Closing the Digital Divide, One Computer at a Time
Often when we talk about recycling mobile phones or computers, we talk about it from an environmental standpoint. And for good reason: while the amount of e-waste that ends up in landfills isn’t exactly known, data from 2013 has shown that about 1.87 million tons of e-waste in the U.S. went into landfills and incinerators.
But aside from the environmental element, there is a human element, too. Some of the computers that end up at the dump are perfectly usable though they may not have the latest OS or hard drive. This is the thinking that led James Jack to found his company Human I-T, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that refurbishes technology from companies to give to vulnerable communities in need, including low-income families, 501(c)(3) non-profits, including schools, veterans in need, and people with disabilities.
“There’s still almost 60 million people in the U.S. that don’t have access to a computer and internet at home…I think giving someone a computer is the biggest way you can empower someone and really give them an opportunity to do whatever they want to do,” Jack said in a recent interview.
The digital divide in the U.S. has been well-documented over the years, and though the Pew Research Center recently found the gap in internet use between Latinos and whites is at its narrowest point since 2009, there is still a remarkable number of Americans without internet access.
At least part of the issue may have to do with lack of access to computers. According to recent figures from Pew, 73 percent of U.S. adults own a desktop or laptop computer, and this number has remained steady for the past few years.
Jack says that while Human I-T specializes in refurbishing hardware, it partners with organizations like the Connect Home initiative in Los Angeles to couple its hardware with an internet connection “because a computer can’t really be utilized in this day and age unless you have internet.”
“The families that are remaining in this country that aren’t connected often aren’t because they don’t understand how beneficial having access to technology can be. A lot of times it’s still in that luxury category or entertainment category,” Jack says.
Working with a range of companies, including data center firms and organizations like The Wonderful Company, Human I-T picks up items for free and provides corporate-grade data sanitation to ensure that the equipment is wiped clean before it is donated. For their part, companies get a tax deduction, and an itemized list of everything they’ve donated, which Jack says “really helps with their reporting.”
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about data security and there’s a lot of companies benefiting off fear mongering and making it more complicated or scary than it really needs to be,” Jack says. “Some clients still want everything physically destroyed, which we can provide as well. We end up eventually recycling whatever’s leftover of the physically destroyed drive down with our downstream recycling.”
Jack says that Human I-T is “one of the easiest things a company can do” to provide an impact in their community while getting rid of equipment that is taking up valuable data center real estate without taking on any additional expenses.
Human I-T is very deliberate with the recipients of its donations, ensuring that they are getting the most out of the technology, according to Jack.
“There are a lot of non-profits out there that help families transition out of homelessness. Instead of trying to find those families and donate to them directly…what we would do is start a relationship with the non-profit serving that community,” he says. “For families transitioning out of homelessness, we’re making sure there’s online job training resources on the computer [before they even get it]. We really look to the non-profits in each area of impact to explain to us what their clients need and what would be most beneficial to their clients.”
In order to actually refurbish all of these computers, Human I-T relies largely on volunteers.
“We need tons of people to help us refurbish all this equipment and there’s a massive amount of people out there that need vocational training in technology,” he says. “It’s a very unique volunteer experience when you can bring employees in and they are going to be fixing computers.”