Innovators in Digital Inclusion: Free Geek

Broadband access and adoption are essential for full participation in our society, for education, for public health, and for public safety. But nagging gaps in broadband adoption exist in too many U.S. communities. In Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives, Dr. Colin Rhinesmith explores successful, local efforts to help low-income individuals and families overcome the barriers to broadband adoption. Dr. Rhinesmith finds that successful digital inclusion organizations focus on: 1) Providing low-cost broadband, 2) Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services, 3) Making low-cost computers available, and 4) Operating public access computing centers.

In this series, the Benton Foundation and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) explore the origins, strategies, challenges and funding mechanisms for successful digital inclusion organizations. In this fourth article, we examine Free Geek in Portland, Oregon, a do-it-yourself-driven nonprofit organization which acts as both that city’s largest e-waste recycler as well as a source for free and low-cost equipment, training, and skills development.

Innovators in Digital Inclusion: Free Geek

Origin

[token node content-image-7-left]In 2000, a collective led by Oso Martin recognized the need in Portland, Oregon, for safe disposal and recycling of electronics. Simultaneously, they saw an opportunity to get technology into the hands of those who did not have it. Free Geek began as a simple collection and refurbishment program (and, yes, it was started in a garage). A Free Geek gathering during Portland’s Earth Day celebration brought some formality to the enterprise shortly before it was founded. The new organization soon opened a storefront in an industrial area of Portland, where residents could drop off used tech, and volunteers set to work fixing it up and giving it away. The storefront that opened in a warehouse in the city’s Inner Southeast Industrial District 17 years ago now stretches half of a city block. This location, separated from most of the city’s residents, means that Free Geek must be a destination.

Since the beginning, Free Geek’s service model has been structured around community service: volunteer a total of 24 hours and you receive a free computer. This approach fuels the engine, keeps resources available, and keeps people coming in the door. The program expanded so that students may complete 24 hours of any kind of community service in exchange for a computer.

Free Geek built a template of its service model with the goal of replicating the service in communities around the world. This scaling happened, with the various franchise locations acting as a network. Later, “the Mothership” (the nickname of the original Portland location) decided that the networked approach was outside its mission. There are 12 “Free Geek” branded locations in operation, but they are no longer connected.

Mission

“We sustainably reuse technology, enable digital access, and provide education to create a community that empowers people to realize their potential.”
-- Free Geek’s Mission Statement

Services


Table 1. PCs for People’s Digital Inclusion Activities (Rhinesmith)
Providing low-cost broadband no
Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services yes
Making low-cost computers available yes
Operating public access computing centers yes


Low-cost Broadband and Digital Literacy
Part of Free Geek’s “getting started” class is a review of options for low-cost broadband, including Internet Essentials from Comcast, Internet Basics from CenturyLink, as well as information about the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program which makes broadband service more affordable for low-income consumers. During Portland’s Fixit Fairs, Free Geek teaches classes on what the options are and how to self-advocate with different Internet service providers. However, Free Geek does not directly sign people up for or provide service.

Low-Cost Computers
Refurbishing and providing low-cost technology to the people who need it most is at the heart of Free Geek’s mission. Equipment flows out through three channels:

  • First, to volunteers in exchange for community service.
  • Second, through Free Geek’s own nonprofit grants program, distributing hardware to nonprofits in need. Free Geek’s nonprofit-focused Hardware Grants Program provided 2,640 pieces of tech in 2016. One donation of note provided desktop computers to Cathedral Gardens so the low-income housing property could create a computer lab for its homework club. Hardware grants to nonprofits that need Microsoft products are referred to Portland Youth Builders, a job training program which installs the Microsoft operating system and MS Office at a reduced price.
  • Third, a retail outlet for first time computer users and vintage collectors alike. The thrift store sells mostly laptops even though desktops make up most of the donations. In 2016, Free Geek sold around 3,400 computers through this outlet. The thrift store’s sales model is keyed toward affordable tech, so a full desktop system can be purchased for around $100. Each computer sold comes with tech support and a six-month warranty.

Public Computing Center
Free Geek operates a public computing center with five devices. As Free Geek’s industrial neighborhood has a large number of houseless people, the computing center is an entry point for engagement. Free Geek also has a large kitchen onsite with frequent food donations from a local program called Urban Gleaners. Anyone is welcome to come in, get some coffee, eat a snack, check their email, and use the machines for two hours at a time. The computer lab is also used by volunteers on their breaks and other people who are there, like clockwork, every day.

Financial Model

While the majority of Free Geek’s revenue comes from sales, the organization is trying to build a more diverse income stream.

  • Sales = 43%
  • Recycling = 16%
  • Donated Goods & Services = 16%
  • Individual contributions = 15%
  • Grants = 9%
  • Corporate Contributions = 1%

Free Geek’s 2016 revenue was ahead of expenses by $34,529.(1)

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Donations, Donations, Donations

[token node content-image-4-left]Free Geek requests monetary donations from all individuals who are dropping off electronics for recycling. Each donor receives a “Tally Slip” when they arrive charting out the suggested donations for different types of equipment. While laptops are just $4, the suggested donation for CRT monitors or printers (carrying a lower likelihood of reuse) is $10. Some people donate nothing, others donate more than the suggested amount.

[token node pull-quote-1-right]Free Geek’s technology donations come from individuals and institutional partners. On average, Free Geek receives 1.25 million pounds of e-waste each year (2016’s total was 1,062,000 pounds). A donation may be a box of old electronics from someone’s garage, but donations also come by the truckload(2) from the City of Portland and Multnomah County, as well as local colleges and businesses. Donations from individuals have a 25 percent reuse rate, while donations from business and institutions have a 75 percent reuse rate. Equipment that cannot be reused is disassembled for recycling.

Part of the beauty of Free Geeks’ model is that the raw material that comes in as waste is given new life by people who themselves are gaining new skills. If equipment meets technical specifications, it is moved to Free Geek’s reuse program, in which volunteers learn how to refurbish it. Volunteers begin their journey by taking an “Anatomy of a Computer” class, learning the components and functions of a computer’s different parts. From there, they must pass an assessment test before starting a workshop in which they tear down and rebuild a computer. They graduate from this “Beginning Build Workshop” to participate in the “Build Workshop” to test components and rebuild donated computers.

Partners

Free Geek has hundreds of institutional partners. In addition to city, county, and local educational institutions, Free Geek partners with Central City Concern, to assist with job skills training for people who are reentering society after a prison term, or who are transitioning out of homelessness. Local tech companies work with Free Geek, as does the library system, housing authority, housing sites, girls inc. of the Pacific Northwest, Impact Northwest (a GED program) and many more.

Free Geek also hosts an NTEN Digital Inclusion Fellow, Sara Rasmussen, who is focused on in-house curriculum and hardware disbursements. She works closely with Multnomah County Library’s Digital Inclusion Fellow, Charly Eaton, who teaches adult digital literacy classes throughout the Portland community. Participants in Charly’s classes are offered a free computer from Free Geek as an incentive for completing their courses.

Free Geek is also an active member of Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA).

Organizational Strategy

Free Geek started as an open source community, focused on Linux. The ethos was inherently non-hierarchical, reflected both in its egalitarian mission and collective staffing structure. The organization has gone from a flat power structure to something more traditional over time and iterations. Free Geek recently hired its first Executive Director, Dan Bartholomew, to take the helm of the program.

Free Geek is now working to create new and stronger relationships with other nonprofit refurbishers. It is part of an effort across the field to create best practices. The Alliance for Technology Refurbishing & Reuse (AFTRR) is a program of the National Cristina Foundation that is sharing challenges and successes and skills and tips, influencing policy and legislation, and establishing a “common national voice” for organizations in the field.

Education has always been an important part of Free Geek’s mission. Free Geek teaches scores of basic digital literacy classes, as well as higher-level tech classes. The organization tailors its offerings based on the needs of the community. This is the work that Free Geek is known for, but there is a professionalization in its current evolutionary step.

Strategic Priorities

Free Geek intends to do more off-site work, recognizing that those who are able to get to Free Geek already have a certain degree of confidence around technology. Free Geek is working to increase the number of outreach visits it makes to places like libraries, public housing, and community centers in order to further lower the barriers of entry to technological engagement.

Milestones

The relationship built with the government of Portland in 2007 served as a tremendous turning point in Free Geeks’ history, serving as both a leveraging tool for other relationships, as well as a financial boon because of the quantity of technology that it brought through the doors. The City of Portland now donates all of its old equipment to Free Geek. The formal agreement gave Free Geek an air of legitimacy, allowing it to go to other government and business entities and point to the arrangement as a credential.

Data security has remained a constant priority throughout Free Geek’s processes, but especially in light of these government donations. Free Geek has endeavored to make sure their security standards meet or exceed Responsible Recycling (R2) industry standard certification which includes a chain of custody documentation process, establishing a caged secure-data area, engaging with external data auditors, and other infrastructural and procedural elements.

Articulating Success

According to Colleen Dixon, Free Geek’s Director of Development & Public Services,

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Portland has the benefit of having a robust digital inclusion network, a digital equity action plan, and a strong cohort of civic leaders, activists, and concerned community members. Free Geek’s participation in these local initiatives, as well as larger efforts like the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, are integrated into its goals, with the successes of these initiatives counting as a success for Free Geek itself.

[token node content-image-5-left][token node content-image-6-right]Free Geek is proud of the diversity of the clients it serves. “You might see an eight year old building a computer next to an 80 year old, or someone who is in a reentry program seated next to a tech CEO, working together and talking,” said Dixon. That sense of community is both valuable and inspiring to the staff at Free Geek.

Free Geek offers the empowerment that comes with demystifying technology, giving people the opportunity to deconstruct and understand a piece of equipment.



Conclusion

In a way, Free Geek is simple. It is tackling two problems in Portland: an excess of e-waste and the substantial digital divide. Ingeniously, it is using one to impact the other.

Free Geek continues to live up to its mission and ethos: the organization knows who it is and what it aims to do. And Free Geek does it well. Through a passion for enabling people to engage with technology and a commitment to the community it serves, Free Geek continues to change the landscape in Portland, and set an example for both technology recyclers, as well as, more broadly, for digital inclusion organizations around the country. Free Geek’s future is not just continuing to do what it does well. Free Geek’s goal is to expand its outreach and services to new neighborhoods and to spread the gospel of reuse to other communities in the Northwest.


Notes:
Innovators in Digital Inclusion series
[token node content-image-3-left]Matthew Kopel is Program Manager at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Matthew is a librarian and web literacy advocate. He has worked since 2014 on issues of digital inclusion and professional development at libraries across New York. Before that Matthew worked in academic publishing, and remains engaged with open access scholarly communications through his work as Managing Editor of the Journal of New Librarianship. In addition to his role managing the IMLS-funded Digital Inclusion Corps, Matthew handles a variety of other projects for NDIA, including a revamp of their web properties. Matthew is based in Ithaca, NY. Email Matthew at [email protected]