Three years after its foundation, the Trenton Digital Initiative (TDI) is still going strong, and is looking to recruit more volunteers and to raise more funds to bring computing power and low-cost Internet access to even more Trenton residents.
From three computers in its initial distribution effort, the group has now delivered more than 200 refurbished computers and has about 200 more ready to go. It has also partnered with the Trenton-based Mercer Street Friends, which provides a network for distribution and technical support for the families that receive the computers.
But there remains an ongoing need for donated computers, volunteers, and money.
Two upcoming events will support the program and its principal sponsor, Mercer Street Friends. “A Taste-Full Evening” fundraising event will be Friday, October 16, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank Warehouse, 824 Silvia Street, Ewing. The event includes food prepared by chefs from Agricola, JM Group (Blue Point Grill, Nassau Street Seafood, and Witherspoon Grill), Marsilio’s, McCaffrey’s, Pennington Quality Market, ShopRite, and Wegmans. Beer and wine and live music are also featured. Tickets are $85. For more information, visit www.mercerstreetfriends.org or call 609-396-1506.
“Something’s Brewing,” a TDI awareness event organized by members of the Trenton Rotary and the MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce, Wednesday, October 21, River Horse Brewing Company, 2 Graphics Drive, Ewing, from 5 to 7, $25 to $30, includes beer tasting, light fare, and a brewery tour. For more information, visit www.trentonrotary.org/trenton-digital-initiative.
The idea for the Trenton Digital Initiative began with Glenn Paul, the founder of Clancy Paul, which in the 1980s became Princeton’s leading outlet for sales and service of personal computers. After selling Clancy Paul to a national company, Paul remained in the Princeton area as an entrepreneur. One of his current companies is a mobile data-retrieving software company called Textler.
Paul was interested in the future of Trenton and cities in general. “It’s getting to the point that there are a lot of cities where we are warehousing people,” he said in a July 10, 2013, article in U.S. 1. “We’re warehousing people when we wall off a city and say it’s alright to keep everybody alive, but we don’t have anything for these people to do.”
But personal computers and the Internet also offered a promise of hope. “We may be in the golden age of education. Instead of education becoming prohibitively expensive, it is going to be free,” he said, referring to courses offered by major universities and instructors just a webpage away on online courses such as Coursera or EdX. And the Internet could also be used to find jobs or for young entrepreneurs to launch online business.
Paul contacted Dave Zboray, who had been a partner in the computer store back in the 1980s. “I’ve known him for 30 years, all through the computer business,” says Zboray, a Hamilton resident who joined the Mercer Street Friends staff 15 years ago (he also taught science for a few years after graduating from Glassboro State College in 1977. “I immediately saw that it was fantastic idea and wanted to implement it the best that I could. That’s how we started out.”
“It was in December, 2012. I got three names from the mayor’s office and we began delivering computers. That’s when it began to move,” Zboray says.
As the organizers knew from the onset, there is no shortage of used computers. Consumers continue to purchase new machines and look for ways to dispose of old computers. And over the past few years computers and monitors have been donated by Mercer County Community College, Rider University, Comcast, the Law School Admission Council (in Newtown), and individuals.
Second, a network of computer professionals shared the know-how to upgrade and prepare used computers, and the Trenton Rotary adopted the project and helped obtain funding for parts and other costs.
A third obstacle was trickier: affordable Internet access. “If you don’t have access, a computer is useless,” says Zboray. “But that’s where we got Comcast to help us. They have a program called Internet Essentials. They base it on (the same qualifications as) the federal lunch program, and cities like Trenton qualify for that program. So if you’re a Trenton student, you’re qualified. And in some cases Comcast — and some donors — even give scholarships for a year, just to get people on the internet. The going cost is $10 a month and no other service is required. With the current version, they even put a wireless router in the house.”
Another problem was software. “How do we supply all the software to people?” asked Zboray. “If they had to go out and buy $300 office software, it would be self defeating. But some of the computer nerds said, ‘There’s a lot of good free software out there.’”
Zboray says that “we’re using a version of Linux called Ubuntu. It’s an African word that means human kindness. It’s a free computer operating system. It solved two problems: a cost problem and a unified operating system. We’re able to load Ubuntu on every computer we have and don’t have the problem that Microsoft has with various versions.”
“Every computer gets Firefox and LibreOffice, which is Microsoft Office compatible and can do word processing and create spread sheets like Excel and Power Point presentations. And it’s free. We didn’t know how good free software could be.” Zboray says that the entire operating system can fit on a mini-memory stick.
With computers upgraded and ready, the question then moved to distribution. “We could go out on the corner and give them away, but that wouldn’t help. It’s not a handout. It’s a tool that can be used for good,” says Zboray.
After a trial run with HomeFront, Mercer Street Friends emerged as the logical partner. “I wanted to get Mercer Street Friends in on it. We have the clients. It sounded so good,” says Zboray.
Mercer Street Friends (MSF) has a family program, which invites people to a free computer training program. “We do six classes in a row. After the classes they can take the computer home. So instead of forgetting, they can use what they learn. It’s theirs,” says Zboray.
Other distribution points include MSF school-programs, preschool, and the Youth Service Program where young people are taught “about the inside of the computers: taking them apart and rebuilding, so each one gets a computer to rebuild and take home. We also have coding each day where they work on (computer coding) and build their own website.” The last point of distribution is MSF’s Community Work Experience Program (CWEP), a 16-week session to help community members — including referrals from Mercer County Board of Social Services — improve job readiness and self-sufficiency. After learning how to reassemble and operate a computer, participants can take a computer home.
Zboray says that the TDI is trying to create “an N2N — nonprofit to nonprofit distribution model. We’re looking at the Mercer Street Friends’ food distribution network. Mercer Street runs a food bank that has 60 members. That includes soup kitchens and food pantries. All members are nonprofits. So this would be a great model for technology. These member agencies pull from the bank at no cost. But sometimes member agencies will chip in certain amounts to help defray distribution costs. That’s in the planning.”
The project is now run mainly by volunteers and Mercer Street Friends absorbs some costs, including the time that Zboray contributes to it while addressing IT needs at six other MSF locations. He says that a budget needs to be created to determine how the project can move to any determined future steps. “We solved computers, software, and distribution. It’s (a question) of scale now. If we could digitize the city and give a computer to everyone who wants one, we can become a model for other cities,” he says.
Data collection is the other. “We are tracking each computer and have follow up work. The next level is to have volunteers contact users to see if all is all right and collect data. We have to develop our matrixes. (But) I think that someone connecting and looking for a job is a success.”
Zboray says “this is the easiest thing in the world to sell. When I tell people I can take an old computer, clean it up, and give it to someone who needs it, people ask ‘How can I help?’”
Among those already helping — in addition to the Rotary Club of Trenton and the Mercer Street Friends — are the Hamilton Area YMCA and the MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce, which serve as computer drop-off locations. AR&C Self-Storage serves as the official transportation partner.
For more information on the Trenton Digital Initiative and information on computer drop-off or pick-up and volunteer opportunities, and to view a video overview, go to www.tdi-trenton.info, call 609-278-5520, or E-mail TDI@MercerStreetFriends.org.