Peace Corps, AOL Announce Digital Divide Campaign

In a move that will help address the “digital divide” and get America Online’s brand name in front of nascent Internet users, the ISP giant announced that it would equip some Peace Corps volunteers with computers and Internet access.

The company made the announcement at the “Creating Digital Dividends” conference in Seattle, Wash., of which it was a co-sponsor.

More than 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers currently are serving in 76 countries, where they work on grassroots educational, health, agricultural and economic development projects.

The pilot program aims to discover “how the [Internet] can best be used at the grassroots level in developing countries,” said Kathy Bushkin, AOL senior vice president and chief communications officer.

To that end, AOL will provide about 60 “AOL Peace Packs” to volunteers, each typically containing two computers, a digital camera, a printer, and Internet connectivity.

“AOL Peace Packs can help create the community-based integration of information technology into health, education and microenterprise development goals,” Peace Corps director Mark Schneider said. “They will provide the needed equipment and Internet connectivity to volunteers on the ground who see ways in which information technology can help us carry out our mission.”

Many communities in which volunteers serve lack access to computers. But IT access, say AOL and Peace Corps officials, can strengthen the impact of volunteers’ work, as well as combat the digital divide — — that is, the gap between technology “haves” and “have-nots”.

“Our objective is to help create digital opportunities abroad and to experiment with different models to integrate technology into existing development efforts like health, education and civic engagement as well as testing projects where technology is at the core of the project,” she said.

The Peace Packs program is a part of the mandate of AOL’s non-profit AOL Foundation, which is to use online technology to improve lives. Bushkin is a board member of the foundation.

It’s also a part of the Peace Corps’ e-Partnership Fund, aimed at bridging the digital divide in the countries where volunteers serve.

It’s not a bad publicity move for AOL, either. While commendable, companies often tap into charitable causes to get their names in the public eye. And with the “digital divide” one of the current hot topics in philanthropy, it’s also one of the easiest for tech companies to address — and on which to capitalize, publicity-speaking.

The AOL Foundation recently launched Helping.org, a philanthropy portal where consumers can sign up to volunteer or make donations to any of more than 650,000 charities.

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