Largesse in the information age

Can technology combat poverty? The Conference Boards Digital Partnership Program believes it has a chance by developing markets in inner cities, rural regions, and other areas typically shunned by business. To encourage industry to explore these new frontiers, the Partnership Program promotes communication among government officials, business executives, and nonprofit organization leaders so each sector can complement the others efforts, explains Craig Smith, program director. Links between these sectors are needed. Business, government, and nonprofits have made impressive strides using technology to solve social problems, but rarely by working together. Close to a dozen telecommunications and computer hardware and software companies have provided grants and created new business units designed to spread technology to low-income communities. Microsoft, for example, recently formed the Working Connections alliance with the American Assn. of Community Colleges to help low-income students gain access to computer training. And SBC Communications Inc. launched an internal unit focused on reaching the disadvantaged. The government also is coming up with ways to use information technology to reduce poverty. The FCC has developed a "carrot and stick" approach to draw corporations to otherwise unattractive customers. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, for instance, creates markets among schools, libraries, and health centers in low-income areas by offering them subsidies of as much as 90% for purchasing advanced technology. The law has helped lure marketers to these new frontiers. The nonprofit sector has launched a few of its own initiatives. The Markle Foundation, for example, promotes "universal e-mail" for all citizens. The Digital Partnership Program hopes to gather the innovators behind these efforts for conferences and online meetings. The programs next conference, "Technology in Corporate Citizenship," will be held in October in San Francisco.

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