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Interview: Samantha's Trip to Maine

Last month, Samantha Schartman traveled to Maine to train members of the Maine Digital Inclusion Initiative on using DITTO. DITTO is software designed by Samantha and Connected Insights to help community organizations and non-profits collect well-organized, valuable data on their efforts. DITTO is being beta-tested at both the MDII and the Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center, with an official roll-out scheduled in January. We talked to Samantha about her trip, and what the scene in Maine looks like.

“So Axiom is a fiber provider but also an education provider. For a fee, they will train pretty much anyone on any type of tech. But recently they spun off a non-profit, which is called the National Digital Equity Center. Susan Corbett was the CEO and co-founder of Axiom Technologies. She stepped down in her role as CEO and has taken over the NDEC.

This is our first time working with Susan, but she has been in and around the digital inclusion community for a long time. So while I have not worked with her before, she has certainly been a prominent name, and we’ve attended the same conferences, she’s been in the room.

Maine needed somebody to do data and evaluation. It’s part of the requirement of their Americorps grant to produce metrics, and she didn’t really have anyone on her staff to do that. So Susan reached out to Angela at National Digital Inclusion Alliance, looking for a resource, and we were recommended.

When we first discussed what the project was going to look like, the first thing I noticed was that the format was very similar to what Connect Your Community did. Which is a certain number of hours focused around basic digital literacy, and even the way basic literacy was defined was a shared point. Susan uses the Northstar assessment as her benchmark, as do we, as do many other digital inclusion projects across the country. She’s doing basic training. It is a high touch, case management approach, which CYC was. She envisioned her trainers identifying each individual person’s need and why they were here, and helping them on a personal trajectory of growth, which really resonated with me. Because that’s what I and the CYC team thought was CYC’s legacy that we capitalized on.

We’ve termed that Meaningful Uses. So if people needed a job, or needed a better job, or wanted to improve their income, then we’re going to help facilitate them getting the tools and resources they needed. If their personal goal was an education or to re-skill themselves,or finish their GED, then we geared our digital skills training towards that goal. When we ended up doing our participant surveys, the reason we got such great feedback and such positive impact numbers was because we really did help people to achieve those goals. It was a big strength, and when I heard Susan was really interested in a case management approach to digital inclusion, that rang a bell. I said, I know how to do that. We did it in 5 states, we touched 33,000 people, and we were one of the most successful projects in the country, because we produced a lot of really good, rich data. So we knew what worked, we knew how to capture what was important, and I thought this was a great fit. And I think Susan recognized this was a proven model, I had a lot of data to show her, she saw what the end results could look like. So it’s a good partnership.

Connected Insights really represents the brain trust of digital inclusion project evaluation, bar none. Ultimately, there isn’t really anyone else who is as focused on this sort of thing like we are. There are very few projects who have put a lot of thought into capturing these metrics. It seemed like a good fit, so we went ahead with figuring out how to forge this path.

Our program DITTO was based on our old noodle system. During the CYC, we used a noodle as an open source platform, which had my sequel database backend, which ditto also has. We lifted a lot of database structure from the noodle platform, so the systems are very similar. We’ve made improvements, but ultimately they are almost the same.

Maine has 16 counties, so the NDEC’s Digital Inclusion project will enlist 16 Americorps volunteers that will provide training in all 16 counties. Right now they are in phase one, which is where the volunteers will train in 8 counties, two volunteers per county. The ultimate goal is to train 32 volunteers to cover all 16 counties. The training is being mostly provided through the library systems. There are 237 library branches in Maine, and these are going to be targeted as the primary training center. They’ll be emphasizing the work force training part of the project at first, and after full roll-out, shift more focus onto the Age in Place aspect.

Teaching DITTO to the volunteers took all of twenty minutes. It was incredibly simple, because we designed it that way. It was designed to be operated effectively by someone with low technology skills. Because the idea is eventually, as is the case with a lot of programs, we train new computer users to obtain a basic threshold of skills, in the hope that they become peer leaders in their communities and help others to train. What we’ve seen when these programs happen in a large scale in an area, we see past participants join the cause themselves and become trainers. So I wanted a system that would not be overwhelming to someone who might be a new user themselves. It was very straightforward. There’s only a few different functions, which ultimately creates a very simple, validated data set that we can analyze later.

I’m very confident this is going to run smoothly. The volunteers we have in place are much more skilled than some of the previous projects I’ve worked with. They have people with programming skills, a student that’s enrolled in cyber security. So the skill level of the trainers is significant, which is really good. I don’t have any question that they will be able to use the system well and provide training to the citizens of Maine. “

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