After eight years leading the Kansas City-area computer and electronics recycling organization Surplus Exchange, Bob Akers recently accepted the position of Enterprise Director with e-Stewards. E-Stewards offers sustainability certification for electronics recyclers, and in his new role, Bob will seek to grow the work he began at e-Stewards and help enterprise IT leaders manage their equipment lifecycle in a way that is environmentally friendly and helps to bridge the digital divide. As a member of the KC Coalition for Digital Inclusion, we asked Bob if we was interested in attending and blogging a recent webinar hosted by NTEN titled Refurbished Devices – Perspectives from the Field. Bob’s lightly edited reflections are below.

By Bob Akers

The NDIA/NTEN webinar this morning was led by the Kramden Institute of North Carolina and Human-I-T, which is Los Angeles-based. Both are nonprofits.

The bulk of the conversation was about where equipment comes from for digital inclusion programs and how those programs work. Much of the discussion touched on things we have seen here in KC and found ways to correct.

As part of the context for this discussion, it was noted that education is moving rapidly to include Internet as a way of life for students at all levels. Online homework, extra help from teachers, classroom notes and presentations are all quickly finding a home online. A student without a computer or Internet connectivity is a student at risk. The use of tablets and cell phones as educational devices was dismissed by both presenters as impractical.

Lack of computers at home is a national problem. According to the presenters, 22 percent of U.S. adults under 30 have no computing device and 27 percent don’t have Internet access at home. The need is obvious, but things began to unravel for me during the nuts and bolts conversation about refurbishing equipment and what happens to the dead parts – the pesky junk that really needs to be recycled.

The presenters’ testing and refurbishing workforce is largely made up of volunteers.  While the comments that computers are easy to test and refurbish is true as an overview, without solid protocols and procedures in place, a workforce can turn out machines with a wide range of quality and appearance. It’s best to have refurbishing standards for staff to follow and test to. We should strive for larger quantities of identical machines. That makes refurbishing easier and can ease tensions among those we are trying to help. If the machines are all identical, no one feels slighted.

This is an area in which Kansas City excelled. With the City of Kansas City, Missouri recycling retired computers through a certified e-Steward, two major program hurdles were cleared: the number of machines available and the quality of work done.

The phrase “properly recycled” was used often during today’s webinar, but never explained.  This is another huge difference with the approach Surplus Exchange took with the City of Kansas City, Mo.; we had equipment covered from pickup through deployment and recycling.

One of the interesting topics, and one well outside my area of expertise, centered on software. While the machines I’ve used in digital inclusion programs have all carried the Microsoft OS, there are nonprofits in digital inclusion circles using Ubermix OS. There was mention of Microsoft Office emulators, too. The refurbishers talking about these platforms did so with an eye towards cost. Both presenters stated that they saved about $12 per machine by NOT using Microsoft software. I don’t know how big an issue this is. At Surplus Exchange, we were able to offer computers including Microsoft OS for $50 or less, which we have found to be a very competitive price point for needy families looking for a refurbished computer.

The presenters gave some insight into digital literacy programs and how to get clients up to speed on computers. Some get a 30-minute tutorial. Others get a four-day class. Some get a computer and not much else. There are programs, levels of programs and straight retail sales focused on the less fortunate members of our society.

It was great to see so many passionate people taking part in the webinar. This was more of a view from 40,000 feet than a down-in-the-trenches presentation. A lot of questions were left unanswered. I believe Kansas City organizations have a lot to offer to groups like this, and I would like to see us become a little more vocal.


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