COMPUTERS COME TO TOWN (column) - computer literacy project

Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 11/82 item 02 - scanned

Have you ever heard of ComputerTown UK? It is a network of volunteers across the country who are introducing microcomputing to members of the public completely free of charge. Many of them run sessions in libraries or church halls and anyone is welcome to turn up and get 'hands-on' experience of computers or simply to ask questions of the volunteers. These volunteers come from all walks of life, not always from the computer business. The only criterion is that they know something about microcomputing and that they don't mind sharing this knowledge freely. Many of the volunteers own their own computers or borrow them from their companies to take along to the ComputerTown sessions.

Those of you with long memories will remember that CTUK was launched in the November l980 issue of Personal Computer World. Since that time it has been quietly establishing itself and it now comprises some forty centres. Libraries, in particular, have been quick to see the benefits of ComputerTown. Indeed, around half of the present 'Towns' run on library premises and we've just heard that Kent libraries are prepared to support a ComputerTown in every library in the county which has enough space for sessions. As with everything else in ComputerTown, space is usually given free of charge. There is one notable exception which seems to have become entangled in its own red tape, but we're working on it.

ComputerTown is unusual in that it has no formal organisation or structure. It is just forty groups of people united by a common objective and working to the same basic principles. The network has a forum in the ComputerTown News page of Personal Computer World and other magazines are kind enough to give free 'plugs' from time to time. Through the column, would-be and existing organisers are given advice and guidance which is submitted regularly by those involved in running ComputerTowns. People wanting to start ComputerTowns are also mentioned in the column so that others in their areas can make contact. Income from these articles is kept in the ComputerTown bank account from which it is drawn to pay for postage (rarely), printing and special events. The PCW show, for example, used up a little money as did the publication of the Guidelines document which is sent to every enquirer submitting an SAE. No-one makes a direct profit from CTUK although I rather suspect that Commodore, Sinclair and Video Genie have done quite well simply because their machines tend to be very popular at sessions.

If you feel that ComputerTown sounds like a good idea, why not consider whether there is some way you and your company can get involved? The frequency of sessions varies from centre to centre. Some run special events called 'ComputerDays' every few months, others prefer regular sessions every week or two. One brave soul even ran a 'ComputerWeek' at Ruislip earlier this year. One of the nicest things about the special event approach is that we can all afford two or three days during the year whereas a regular fortnightly evening session might prove a little too demanding. A major benefit to you is that your company and its products get a fairly wide local exposure both through the event itself and through the publicity that surrounds it in the local press.

Of course there are a number of other benefits too, although they are not strictly commercial. I find it helps to stay 'tuned in' to the public's attitudes to computers. It has changed a lot over the last couple of years. Among older people the most common feeling was fear, but this is being replaced with an eagerness to learn how the machines can be used in their own lives. Other benefits inevitably accrue from the knowledge that you are making a positive contribution to society by helping its members come to terms with what, to them, can be a worrying development.

ComputerTown has been running for two years now and, despite the fact that one or two 'Towns have started and stopped in that time, it is clear that it's not going to go away. Libraries are falling over themselves to get involved because they see people coming into their premises who wouldn't normally be seen dead in a library. Some computer stores too are opening up after hours just to encourage the public to 'have a go'. Although the majority of people who come by won't buy a computer now, I rather suspect that when they are ready they'll go to the people they already know.

So how about it? You've got nothing to lose by contacting ComputerTown. We'll send you a set of Guidelines. Please write enclosing an SAE for a reply to me c/o MicroScope or c/o PCW or, if you prefer, to Maggie Burton at PCW. Now that ComputerTown has proved itself on a small scale we think it's ready to grow.

That takes care of those who want to help in their local community. What about those of you who want to help at a national level? It would be very nice to follow Sutton-in-Ashfield's example and have machines permanently installed in libraries up and down the country. If they are within sight of the library staff then vandalism is unlikely to be a problem. This gives any manufacturer who donates equipment a permanent passive sales pitch. Users of the computers can only be those who have been validated by the local ComputerTown organisers so there is no risk of accidental damage to the equipment. The biggest hurdle is that of persuading the library staff that the issue of programs to validated people is not too much of an extra burden when measured against the benefits.

We would like to hear from makers of televisions and cassette recorders as well as computer manufacturers. All these things are needed and you can be sure that every company that joins in can be sure of a fair amount of publicity as a result. There are no guarantees, but if you issue press releases to say how your company is supporting the ComputerTown movement, It is almost certain to get coverage. Word about ComputerTown should spread as a result too. For the cost of a few machines you are virtually guaranteeing yourself thousands of pounds worth of good publicity. Think about it.

Perhaps if you're worried about lending equipment to ComputerTown, you could do it through your local dealers. Then they can keep an eye on how things are going. Please give the idea serious consideration. There is no catch. We really are doing this as a voluntary public service and one of the commercial spin-offs is that the more people who feel at ease with computers, the more rapidly our market will expand.

ComputerTown is entirely a spare time activity for us so, if at all possible, make that initial contact by letter. Having said that, if you are offering as opposed to enquiring then I guess we wouldn't be averse to taking the odd telephone call. We look forward to hearing from you.

MicroScope's address is 14 Rathbone Place, London W1P IDE and PCW's address is 62 Oxford Street, London W1.