Tribute to Gary Chapman

Photo of Gary Chapman at public computer lab demo

I gave this speech last night at a tribute to Gary Chapman, held before the annual Dewey Winburne Community Service Awards ceremony.

I've had the privilege of working with Gary Chapman several times over the years.

The first time was back in 2000. We were both serving on the very first Austin Grant for Technology Opportunities review board. GTOPs was a brand new program, designed to provide grant funds to local digital divide/digital opportunity projects. Gary was an early supporter of GTOPs, and chaired the review board its inaugural year.

Since then, GTOPs has grown into a successful and widely popular program.

Last Wednesday evening, the Austin Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission submitted a recommendation to the city that would award $150,000 to local community technology programs. This will be the 11th consecutive year of GTOPs investment in our community.

This success is thanks to the hard work of a lot of people, many here in this room tonight. Our biggest heroes, however, are the people who are willing to step up at the beginning, before a project is a success, when things are risky and uncertain. The heroes will tell us “this is important” and “this is worth doing”, and they will do what they can to achieve that success.

That's why I think Gary Chapman was a hero to the local technology community.

Gary helped us understand what was important and what could be done.

He helped many of us see new ways technology could be used for good, to make lives better.

Technology can make lives better, and when there is need, those of us with technology skills have something valuable to contribute. And Gary had the visionary ability to help identify those opportunities.

We saw this back in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 - 6000 people were evacuated from the devastation of the Gulf Coast, brought to Austin, and sheltered in the Convention Center. The convention center was lined up cot after cot, thousands in all, stretching as far as the eye could see. Families uprooted now resided within a masking tape rectangle placed on the convention center floor. People were coming off the busses with little more than a ziploc bag holding all their worldly possessions.

These people were desperately in need of care. Food, shelter, clothing, and medical assistance. We're talking the very bottom of the Maslow hierarchy of human needs. That's at least two or three steps below the need for Nintendo and Yahoo.

How could anybody look at a situation and so dire and say this was a time to think about computers and Internet?

Or, at least, that's what we thought back in 2005. Now, we know better.

As we look at what's required for effective disaster response, we see time and again a need for good information management and technology tools. In 2005, we learned that technology had a role to play in disaster response. Technology can save lives.

For instance, one of the very first skills taught in disaster response training is “triage”. “Triage” is the process of assessing a situation, prioritizing need, and allocating resources. A good triage response is the first step to saving lives. It makes sure that the people most in need get the care they require. So triage is about collecting information and making assessments – rapidly. That's an information management exercise.

Or, consider, one of the most important resources in a disaster response: volunteers. Well managed volunteers can be an essential resource in recovering from disaster. Poorly managed volunteers, on the other hand, can cause more harm than good. Things get fouled up, efforts are misdirected, and the task gets harder to complete.

Volunteer management was a concern during the Katrina response. Hundreds of people turned out to help, and we weren't always sure what to do with them. In many cases, volunteers were turned away, which, frankly, was probably the best thing to do when we weren't prepared to manage them well.

Volunteer coordination. Once again, is an information management problem. And technology can help.

We see time and again, good information management practices are essential to effective disaster response. That seems so simple and so obvious – and it probably was to people in relief agencies. To those of us in the technology community, those of us skilled at building tools to manage information, this was shocking news. We had the skills and ability to save lives.

I talk about the Hurricaine Katrina effort for a couple reasons. First, I know this was important to Gary. He was involved – once again – early in the effort, offering guidance and getting his hands dirty. He and his students built tools to help register and track volunteers. They setup a website austinhelpingneworleans.org that served as a badly needed clearinghouse for news and announcements related to the local effort.

Some of us who spent a lot of time at the convention center were issued badges by the City of Austin. When I visited him a couple years later I noticed his he hung his badge on his office wall. I think that speaks to his pride in this effort, and his city.

The other reason why I bring up Hurricane Katrina is that in the aftermath, Gary stayed on the issue, meeting with city staff, meeting with community groups, providing LBJ school resources – to help the technology community be better prepared to serve if disaster should strike again. With Gary's help, we were introduced to the newly created field of “disaster informatics”.

It seems obvious now, looking back, that technology can serve an important role in disaster response. It wasn't obvious then, and Gary's gift was helping us to understand that.

For more than a decade, Gary Chapman has helped us identify important community technology issues.

I've already talked about GTOPs and disaster informatics. The list goes on.

Computer Privacy – Gary came to Austin after helping found “Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility”. Once here, computer security and privacy became a focus in his Policy Research Projects. In the aftermath of the 1990 raid on Steve Jackson Games, these issues were of deep concern to the nascent tech community in Austin.

Digital Divide – Gary was instrumental in securing the original NTIA grant for founding Austin Free-Net. In 1996, Free-Net was awarded $0.25mil to build out a “neighborhood net”, public access computer sites situated in neighborhoods and locations convenient to the unconnected community.

Open Government – Open government data is one of the most prominent public technology issues right now. Gary was an early advocate, at the local, state, and national levels.

Public Wi-Fi – In 2005, Gary helped educate the public and the Texas legislature on the role of public wireless networks. That helped overturn legislation that would have prohibited public wireless networks. That allowed Austin to move forward build out what's become the free wireless mesh network downtown and in city parks.

Broadband Stimulus – Last year, Gary helped develop the grant proposal for the Texas Connects coalition, a group that includes local partners Austin Free-Net and the Metropolitan Austin Interactive Network. The project was awarded $9.7mil to build public access computer centers throughout Texas. That's the largest broadband stimulus grant awarded to a non-profit organization.

Big Gig Austin – Last year, Gary and I directed Big Gig Austin – the community effort to bring the Google gigabit broadband network to Austin. Over 15,000 Austinites participated, and we submitted one of the strongest applications in the nation. Google is still reviewing the applications, so we don't know if they picked ours. But we do know, thanks to Big Gig, that good broadband really matters to this community. So irrespective of the Google decision, we should work to make Austin the broadband capital of the world.

In 2000, Texas Monthly named Gary Chapman one of the "25 Most Powerful Texans in High Tech". I was looking over the article recently and a couple things struck me.

First, in their summary, they captured very well a bit of what made Gary so special.

I quote from the article:

In a field that's rife with spin, he's a self-described “hypersensitive bullshit detector”; who's pro-technology but thinks it can be “used badly, particularly in ways that line someone's pockets but don't serve the public's interest.”

Gary was nominated in the Technology Activist category. The other thing that struck me is that all the nominees were from Austin. They were Gary, Ana Sisnett, who served as the second executive director of Austin Free-Net, and Gene Crick, who leads the Austin Metropolitan Interactive Network and worked so hard in securing that $9.7mil BTOP grant.

It's not that Austin has a lock on public interest technology in Texas. I do think, however, that public interest technology holds very special place in our hearts and in our community.

What I don't know is whether we hold these values because of the work of heroes like Gary Chapman, or so many of these like-minded folks gravitate to Austin because their ideas are so welcome. It's a chicken-or-egg question.

Those of us who work in community technology have lost a great friend and a great leader. Gary Chapman is irreplaceable. But if good public interest technology is truly a community value in Austin, then it is up to us to pick the torch that Gary carried.

On my best day, I feel like I can do maybe a hundredth of the work he did to promote good public interest technology. So I'm here tonight to say that's just what I'm going to do. Are there 99 of you out there ready to join me?

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