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Close the digital divide

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2014-09-25

http://www.timesargus.com/article/20140925/OPINION01/709259945/1021

By Steve Pappas, Times Argus - A few hundred Vermonters made history at the State House this week. While a few of them were lawmakers, the vast majority of the participants were representatives from Vermont’s public, private and nonprofit sectors, all of them with one thing in common: taking the pulse of the state’s digital economy.

The Vermont Connected Summit, hosted by the Vermont Council on Rural Development and the Vermont Digital Economy Project, brought together the state’s top visionaries and leaders when it comes to attracting and retaining jobs, providing infrastructure and promoting innovation — often on multiple platforms.

It was, in effect, an effort to superimpose today’s fast-paced, information-heavy world atop the traditional public policies that have become the bedrock of our state. Every topic was in play: education, the economy, health care, labor, even open government and poverty issues. Many of the discussions started off with exciting potential followed by humbling moments of identifying barriers. Strategies to overcome Vermont’s technical challenges were brainstormed and pulled together by organizers as a master list of springboards for action.

Throughout the day Tuesday, more than 50 presenters and facilitators held thoughtful discussions in all corners of the Capitol that took the first real hard look at Vermont’s digital future since the Internet began dominating our lives 20 or so years ago. The consensus was: We really are on the right track, but, as a state, we still have a lot to do.

In the end, out of all the talk, creating resilient communities and thriving businesses and sending the right message comes down to tools and training.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, among others, explained the many ways our state has embraced technology — all for the better. And while the governor in his address praised the thinkers and leaders in the room, there were calls for improvement in nearly every area that summit organizers placed on their aggressive daylong agenda.

It is hard, panelists and facilitators agreed, to strike the balance between community-building and having an online presence. Often, information is scattered, or the people charged with coordinating and collaborating are stretched thin. Plus, there is the simple fact that all of this technology is relatively new. Shumlin, invoking a similar challenge faced by former Gov. George D. Aiken, likened today’s challenge to getting electricity to every last mile.

That is not to say, however, there were naysayers. Even the most ardent critics in the room — mostly playing devil’s advocate more than being disagreeable — were encouraged by the measures of progress we have seen across the state’s sectors. Yes, technology is being taught in schools; it is being made available to businesses and nonprofits; it is creating jobs and has improved delivery of services; it has advanced communication and reconfigured the state’s workforce, making Vermont a true competitor on the world stage.

Everyone, the governor pointed out, has a place at the table as long as the right tools are there. And Vermont continues to lead.

The organizers of the event are hoping to take some of the suggestions hammered out at the summit and make them into formal recommendations for the administration and the Legislature. House Speaker Shap Smith, who gave some closing remarks, said he would welcome ideas from the people who are dealing in the digital economy every day.

It is remarkable that a rural state with a modest population could be so connected. We tend to be engaged and civic-minded. We tend to want to use technology to improve the quality of life we so covet.

It is commendable that the Vermont Council on Rural Development could bring together such a talented brain trust to help chart Vermont’s digital future. But it is more commendable so many people showed up — and didn’t email it in — to talk the issues through and make some sound recommendations for next steps.

It would seem Vermont’s digital divide is a complete misnomer.