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Project Tin Can: A Preliminary Proposal for a Low-Cost Information Infrastructure

I. Background

FreeSource is a St. Louis-based non-profit peer support and resource referral organization that was founded two years ago with the goal of empowering individuals to build and maintain community-based resource connections to enhance all areas of their lives.

While attending a recent citywide summit that was held with the intention of fostering interagency collaboration in addressing housing and resource needs of individuals experiencing homelessness, FreeSource founder Ben Cohen had the opportunity to take part in a resource development breakout session. During the session, a brief discussion ensued regarding the possibility of building electronic kiosks to be deployed at social service organizations. These proposed kiosks would augment the work of case managers by serving as easily accessible touchpoints for individuals seeking information regarding services available at particular agencies, as well as enrichment opportunities available in the broader community.

Serendipitously, FreeSource previously deployed an information kiosk for A Red Circle, a non-profit community benefit organization based in North St. Louis County. This kiosk was created using discarded and upcycled computer components, and runs on a free and open source operating system called Porteus Kiosk. It’s managed using Google Sites, and its interface provides visitors to A Red Circle with curated, up-to-date information regarding programming, community resources, employment and personal enrichment opportunities, Metro Transit routes, and local news and weather.

FreeSource aims to create additional kiosks at the request of other social service agencies. Our kiosk site template appears rudimentary, however it is designed to be safe, simple, easily-navigable, and easily-updatable. Previously, we had conceived of the kiosks as largely self-contained units with a general focus on providing specific information tailored to meet the specific needs of the community that it serves.

That stated, the conversation that took place at the aforementioned breakout session hewed toward ways of increasing interagency collaboration, and Ben began to wonder if it would be possible to interlink kiosks in a such a way as to create a private online community with the purpose of fostering communication and providing real-time information regarding resource availability and programming at all participating sites. Each kiosk would essentially be tethered to one another, like upcycled tin can phones of yore.

This is not a new idea. In the nascent days of the World Wide Web when home computers were not quite so ubiquitous as they are now, coin-operated kiosks were placed in many coffee shops throughout San Francisco to provide access to a local electronic bulletin board service called SF Net. We are proposing the creation of a similar system using our existing Google Sites infrastructure, only freely-accessible and with an emphasis on sharing resource-related information.

II. Building Materials

FreeSource is committed to repurposing discarded technology for the benefit of others. In our rapidly-evolving technologically-oriented society, e-waste is a big problem, as are human rights abuses perpetrated in pursuit of the rare earth minerals that serve as the basis of our technological infrastructure.

FreeSource strives to use only discarded and refurbished/repurposed technology in all of our activities whenever possible, not only as an ethical choice, but as a practical one that will allow us to ensure technological accessibility to all of our volunteers and program participants on an extremely minuscule budget. We do this also as an attempt to encourage people to look past superficial notions of obsolescence and what constitutes usefulness.

Specifically in regard to building the kiosk for A Red Circle, we were able to upcycle a laptop with a damaged power Jack and screen, and a 10-year-old monitor with a damaged stand. The electronic components were contained within a modified version of a cheap arcade cabinet built from plywood, and can be easily swapped out for replacements should anything cease to function.

To foster a greater sense of stakeholdership and collaboration among agencies interested in hosting kiosks, we propose the creation of an upcycling program that would allow said agencies to place damaged or obsolete technology (and potentially, furniture that could be modified into kiosk housing) into a shared pool to be used for kiosk construction and maintenance across all locations.

III. Site Updates and Moderation

FreeSource has sought to enlist online volunteers to assist in curating lists of community and vocational resource opportunities, and to engage in other forms of microvolunteering. We aim to cultivate a non-traditional volunteer base of individuals who might have difficulty committing to a regular, in-person volunteer schedule and who can remotely assist with small tasks that don’t necessarily require specialized training or a great deal of time to complete. People from all walks of life fill out job applications all the time, are good researchers, are able to put people at ease, and possess whatever other requisite skills that one might feel they need to possess for their volunteer efforts to meet with success.

We propose that agencies hosting kiosks could work within their existing volunteer frameworks to vet and train individuals who would be willing to assist in tasks relating to community resource information curation, site updates and maintenance, and potentially, online community moderation. We propose that FreeSource could work to assist volunteer managers in the training process, and could furthermore work to provide an online infrastructure that could serve as a hub for coordinating interagency volunteer efforts.