Computer Network Links Up A Disadvantaged Neighborhood

DORCHESTER'S Four Corners is a fragmented Boston neighborhood where gang violence often keeps people locked in their homes. Here, resident Alan Shaw is trying to mend the community through a computer-networking system.

Over the past year, this computer whiz has helped neighbors get to know one another better. People now share community news, crime watch notes, and job opportunities for youths via computer.

``It helps to bring the neighborhood together,'' says Mark Scott, a network user. ``Alan's system gives me an opportunity to develop relationships with people around the corner.''

Mr. Shaw has a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University and a master's in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His wife, Michelle, is a lawyer who also works on the project.

The two are an unusual addition to this disadvantaged minority community. But the Shaws have decided to make their home here, on the first floor of an apartment house with their 20-month-old son, Chinua.

Shaw moved to Boston to attend college in 1981 and moved to Four Corners in 1988. Now, he says, he's here to continue his computer network and to serve as an example for other young blacks. It is an idea he and his church, the Pentecostal Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester, believe is part of their ``neighborhood ministry.''

``Our church is committed to seeing black elites, blacks who have graduated from college and who have some resources, come back into poor communities,'' Shaw says. ``We're trying as a church to see this as our neighborhood.''

Besides having the support of his church, Shaw's networking project also serves as part of his doctoral work in media arts and sciences at MIT's Media Laboratory. The institute and a Chambersburg, Pa., foundation donated money for the 20 Apple computers used for the project. Forty users of all ages log on to the system. And they've enjoyed it.

``It's very easy to use; it's not threatening,'' Mr. Scott says. ``It's natural to use, so you sort of feel like you're able to have conversation with people.''

Sitting in front of his Apple Macintosh with his young son on his lap, Shaw shows off his system. A click of the computer mouse brings up a screen of colorful ``house'' icons covering topics like food co-op, summer activities, crime watch, and social group. He clicks on an icon and pictures of different ``rooms'' display subtopics. Network users can also access a Boston Globe news service that carries articles about the neighborhood.

For sending electronic mail, users ``click'' on hand-drawn ``face'' icons. Text, drawings, or voice recordings can be sent.

The network is designed to encourage participation. Currently, residents are helping Shaw put together a computerized list of odd jobs in the neighborhood for kids. Such a project promotes neighborhood unity and deflects tension, he says.

``Neighbors will be walking past a set of five or six teenage boys late at night and instead of being afraid, they'll see these boys that work for them on the weekends every now and then. And they have a connection that establishes a reason to work together on other projects,'' Shaw says.

Residents work together in other ways, too. For the food co-op, neighborhood children visit nearby grocery stores and type in food price information. Users then access the service to find the cheapest prices. Users also update others on neighborhood activity for the crime-watch group.

``A lot of times people are using this kind of technology to consume information, not to produce information,'' Shaw says. ``Neighbors who start seeing the food co-op [news] that they pulled together or the crime watch that they pulled together ... start seeing themselves as information providers, not just information consumers.''

Residents thus create a forum they can control and make their own, Shaw says. This feeling of ``ownership'' - crucial in a fragmented neighborhood of apartment renters - inspires people to unite, form associations, and transform their neighborhood into something better, he says.

Has networking had any direct benefits? Shaw points to the new-found spirit of unity among residents. Also, thanks to the crime-watch group, last fall a burglar was apprehended and the stolen property returned within two hours.

Mitchel Resnick, Shaw's MIT project adviser, says Shaw's work is particularly inspired because it is based on his personal experience as a Four Corners resident.

``It's not just a matter of bringing technology and throwing it at an urban community,'' Mr. Resnick says. ``It's having a vision of how it can be used to build new relationships in the community.''

While residents here use donated computers, Shaw believes in 10 years his network will be accessible through cable TV or even by phone.

``In the future, people will have access to this without having to buy computers,'' he says.

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