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1999 Computerworld-Smithsonian Medal
John Cyr – North Central Kansas Community Network (part 1)
On April 12, 1999, almost 400 leading innovators of computer applications gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C. They were the recipients of the ComputerWorld Smithsonian Medal for innovative use of telecommunications technology, and they were there to see their work accepted into the Smithsonian Institution’s Permanent Research Collection of Information Technology. These innovative winners came from such places as Argentina, Hong Kong, and…rural Kansas.
Yes, rural Kansas. Boot up your computer, this is today’s Kansas Profile. Meet John Cyr. John is the executive director of the North Central Regional Planning Commission. The commission serves 11 counties and 84 cities in North Central Kansas. It is based in the Mitchell County town of Beloit, population 4,015 people. Now, that’s rural.
Yet this rural town of Beloit is host to a winner of one of these international awards for computer innovation. Here’s the story.
The North Central Regional Planning Commission was formed in 1972. It assists cities, counties, and businesses with planning, getting grants and loans, and other things.
John Cyr has degrees from KU and K-State. He joined the planning commission in 1980 and became executive director in 1986.
In 1993, John read an article which said that some cities were not waiting for corporate investment to build their telecommunications infrastructure, but rather were plowing in advance telecommunications in advance of such development. That planted a seed in John’s mind.
In 1995, a teacher named Todd Tuttle and one other came to John looking for assistance in getting their schools and classrooms wired for computers and Internet connections. In short, they found that the cost of paying for such connections by themselves was prohibitive.
But rather than sitting back and waiting for someone else to come solve the problem, John’s group developed an alternative. If several communities in the region went together, they could spread that cost to make it manageable. So in December 1995, John’s group organized the North Central Kansas Communicity Network, or NCKCN. Todd Tuttle helped put the technology together.
NCKCN is a public-private partnership between the regional planning commission and a privately held computer company in Beloit. NCKCN provides a wide area network of computers in North Central Kansas. In effect, NCKCN provides local Internet access.
The mission of NCKCN is to make information technology available to North Central Kansas at the lowest possible price. NCKCN is set up as a non-profit enterprise to keep the costs of providing the service as low as possible. John Cyr says, “We give the service free to high schools, libraries, and units of government. Individual subscribers pay a monthly fee. The network has grown even faster than anticipated.”
John says, “We had estimated we would have 40 to 45 signups per month. Instead, we have 60 to 65.”
NCKCN has three main goals.
One is to benefit those individuals and communities that find themselves left out of the technology revolution at the current time and thereby develop an awareness of informational technology in small town, rural society.
A second goal is to broaden the application and use of informational technology within the education and business structure of North Central Kansas through demonstration and education.
The third goal is to broaden everyone’s view of community and lessen the sense of rural isolation by heightening awareness of the human and physical resources possessed by the whole of North Central Kansas.
This is forward-looking, visionary thinking. Credit should go to the Kansas Department of Commerce & Housing, which assisted with a block grant. John Cyr credits the communities themselves for leadership and forethought. The result is that, through local access to the Internet, the global marketplace is available electronically to citizens of rural North Central Kansas.
It’s time to leave the Mall in Washington, D.C., where innovators from around the world were being recognized for their work in information technology. We’re especially pleased that one of those innovators is in rural Kansas, where it is making a difference through the visionary use of technology. But what does this technology really mean to a citizen of those communities? We’ll talk about that on our next program.
John Cyr – North Central Kansas Community Network (part 2)
Today let’s go down to the town square. That’s a good thing to do in small-town Kansas. At the town square, we can discuss what’s going on in the world. We can talk about the garden, or developments in the community. We might get some new ideas, or sell that extra item we’ve been wanting to move out. We can visit with people we know, and meet some we don’t. These are all things one can do in a town square, so what makes this one unique? The answer is that what I have been describing is a virtual town square. It is a town square that is organized on the Internet. You can go to this town square on your computer, without ever leaving your home, and do all of the tings I was describing. And this town square isn’t for just one town, it serves all of North Central Kansas.
Today’s Kansas Profile is our second and final program in our series on the North Central Kansas Community Network. It’s called NCKCN for short. On our last program, we met John Cyr of North Central Regional Planning Commission which organized NCKCN. In effect, NCKCN is an Internet provider to communities in North Central Kansas, but it is also much more.
NCKCN.com has been organized by the regional planning commission as a virtual community. At that site there are 17 links which can take the visitor to a variety of services. For example, if you click on neighborhoods it will take you to a list of websites for all the towns in the region. If you click on education, it will list all the schools. If you click on the senior center, it will take you to a list of websites with information of interest to older citizens. If you click on town square, it will take you to a place where you can have discussions, list items for sale or trade, make announcements, and more. I was impressed with what I found when I clicked on businesses. It took me to an online business directory which listed businesses in the region from A to Z, or to be more specific, from agriculture, auctions, and automotive to veterinary, wholesale supply, and wood crafts.
There are also sites for weather, jobs, and entertainment – which includes recommendations for fun and interesting places to eat in the small towns of North Central Kansas. Sounds like one to bookmark…
Thanks to NCKCN, Internet service is available throughout the region, including such places as Jewell, population 483; Scandia, population 389; and Sylvan Grove, population 283. Now, that’s rural.
John says, “Together, we have nearly 17,000 in population. What does having such Internet access mean to the people? One ad agency in the region used to serve customers primarily in the Great Plains region. When the agency developed a new product, they had to ship it or take it to their customers by car. Now, this agency has picked up accounts for 80 divisions of a national company. The ad agency can put their new products on a secure cyberfile which can be accessed by any division of this company anywhere in the world – within a matter of minutes.”
Farmers are using NCKCN to market specialty products in California. Two patent attorneys have moved from Philadelphia to Scandia. And then there are the sociocultural benefits.
John Cyr says, “My mother at age 72 bought her first computer after Christmas 1998. She does her books on it and e-mails the grandkids daily. She wouldn’t be doing that if there was a long distance charge every time she used the Internet.”
John says, “We call it the North Central Kansas Community Network in order to set up a mindset within all of our communities that they are part of a larger whole. We’re not just isolated communities, but we have linkages with our neighbors.”
It’s time to leave the town square. It’s a place like many other town squares in the country, but this is an electronic one. We salute John Cyr and the people of NCKCN for making a difference through this innovative approach to building a larger community using technology.
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