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Conference Assesses Vermont’s Future Digital Economy

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A daylong conference was held at the statehouse in Montpelier Tuesday to highlight what technological and digital innovations could mean for Vermont’s economy.

The Future of the Vermont Digital Economy Summit looked at innovative use of digital tools to build resilience in communities and promote a creative economy across the state in all sectors from agriculture to high-tech services.

In the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, the Vermont Council on Rural Development received a $1.8 million federal grant creating the Vermont Digital Economy Project.  Project Director Sharon Combes-Farr says this conference is the culmination of work in communities.  “We’re essentially delivering multiple things in the field in Vermont communities to help either people, organizations or communities leverage digital tools to create economic development and greater resilience. One of the topics today that’s really getting a lot of interest is how can we encourage creativity and how can we promote technology and regional clusters and things like that? But also people decided they wanted to talk about as an additional topic how we can leverage technology to help the poor and underprivileged in Vermont

Fletcher Allen Health Care Social Media Strategist Alexandra Tursi sat on the Nonprofit Problem Solvers panel. She explained that about 80 percent of people use the internet to find health information and about 72 percent of Americans use social media to find information as they make health care decisions.  Tursi says the Vermont Digital Economy Project helps the hospital connect with communities.  “There’s a bunch of different challenges. One of the most critical ones is the digital divide. Access to certain internet and social media tools. For us at Fletcher Allen Health Care we want to reach as many people in our patient community as possible. In a fairly rural environment our challenge is to find out ways to connect with people. So it’s important that conferences like this not only explore the possibilities of technology. But it’s also important to think about who we’re designing for at the end of the day. And if that includes people who, for whatever reason, don’t have access our challenge is to also integrate them into the process.”

Earthwise Farm and Forest owner Carl Russell logs his timberland using draft horses.  Following Irene, he received grant funds to enhance his digital access, and while it may seem anachronistic, he embraces the use of an I-Pad in his work.  “It does take some time to figure out how these tools can be applicable to a small business like agriculture and forestry. It’s an incredibly powerful tool. What I can present to people is more substantial and comprehensive. So the fact that I log with horses is not a detraction, but I can back that up with real substantive forestry. One of the reasons why I’m here today and one of the things I see popping up is there’s a lot of concern that we don’t have broadband in every home and we don’t have good cell phone coverage. But that doesn’t have to be a barrier to learning how to use these tools effectively. It can really augment a small business.”

The Vermont Digital Economy Project has been working on projects that include helping communities build Wi-Fi access and developing town websites. It has also worked with small businesses and nonprofits on their digital strategies.

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