April 21, 2009 By Matt Williams
Microsoft announced Monday it has awarded a $4.5 million grant to Houston for a newly launched digital inclusion and educational training program that will help 160,000 Houstonians.
One of the largest grants of its kind, the funding is going to WeCAN Works, a program of the Houston Digital Inclusion Initiative Wireless Empowered Community Access Network (WeCAN). Most of the money will be spent on software.
The program supports "broadband Internet, education, training, equipment and content development for 10 high-need neighborhoods," with plans for 375 computer access locations open to the public, according to the WeCAN Web site. The program will target at-risk high-school students, and the underemployed and unemployed. The initiative is funded exclusively through corporate donations, private gifts and in-kind contributions. It launched in January and will be phased in through 2010.
Microsoft wanted to choose a region with the vision and leadership in place to sustain a program for years to come, said Gail Thomas-Flynn, general manager of state and local government for Microsoft.
"We really found in the city of Houston and the Houston Public Library a partner that was truly committed to this effort -- around digital literacy and work force development -- and it really differentiated their level of commitment in so many ways." She said other city partners include the Houston Independent School District, Houston Community College, the Greater Houston Partnership and Workforce Solutions.
WeCAN is Houston's newest program seeking to eliminate the digital divide. After Houston's deal with EarthLink to build a citywide wireless network fell apart a few years ago, the city used a $5 million buyout paid by the vendor to bring 10 "bubbles" of Wi-Fi to underserved neighborhoods, with the aim of using it someday as the base for a citywide network. In addition, the Houston Public Library built a computer lab on wheels that travels across the city, bringing technology to people who can't afford it at home. The library also renovated it flagship branch to include "a gadget petting zoo" and more computer equipment.
Like many metropolitan cities, Houston has lost a significant number of jobs during the recession: more than 14,000 total in the last 12 months. About 190,000 are unemployed locally and 380,000 adults ages 25 and older don't have a high-school diploma, according to WeCAN.
These losses are spurring more people to seek job training, and technology is still a growth area.