he says, “we knew that for these centers to address local needs, they needed to be run by local partners with deep roots who understand local needs and how to best address them.
“There is no blueprint for our local partners to follow,” Badshah says. “By design, it is their program. Microsoft is a facilitator, helping out behind the scenes in areas we have expertise and can provide other assistance to these local organizations.”
In Poland, locals took the lead from the start. A non-profit organization proposed adding public Internet access points in each of the 118 districts in Podlasie in 2003. At the time, schools and businesses were the only locations that had Internet access. Private access was – and remains today – too expensive for most households.
The idea began to take shape and got its name – the Ikonk@ program – when local governments offered space for the centers in the public libraries. Next, Microsoft provided $250,000 in cash and software for three Internet-enabled computers in each of 118 centers. Finally, Polish Telecom agreed to provide Internet access in every district in Podlasie, many of which had never been able to connect, even in schools.
Today, people wait in line for a chance to use one of the Internet workstations. A single page of the library’s hard-cover Internet registry reveals the diversity of information visitors seek – construction information, management issues, famous buildings, employment information, sports news, shopping, literature, criminology, music, news, social issues.
Eva Lempicka, a 3rd-year architecture student at the Bialystok University of Technology, uses the public workstations whenever she visits her mother, who lives in a housing estate a few blocks from the Zambrow library.
“When I was in high school, we didn’t have Internet at all – it wasn’t available here,” she says. “When I left to go to university, it was a problem at first that I didn’t have Internet experience. I had some catching up to do. Kids today are more prepared.”
The success of the Ikonk@ program has prompted the Polish government to extend the program to all 17 other provinces. In addition, one of the UP grants announced today will create training centers, each with 15 PCs, in Zambrow and four other public libraries this summer. Microsoft will provide hardware, software, teacher training, and one year of an ICT trainer’s salary. Another UP project will help train rural women to use computers to manage their farm’s business.
“Our main objective through programs like Unlimited Potential is to lower the barriers to obtaining skills and knowledge through information technology,” says Marek Roter, general manager of Microsoft Poland. “A small, strategic investment can make a huge difference in the lives of individuals, and we hope that the town of Zambrow and other rural communities will realize long-term benefits as a result of our efforts.”
Breaking Down Barriers with IT, Job Skills
In addition to breaking down economic barriers, UP grants are helping create new cultural norms. In parts of the world where volunteerism was a foreign concept, Badshah says UP grants are convincing individuals and organizations to pool their time and resources for the first time. Similarly, in economically disadvantaged regions where it had been frowned upon for women to work outside the home, UP grants are helping moms and daughters learn the skills they need to help ease the poverty.
At UP-supported centers in the Indian state of Uttar Pradeshoffer, almost 1,000 students, mostly women, have signed up to learn how to use the Internet and Microsoft Office applications. The centers are run by Datamation Foundation, a Delhi-based non-governmental organization focused on aiding women, economically and socially disadvantaged communities and young people in India.
Many of the women use the computer skills and technology at the centers to find, electronically design and share patterns for traditional chikan embroidery, which they then sell directly to customers in India and overseas on the Internet.
“I am no longer financially dependent on my father,” says Tahseen Bano, 22, who uses the IT skills she learned at the center to earn money with a part-time job at Datamation. “I now want to go to school to earn a degree in software engineering.”
Half a world away, at the Chicago (Ill.) Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the sense of liberation is equally palpable. The Lighthouse will use the UP grant it received recently to increase IT and job training opportunities for its disabled clients. Before they begin coming to The Lighthouse, many of the people served do not have access to adaptive technology, without which they cannot learn the Microsoft Office and other software skills they’ll need to find jobs, says Sara Cohen, The Lighthouse’s manager of Corporate and Foundation Relations.
“Seventy percent of people who are blind or severely visually impaired are unemployed,” Cohen says. “That unemployment rate is totally unacceptable. Technology provides a way to bridge that gap.”
“By choosing The Lighthouse as a recipient of the Unlimited Potential grant,” she says, “Microsoft has chosen to step up to the plate and help us bridge that gap.”