The Emerging Digital Town Square

By: Matt Sayre
reprinted by permission

Picture the small villages and towns of early America.

The farmers are selling produce and smoked meat in the market square, while the cobbler and sheriff barter four deerskins for a pound of wheat. The local physician atop his soapbox announces the latest ailments and their remedies, and ways to avoid various plagues.

These days, most of our community interactions are not done physically in a town square, but digitally. Community engagement isn’t as simple as it used to be. Digital divides have emerged. Inequality has emerged, with broadband Internet ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’

Enter the “Digital Town Square” or DTS for short. At the center of the DTS is network infrastructure, where Internet service providers can exchange Internet traffic and interconnect with one another in a neutral way.

A Digital Town Square, or DTS, is infrastructure that enables a community’s digital assets and ideas to be directly exchanged. The DTS builds on that infrastructure to better enable a community’s digital assets and ideas to be exchanged directly, expanding beyond what is currently offered from regional Internet service providers today.

An increasing number of homes, businesses and schools in Eugene and Springfield have gigabit Internet; however, from an infrastructure standpoint they each exist like islands. A DTS could interconnect many of those gigabit islands. This would enable our community’s digital data to stay local, instead of needing to traverse the wider Internet just to travel relatively short physical distances. This matters for three key reasons.

Internet resilience
A DTS can increase the resilience of the Internet in our region, providing another way for public agencies to connect to each other in case of natural disasters. If there’s a big earthquake and our regional Internet connections to California are interrupted, the DTS could enable local communications.

Better performance
Another advantage of the DTS is that new applications and online services can use it to respond instantaneously, quickly streaming extremely high-quality immersive video including 3D and virtual reality. It also could connect local tech firms with research tools at the University of Oregon, including its new super computer — which could lead to discoveries such as drugs to cure cancer.

Heidi Larwick, executive director at Connected Lane County, echoes that vision. “A Digital Town Square could be an additional catalyst to a coordinated, smart community education system. Educators and students would be supported by highly responsive technology and infrastructure that inspires collaborations, and ensures the connectivity of our rural students to the innovation taking place at the core of Eugene and Springfield. Our system’s resilience would grow exponentially; students who need additional support would be able to have their needs met in real time, increasing everyone’s bandwidth for learning.”

Sharing new ideas
One potential focus area for accelerated innovation using a DTS that’s already getting a ton of attention locally is education.

The state of schools in Oregon is a hot-button issue, with many challenges around educational attainment that won’t be solved overnight. We need to work smarter to bridge these challenges, including innovating the way we deliver education itself.

Distance learning and alternative forms of education delivery offer potential respite for funding constraints and opportunity gaps, providing consistent world-class access to career technical education (including computer science) to schools and students regardless of their ZIP code.

By leveraging a DTS to help bridge the opportunity gap, the disparities between high-income and low-income schools will be reduced and inequities could shrink. We need to empower all students to be successful in our quickly evolving economy.

Gigabit applications
Firms that are innovating in the educational technology industry include local startup VR Training Solutions, a Mozilla Gigabit Community Fund and US Ignite grantee. VR Training Solutions’ product provides VR implicit-bias training. Within a virtual classroom with misbehaving students, teacher’s interactions are observed; how they reacted to students with different racial backgrounds and genders are evaluated.

US Ignite’s mission is to foster the creation of next generation Internet applications; the organization held a final video conference interview with the local community representatives who were seeking to secure grant funding for local implementation. [Athena Delene].

Wendy Morgan, from VR Training Solutions, sees value in a DTS. “In order to provide a high-quality interactive VR training environment for multiple participants in different geographic locations, consistent high-throughput and low latency network connections are vital,” she says.

The Digital Town Square is transformative technology that can be built for the public good. Thanks to grant funding from US Ignite, a nonprofit whose mission is to foster the creation of next-generation Internet applications, one is already in the process of being built. With support from the Technology Association of Oregon, the Lane Council of Governments, the Eugene Water and Electric Board and the city of Eugene, our community’s DTS is scheduled to come online in the first quarter of 2019. Learn more at*

Matt Sayre

Matt Sayre is vice president of the Technology Association of Oregon, and he serves as the local US Ignite Smart Gigabit Cities technical lead. Craig Wiroll, the local US Ignite community lead, contributed to this column originally published in the December issue of Blue Chip.

*The Willamette Internet Exchange

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