Making Change: The Underground Tech Scene

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Tremont Scoops seems like an innocent neighborhood ice cream shop from the outside, but there's something invisible and revolutionary happening here. The shop is the flagship for Twi-Fi, the Tremont neighborhood's wireless internet network. Steve Finegold is chair of the network, which he describes as a loose affiliation of volunteers facilitating access to wi-fi for neighborhood businesses and residents. He says Twi-Fi started in February of 2003 with the idea that a wireless network would be a good community builder.

Steve Finegold: We initially chose the ice cream store because this is a place that takes a cross section of the community, so that's kind of how we got started. And that was kind of the idea behind it. We wanted it to make this available at all places to all people and that's also why the idea of having a laptop there to use came up about too.

Cleveland Digital Vision donated 15 old laptops, Finegold says, which Twi-Fi outfitted with the hardware necessary for wireless internet access. The free computers allow people who don't own their own to tap into the technology. The community building aspect worked better than expected; in addition to the four Tremont restaurants that are now wireless hotspots, the local public library and the Interfaith Hospitality Suite at Pilgrim Church have also bought into the program.

Twi-Fi is a pretty spiffy example of how technology can benefit a community, starting at the very grass-roots level. In fact, wi-fi doesn't necessarily need much structure. For people like George Nemeth, that lack of structure is like fertilizer - since Nemeth is the kind of person wears more than one hat.

George Nemeth: I have to go through my list - OK, web activist on Brewed Fresh Daily, Ryze network coordinator, managing partner Smart Meeting Design, Cool Cleveland information officer - it's like ugh.

And that's pretty typical of many of the entrepreneurs interviewed for this story - that, and the fact that cafes with wi-fi access are their preferred conference rooms. Nemeth says with wi-fi he can access his work anywhere and, what's more, the technology brings new meaning to "networking."

George Nemeth: The delineation between what's work and what's not is a very difficult thing to do.

Nemeth spends a good chunk of time coordinating an on-line business network called "Ryze." Ryze members have a profile page outlining their interests. Then they invite friends to join or ask other Ryze members to link to their page. Ryze works both on-line and in person at mixers. Nemeth says it's a wise investment of his time.

George Nemeth: If someone says I was at a Ryze event with George and we did this open space network thing where we self-organized into small discussion groups and I know that's what he does for a living, it's like, how can I say that the time I spent looking or contacting them through Ryze was not worth it?

It may be time consuming to surf around, Nemeth says, but it's a more direct way to market your business. Still, Ryze is a relatively ordered network, but wi-fi can get messier - and Valdis Krebs says that's good for this region's economy.

Valdis Krebs: So, yeah, the more free wireless there is the better it is.

Krebs is owner of Orgnet-dot-com, a software and consulting company that maps out networks of people within companies and communities. In other words, Krebs is an expert in the whole networking thing - and yes, he's sitting in yet another cafe with wi-fi access.

Valdis Krebs: It gives the whole region two things. It gives people the opportunity to be almost anywhere and connect and it also gives them the reputation that this is a hip place.

Kreb says wireless internet gives lone-wolf entrepreneurs like himself the ability to work anywhere and network with people sitting in the same cafe or in a cafe halfway across the world. Krebs says access to such technology creates a fertile breeding ground entrepreneurs, the kind of hi-tech entrepreneurs that sustains economic development.

This isn't speculation, by the way; it's already happening. Independent contractors are regularly meeting up at wi-fi hotspots across the region. And with the advent of OneCleveland, the region's educational, arts and non-profit institutions are part of the revolution - a revolution that so far seems to include everyone except the established power-structure.

Lev Gonick: Because technology doesn't respect hierarchy.

Lev Gonick is president of OneCleveland's board and President for information technology services at Case Western Reserve University - he had an actual office for his interview. OneCleveland provides super-fast, high-speed network communications for collaborating non-profits. The network is getting attention on an international scale both for its goals and the level of cooperation necessary to get it off the ground. Gonick says OneCleveland is doing wonders for the area's reputation, but the effort would have a greater impact if just one traditional business leader got on board.

Lev Gonick: And what we need is our own Lee Iacoca, someone who comes from the success of where we've come from as a community and who's willing to say to his or her colleagues, "The future is that-a-way. It's not over the hill, not the mountain that we've already climbed."

Gonick says the non-profits involved in OneCleveland are taking risks and testing the internet in ways never attempted before. It's the experiments underway now that could set the standard world-wide for how we use technology. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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