Feeding minds, or: What’s a Soup Hub?
Clearly I’m old enough to remember a time without it, but for a good decade and a half now I’ve been taking the internet for granted. Sure, I may have quit Twitter, but leaving the internet altogether is something I can’t really imagine. Too much of my life depends on it: the net is how I communicate with friends and family overseas, where I get my news, how I pay my bills. It’s where I find answers and inspiration for new questions. It’s why I have a job - and those are just the first few things that came to mind. Everywhere, more and more services are moving online, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to fully participate in our society and as a citizen without access to the net. In July 2012, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously supported a resolution that declared access to the internet and freedom of expression online a basic human right. A number of countries have passed laws to that effect.
I’ve previously written about my interest in open source and extending its principles to other areas beyond software. I think that ultimately, open source is not about technology, but about people. Everyone should have equal access to the information and communication tools we take for granted and that help us in so many areas of our lives. This belief was the motivation for a community project called the Soup Hub.
So what’s a Soup Hub? It’s a computer centre at a soup kitchen in central Wellington. We provide internet access and computer skills training for people in need in a safe and friendly environment. The project is 100% volunteer-run and based on open source principles and values.
The idea for this project had been simmering for a bit but started taking shape at the 2011 Nethui conference. Talking with others involved with digital inclusion projects, we quickly learned that there are many groups and initiatives doing great work helping disadvantaged people get access to computers and the internet. So, rather than reinventing the wheel, our approach was to engage with existing groups, see where they have gaps or could use help, and then fill one or two of those gaps.
With that, we focused on three things:
- Provide a safe, warm place to access the internet in a location where people already are, such as a community centre, a church, or a soup kitchen.
- Bring open source into the mix - not just as a means to save money but also to spread knowledge and adoption.
- Use technology to harness the power of the internet to collaborate and share and exchange ideas.
- hardware – we had two machines to start with which were donated surplus PCs
- software – mainly a Linux-based operating system and a browser
- some basic supplies, such as printer/scanner, webcam and headphones
- internet access (we’re currently talking to a sponsor as this represents by far the highest cost of the project)
- a wiki to serve as a web presence for the Soup Hub
- training and support modules for various activities such as email or spreadsheets
In March 2012, Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown opened the Soup Hub, and we’ve been growing steadily since then. Our number of guests is increasing, and we’ve added an additional afternoon so that we’re now open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We hold regular volunteer meetings and we’re slowly growing our media presence to encourage additional sponsors and volunteers. And that’s still just the start - there a a number of places to go from here: from being open every day and getting more guests using the hub, to better setup and more training materials, to getting the word out more widely, to more collaboration with similar digital inclusion projects.
It’s been a great journey and a humbling experience so far, working with so many amazing people and seeing the generosity and kindness in this community. One of the best indicators of this spirit I think is the fact that some of our guests have themselves become volunteers and mentors to others.
When we first talked to soup kitchen guests to find out more about their needs and interests, and if a computer centre would be useful, one of them said it this way:
“The soup kitchen already provides the service of feeding our bodies; the computer centre would provide the services of also feeding our minds.”