July 14, 2004

Rural computer recycling program facing challenges

Author: Claudia Curran

The "Digital Divide" is alive and well in Ashland, Wis., county seat of Ashland
County, and Bayfield County just to the north -- the second largest county in Wisconsin, though it has no stoplights. "That's the kind of demographics we're talking about," said Kent Tenney, who three years ago approached economic development groups in northern Wisconsin about starting Longrun.org, a non-profit venture dedicated to recycling, refurbishing, and building computers that would use Linux and open source software in rural northern Wisconsin.

Members of what then was the Chequamegon Linux Users Group put out a
call for used equipment, and received 25 cubic yards of old computers and
hardware that volunteers from Northland College, Wisconsin Indianhead Technical
College (WITC), area high schools, and the general community helped sort. Since then, the pile has continued to grow, with usable motherboards, monitors, hard drives, CD-ROM drives, power supplies, keyboards, mice, video cards, network interface cards, and modems. Anything less powerful than a Pentium 133 is recycled, as are older monitors and some printers.

"Virtually everything we've gotten has come out of use some time ago and was in
storage," Tenney said.  "One of our projects is to get proactive with getting
equipment that's coming out of use."

Data from LongRun shows households with $35,000 annual income or less have a
36 percent chance of owning a computer, while households with $75,000
income or more have an 80 percent chance.  Average household income in
Ashland County hovers around $32,000, with the region showing similar economic
depression.

"There's no reason why anybody in this day in age shouldn't have access to
digital technology," said Bruce Lindgren, a co-principal in the organization
with Tenney.

LongRun's work is similar to that of Free Geek, in Portland, Ore., where people drop off used computers to be dismantled or overhauled, and then the equipment is either recycled or rebuilt with loaded GNU/Linux software for
others to use.

But LongRun is also very different from Free Geek. In contrast to Free Geek's 16,000-square-foot setup, paid staff, steady incoming trickle of used equipment, and plethora of skilled volunteers, LongRun is spread out in the basement of a business incubator building with no storefront, no regular volunteers, no paid staff, and infrequent drip-drops of used equipment between six and eight years old.

Though productive, LongRun faces challenges of low-population density, lack of funding and a scarcity of regional technological knowledge. Tenney and Lindgren are not discouraged, however. "We're not going to give up on it because we know it's important," Lindgren said.

LongRun started and remains under the non-profit umbrella of the Inland Sea
Society, a regional environmental organization that strives for a healthy and
diverse Lake Superior Basin ecosystem, including human communities. Part of the Inland Sea Society's mission focuses on community stewardship, which is where LongRun makes a good fit.

In 15 months of having a physical presence, LongRun has processed
literally tons of equipment in cooperation with the city of Ashland, the
Ashland County government, Ashland High School, Wisconsin Alliance for the
Environment, the Lake Superior Alliance, and the Northwest Wisconsin Concentrated Employment Program, Inc.

The organization is cultivating partnerships with two Native American tribes
and 12 rural school districts, where budget deficits are starting to force
school administrations to look at free and low-cost technology and education options,
Tenney said.

LongRun, with the help of an Americorps/VISTA volunteer from the Red Cliff
Ojibwe tribe and an intern from WITC, has offered a series of workshops for
students from three school districts and the technical college about computers
and Open Source.

At Prentice House, an alternative living home for youth in Ashland, LongRun
installed a small Internet browsing kiosk with Mozilla for residents to access
the World Wide Web.

But without paid staff to maintain the kiosk or offer regular classes,
LongRun's outreach programs are struggling. Part of the problem is northern Wisconsin's low population density. "Free Geek depends on people we don't have," Tenney said.

LongRun is trying to access the core of regional consumers who gravitate toward
pay-to-play software, so the organization's client base doesn't rely solely
on "geeks who like hardware or someone who doesn't have a computer," Tenney
explained.

Recently, LongRun has started to intensely focus on the question: How can
we stay afloat? The question supersedes any political, cultural, environmental or social banter of what open source means in today's world. An overeager initial business plan and denied grants have added to the dilemma. "We are struggling to find sustainability in this whole thing," Lindgren said. Tenney said he and Lindgren welcome suggestions about how to deal with the organization's challenges.

"We would love to help, but we need help in order to get going," Tenney said of
the movement to deal with discarded computers.  "It's like, whose problem is
this stuff?  We'd really like to step forward and raise our hands."

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