CommuniTech is a program that was founded through the PSC to teach basic computer skills to individuals in need and then provide a refurbished computer at completion of the training. The program was taken over by the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab's (CSAIL's) Imara program, where it continues to thrive.
What inspired you to start CommuniTech?
True story — I was doing some other volunteer work helping single moms learn computer skills, and many of them commented that they didn't have a computer at home. One day, I come home from volunteering and my roommate mentioned that he had set up a desktop computer in his bed so that he could check his email first thing in the morning (this was 1997, so laptops were scarce, and iPads did not yet exist). That was when I realized that there was excess computing equipment at MIT.
When and how did you get started, and how did CommuniTech evolve?
I believe it was 1997, and I was working with Project HEALTH (today called HealthLeads), which was a Harvard-based service group with a chapter at MIT. I felt that I wanted to do more to leverage the technical capabilities from MIT, so I started advertising for volunteers who wanted to do technical volunteering work. We then divided up into two groups: those who would help find old computers and get them more-or-less working (mostly on Saturday mornings), and those who would run training classes (mostly at nights on weekdays). It was slow going at first, and I made a ton of mistakes, but the program gradually grew. Since I left, the program has continued to grow, and I'm totally amazed at what those folks have accomplished.
What impact have you achieved on the communities you served?
The direct impact — helping families get computers and training — speaks for itself. Obviously computer familiarity becomes more and more required as time goes on. I also think that having young children with a computer in the home is an important element to the program. Just having a computer around and available at home can let them know that they're welcome in the digital world. The indirect impact — getting young MIT students out of the Institute bubble and reminding them that there's another world where technology is not ubiquitous — is harder to measure, but I think it can ultimately be just as important.
How did the PSC play a role in your work?
Anything done by MIT students is going to be subject to the whims of the academic schedule — homework, finals, summers, etc. — as well as the organizing and execution skills of smart, but young, people. The PSC serves as a balancing force: helping young leaders grow and filling in the gaps that being a student creates. I think it's safe to say there would be no CommuniTech today without the PSC. It's possible that nothing I did in my 11 years at MIT was more meaningful than this. I am enormously grateful to everyone who has ever worked on the project and to the PSC and CSAIL for their ongoing support!