NYC connects low-income communities to the worldwide web with digital vans

Van with a Plan

NYC connects low-income communities to the worldwide web with digital vans

In its latest effort to expand internet access within public housing communities, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has hopped on the Pokémon Go craze.

Nestled in the heart of the LaGuardia Houses on Madison Street next to a mushroom-tiled sculpture—which is, itself, a Poké Stop recognized in the game—NYCHA invited Pokémon trainers to catch some Pokémon and tour its digital van, which was unveiled toward the end of the summer. The van, NYCHA’s third, offers access to free wi-fi and computers for low-income residents, as well as instructions for those less familiar with technology.

On September 21, with Pokémon trainers assembled, NYCHA chair and CEO Shola Olatoye described the vans as “an effort to better connect our residents to the city and the resources it has to offer,” and recognized Pokémon Go as a “great way to drive foot traffic to the digital van.”

In addition to free wi-fi, NYCHA’s digital vans are equipped with eight laptops, two tablets, scanners, printers, staplers, pencils, rulers, and calculators—anything you would need in a standard workplace environment.

“Basically I’m a mobile office,” Kim Maxwell, the digital van instructor, said with a grin.

According to Maxwell, most people utilizing the van’s resources are young people doing research for school, or creating resumes to apply for jobs.

“In 2016 you have to have a digital resume,” Maxwell said. “The days of asking, ‘Are you hiring?’ or ‘Can I give you my resume?’ are over. And not only do you have to present your resume online, you also have to take an assessment. You need a computer to do that.”

And the vans aren’t just serving young people on the job hunt. The second largest segment of users, according to Maxwell, is the elderly in the communities, who seek him out for more than just computer help. With regard to his engagements with the elderly during his visits, Maxwell said he gets a lot of repeat customers.

“They’ll come at first because they want to use their phone better, and they end up chit-chatting,” Maxwell said. “I’ve become a familiar face in their residence—it’s very rewarding that way.”

The digital vans are funded through a city grant, with partners at the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications. Since the first van launched in
2014, they’ve won several awards for municipal innovation. Earlier this summer, the city won a competition by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development to participate in ConnectHome, an initiative by President Barack 
Obama to expand broadband access and digital literacy programs for low-income communities.

Nydia Vasquez, a senior resident and member of the executive board at the nearby Smith Houses, said she saw the van for the first time as she was walking home. When asked about her initial thoughts, Vasquez immediately perceived the vans as “a great advantage.”

“It’s excellent for the older people who need to talk to their families far away, get their emails, or make their medical appointments,” Vasquez said. “I hope they get more money so they can do it in every housing development.”

Each of the three digital vans cost about $175,000, with a $200,000 yearly operating budget, and visits between 18 and 25 developments over the course of a two-week
rotation—still only a fraction of the 334 developments citywide.

When asked about the possibility of more vans, the NYCHA chair suggested that continued collaboration could make it a reality, citing close collaboration with the city government.

“We’d very much like to see this replicated,” Olatoye said.

As for Vasquez, she plans to spread the word among residents in her building and to inquire about getting the vans over at the Smith Houses at her next meeting with NYCHA.

“My complex is big—we need one on the left and one on the right,” she said. “And I don’t know about this Poké-stuff, but I’m going to find out today!”