“We’re here. We’re here to stay. And, we’re here to help you.”
That’s what Nic Jaramillo had to say about the Hilltop Computer Center (HCC), located at 500 Brownsville Road in Mount Oliver. The center is one of four Pittsburgh CONNECTS facilities, each of which took root in a struggling city neighborhood during the winter of 2010/2011.
Initially funded by federal grant money, and facilitated through the YMCA, the centers were intended to offer free computer and broadband access and education to communities in need, with a focus on helping adults become more tech proficient.
But, even though access and education remain its foundation of service, that’s not what happened at the HCC, where Mr. Jaramillo serves as program director. What happened there involved a shift in focus.
“In the first six months (of operation), we noticed that over 50 percent of our usage was by people under 24 years old,” Mr. Jaramillo stated.
“To put that in perspective,” he continued, “we’ve seen a little over 4,000 people in the 18 months we’ve been open.
“Over half of them are under 24 years old, and the majority of those people are between the ages of 8 and 16… Since we were seeing a lot of kids, we quickly adapted to offer more youth-based services.”
And one such service recently set the HCC at the center of a whirlwind of media attention.
In April, the HCC unveiled a touch screen computer kiosk Mr. Jaramillo and 15 community youth built from scratch. Partnering with the Knoxville Branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP), and funded by Google Pittsburgh, the group constructed the hardware last summer and spent the next eight months fine-tuning the software and mainframe.
“We got around $3,000 from Google,” Mr. Jaramillo told us.
“With that, scrap computer parts and a lot of hard work, these kids built an impressive piece of technology in no time.”
That impressive piece of technology runs on both Windows and Android platforms and offers users a unique interactive experience on a high resolution touch screen, on which they can swipe and tap application choices such as web browsing, music play and games.
The machine was on display, and available for use, at the HCC in April. It was transitioned to CLP Knoxville last week, where it will bring technology to a new set of users until the next leg of its journey is determined.
“We’d like to take the kiosk on a tour of the Hilltop,” said Mr. Jaramillo, “and have it run a video application that would allow community members to view and record video clips about their Hilltop experiences.
“It would move around the Hilltop as a traveling exhibition of the community.”
According to Mr. Jaramillo, as the traveling exhibition hits Hilltop hubs, it would offer a very user-friendly encounter, where “you come in, tap it and record your message about the Hilltop, or tap over here to watch a clip of a market-owner or long-time area resident.”
The development of other software is also under consideration. Mr. Jaramillo said UPMC has contacted the HCC regarding the possibility of creating a healthy living application.
Looking to the future, Mr. Jaramillo sees not only plans for the kiosk, but also plans for the youth program—and the youth—that created it.
“We’re tossing around a lot of ideas about what we’d like to do next,” he said. “These kids are amazing. They can do anything. We just have to pick.”
Some of the options from which Mr. Jaramillo said he’d like to pick include aquaponics (using technological components to grow plants using only water and aquatic life), building a super computer from the HCC’s collection of dead desktops, and creating a 3-D printer.
Though a machine that prints in three dimensions may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, Mr. Jaramillo said the technology is out there, gaining momentum and totally approachable as a project for the HCC’s youth program.
Programs like the touch screen project get a lot of public attention, but Mr. Jaramillo said he’d like to bring the HCC’s other programs to the public’s attention too. He wants people to know the center is there—and, it’s there to stay.
The HCC recently got a sustaining grant, and will continue to operate as Pittsburgh CONNECTS only off-site center. What started off as a network of seven computers outlined for adult enrichment has evolved into more than four dozen pieces of equipment, with which the HCC will carry on its mission to strengthen the community and empower its children by providing free access to technology, programs and services to those needing it most.
The center is open seven days a week: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and on Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday; and, noon to 7 p.m. on Sunday. During those hours, visitors can take advantage of free access to laptops, free wifi for their enabled devices, free printing, free computer help/instruction and free computer repair.
About the HCC’s repair services, Mr. Jaramillo said: “There’s a catch.
“We’re not a drop-off center, where you just give us your computer and we fix it for you… We’ll show you how to fix it, whether that involves updating your software, installing components or removing viruses.”
When it comes to hardware repairs, the center can’t pay for parts to repair patrons’ computers, but it can still help them get what they need.
“We’ll help you figure out what part you need, look for it online and compare prices,” he explained. “If you want to buy it, we’ll show you how to complete a secure online transaction, and talk about how to avoid scams.”
Teaching computer users how to avoid scams, and other types of online predators and phishing, has become a regular part of the HCC’s operations. Staff from the site go to senior citizen residential facilities and visit with the elderly to school them on these things and introduce them to the latest technology.
Mr. Jaramillo said staff regularly reminds youth not to share personal information over the internet and sometimes uses role play exercises to reinforce proper online behavior.
Following the rules is something children must do when using the HCC’s youth room (for ages 8 to 12), located in the basement of the building. There, they can participate in gaming tournaments, online challenges and learning activities—but they can’t use profanity, engage in bullying or access “adult only” websites. Offline fun includes crafts, a mentoring program and just hanging out in what Mr. Jaramillo referred to as “a safe place.”
Teenagers, as well as adults, can borrow a laptop and go about their business at a table in any of the open rooms on the main floor. HCC computers must remain inside the building, and visitors must sign in and show a photo I.D. to borrow them.
Along with this access to equipment and technology, adult visitors get access to the support of HCC staff members, who, in addition to providing tech support, can assist with things like resume building, job searches and applications for government benefits and social services.
The space has also been put to good use as a meeting place for community groups, and for members of the Bhutanese population in the South Hills, many of whom have convened there for English as a Second Language and naturalization classes with a tech twist.
Other services at the HCC include a NOVANET high school credit recovery program and a monthly computer class for adults looking to build basic computer skills with programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook.
For more information on the HCC, go to http://main.pghconnects.org/hilltop.