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Cuba allows Internet access at Home, a rarity in a Country with one of the lowest Internet penetration Rates in the World

About 5 percent of Cubans are estimated to enjoy internet at home, which requires government permission

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Retired teacher Margarita Marquez, 67, uses the internet after it was recently installed at her home in old Havana, Cuba, Dec. 29, 2016. (VOA)

Downtown Havana resident Margarita Marquez says she received a special Christmas gift this year: web access at home, a rarity in a country with one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world.

Marquez, a 67-year-old retired university professor, was among those selected by the government two weeks ago to participate in a pilot project bringing the web into the homes of 2,000 inhabitants of the historic center of the island’s capital.

Most of Communist-ruled Cuba’s 11.2 million inhabitants have access to internet only at Wi-Fi hotspots, and only then if they can afford the $1.50 hourly tariff that represents around 5 percent of the average monthly state salary.

About 5 percent of Cubans are estimated to enjoy internet at home, which requires government permission. This is usually granted mainly to academics, doctors and intellectuals.

A dream come true, until March

“It’s like a dream come true,” said Marquez, who lives with her sister in a second-story flat in a colonial-era building. “To be in touch with the outside world is important.”

Her 80-year-old sister, Leonor Franco, said the news that they had been selected came as a surprise and she was excited to be surfing the web for the first time.

“I had never had any experience of internet,” she said, seated in front of a laptop she has owned for two years without web access, searching for videos of her favorite singers on YouTube.

She said she wanted to learn how to surf the web properly so she could make the most of the experiment, and for as long as the government provided free internet access.

“From March we will have to start paying and we don’t know if we will be able to continue. So at least we are going to enjoy January and February,” she said.

Cost drops but still high

While the cost of internet has dropped in recent years, it is still prohibitive for most Cubans.

Cuba says it has been slow to develop network infrastructure because of high costs in part because of the U.S. trade embargo. Critics say the real reason is fear of losing control.

Before Wi-Fi signals became available last year, broadband internet access had been limited largely to desktops at state internet parlors and pricy hotels.

However, the government has said it wants to ensure everyone has access and has installed 237 Wi-Fi hotspots so far. In September, it announced it would install Wi-Fi along Havana’s picturesque seafront boulevard, the Malecon.

“There are many places now where you can go and sit and connect along the Malecon,” said Eliecer Samada as he sat on the stone wall lining the boulevard, checking social media on his phone. “We’re happy with this.” (VOA)

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Technology Makes Huge Impact on San Francisco’s Local Government

Harris' proposal to get tech involved on a local level makes sense to Francesca Costa, outreach manager for CalFresh, the local food stamp program. 

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U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, addresses labor leaders at the California Labor Federal and State Building and Construction Trades Council Legislative Conference Dinner, April 1, 2019, in Sacramento, California. VOA

For people needing food from San Francisco’s main food bank, one of the biggest hurdles was actually filling out the online form for food stamps.

The application was long, with more than 200 questions. It didn’t work on mobile phones. For people without home computers, it was hard to get through the process.

But the San Francisco Food Bank, which provides fresh vegetables and dry goods to more than 200,000 people in northern California, partnered with a technology nonprofit that helped bring the application process into the digital era.

“We made a really simple online form that’s mobile first and only takes seven minutes,” said Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, which helps government programs work better by using technology. “It uses really clear, simple language, and then we help people get through the process by supporting them by text message because that’s what people actually use.”

A new bill from Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris promises to help local government form tech teams. With support from Code for America and the Center for Democracy & Technology, Harris is calling it the “Digital Service Act,” which she says will empower state and local government to invest in digital services to update and rebuild government services using technology.

“Americans deserve a government that works for them and that just plain works,” Harris said in a press release. “We must do more to empower our state and local governments to tap into the power of technology to provide seamless, cost-effective services for the 21st century.”

The Digital Service Act would authorize $50 million annually to grow the United States Digital Service, a group of technologists working in government to help improve programs.If approved, the Digital Service Actwould also authorize $15 million for state and local governments to receive two-year seed grants to establish and strengthen digital services and require that at least 50% of each grant be used for talent.

Harris is not the only presidential candidate to talk about tech. Others are also looking to tech to solve civic problems and create more local jobs. Still, others have attacked tech.

Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders has criticized Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse workers. And fellow Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed breaking up tech giants like Amazon and Facebook.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at the Heartland Forum held on the campus of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, March 30, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at the Heartland Forum held on the campus of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, March 30, 2019. VOA

President Donald Trump, who is seeking re-election in 2020, has met with U.S. tech industry leaders to talk about what government can do to help the United States maintain its leadership in key technological areas.

Harris’ proposal to get tech involved on a local level makes sense to Francesca Costa, outreach manager for CalFresh, the local food stamp program.

“I think investing in technology is crucial for government assistance programs,” said Costa. “It’s a good strategy to eliminate those technological barriers so that we can focus on any other barriers that might exist in the business process.”

Pahlka said local governments don’t need “fancier technology.”Instead, what’s needed is a new approach, she said, one “that puts all of the compliance and laws and regulations that make government services so complicated and then really, really hard to use. Push those to the background and make things that really work for people.”

Also Read: Mechanical Trees’ A Good Option To Fight Climate Change?

In another project, Code for America helped local California governments clear the criminal records of people convicted of marijuana-related crimes. With a number of states having legalized marijuana, many convictions were overturned, but the process of digitally clearing them had stalled.

“It’s remarkable to see the number of people in government who never thought that was possible, even though it’s actually quite easy,” Pahlka said. (VOA)