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Digital Infrastructure Gets Boost In Flooded Towns



Resiliency has been a buzzword ever since Tropical Storm Irene.

The goal of resiliency is to improve the ability of communities to recover from natural disasters. In some cases that involves building bigger culverts and better bridges. But there’s also a digital side to resiliency.

After Irene, bulletin boards sprang up in many towns hit by the flooding. They were covered with announcements, pleas, offers, announcements and other information.

When the next disaster strikes there will be an online equivalent to those local bulletin boards in many of those same communities.

The idea behind the Vermont Digital Economy Project is to help build a more robust Web-presence for town governments, local businesses and non-profits and make it easier for them to get information out.

“I think of it as virtual infrastructure as opposed to the physical,” says Sharon Combes-Farr, director of the Digital Economy Project, which was launched by the Vermont Council On Rural Development using more than $2 million in combined federal grants and contributions from Vermont businesses and organizations.

The project is working with towns hardest hit by the 2011 spring and summer flooding.

The most visible signs of the digital economy project are new downtown Wi-Fi hotspots in communities like South Royalton and Bethel.

But the project is also working with a number of partners to create town Websites, train businesses and organizations to use the Web more effectively – and perhaps most importantly get people who live in towns accustomed to going online for information about their community.

“Because if people aren’t going online on the town Website, they may not go there after a disaster either. They have to have that habit of expecting to get information from the town online,” Combes-Farr says.

She says towns that have active, up-to-date online resources it’s easier for information to be disseminated and for people to communicate.

“When you have the habit of multiple members throughout your community talking about the issues that are important to them and then sharing the information when there is a disaster or about to be a disaster, it makes you more resilient and also there’s an economic development component,” she explains.

The economic development possibilities of the project appeal to Royalton Select board Chair Larry Trottier.

Trottier says South Royalton’s new Wi-Fi hotspot will help draw more people, especially Vermont Law School students, to the village center and the businesses located there.

“We just thought it would be a good thing for the Town of Royalton to be a little proactive for people coming to town,”says Trottier.

The idea behind including businesses in the digital economy project is that stronger businesses make for a more resilient community when there’s a disaster.

The project plans to work with 25 communities in all.

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