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The economic sense of free computers

First, and very briefly, a word of apology for the photo of the funny-looking noggin that appears on the masthead of this column, for the first time.

First, and very briefly, a word of apology for the photo of the funny-looking noggin that appears on the masthead of this column, for the first time.

My editor and I agreed that the time had come for me to disengage Tech @ Work from its long-standing association with the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre.

There were two good reasons for this.

First, some of my columns, though they are virtually linked to a technology of some sort, stray quite far afield from the purposes and interests of the technology innovation centre.

Second, I sometimes feel called upon to take contentious, strongly worded stands on certain issues relating to technology, and I have occasionally been concerned that my words and opinions could be misconstrued as representing those of the centre.

But I continue happily at my work at the technology innovation centre, and also at the Yukon Entrepreneurship centre, and my interests and enthusiasms concerning both those organizations will continue to figure largely and frequently in this column.

The label has changed, but it’s still the same old baloney in the package.

With that said, I want to move quickly to a subject dear to me heart, but not related to my activities at the technology centre — the computers for schools program, and why it has such value to the Yukon.

Computers for Schools is a national program funded by the federal government.

Its purpose is to take in computers that are being retired from service in homes, government departments, or businesses.

Those machines are then refurbished and distributed, free of charge, to educational institutions, and to non-profit organizations engaged in education or training.

The Yukon Entrepreneurship Centre is the organization that manages this program in the Yukon, and I serve as the centre’s part-time executive director.

While computer recycling may not be completely “on focus” for an organization dedicated to promoting business development in the Yukon, the centre had good reason to take on this responsibility.

First and foremost, it is just plainly a good thing for the community, and somebody had to do it.

Secondarily (but more to the point from the centre’s point of view), it also provides an opportunity to train local youth in the skills and requirements of the workaday world, thereby increasing their future value to local businesses.

The fact that we take in older computers, however, sometimes leads the public to think the program is about managing electronic waste, and this is not the case.

While we do take in used computers, and while we do ship many of them out of territory to be recycled and rendered down into their constituent elements, that is not the main purpose of the program.

The real point is to help educational institutions and organizations get the computer equipment they need, and to save the public money in doing so.

The Yukon’s schools are actually already well served by YTG when it comes to computer equipment, but the fact remains that, even in this small and relatively prosperous economic environment, the computers for schools program earns its keep.

The basic math just makes good sense.

Virtually every organization involved with education or training in the Yukon is, in some way or other, drawing on the public purse.

If one such organization wanted to purchase new, entry-level computers today, the per-unit cost would likely to be around $500 — more, if they had to add computer monitors to the mix.

Last year, the computers for schools program refurbished and distributed around 420 computers, on a capital budget (shared just about equally between Industry Canada and Human Resources and Social Development Canada) of about $154,000.

That means each of those computers, given out free of charge to Yukon organizations, cost the taxpayer $366.66 per unit — inclusive of a monitor, too, if the applicant needed one.

Had those organizations shelled out even a basic $500 for each computer they took in, the cost to the taxpayer would have been $210,000.

So, computers for schools, even working with these worst-case numbers (because the organizations would probably end up paying more than just $500), saved the taxpayer $56,000 last year.

On top of that, that $154,000 also created local employment, and job training for local youth.

Quite a credible payback for a pretty small public investment — and I am not even factoring in the e-waste management services that also come as a secondary benefit to this activity.

Of course, I am talking here only in terms of direct capital costs.

The entrepreneurship centre also receives other kinds of help from YTG and other organizations.

YTG, for instance, donates the office and warehouse space that make the project possible, and Northwestel offers some much-needed and appreciated assistance with our telephone and internet costs.

The good people at Raven Recycling also help us out in a number of ways, particularly with shipping palates.

But I do not think the computers for schools programs needs to plead too hard to make the case for itself.

Financially, socially, and ecologically, it is just a darn good thing, and I am happy as a beaver in a poplar patch to be working on it.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.