Set up a system where residents could access their desktop and files over the internet, from any computer. Offer a service that rents out netbooks that come configured to connect to the system. For visitors, it would serve as their portable guide to the city. For residents, it would serve as their city dashboard. And for students, it would enhance their classroom materials.
With a citywide fiber network...
We could set up a cloud desktop service. With high-speed communications infrastructure on the gigabit level, the experience of using a cloud desktop (if well-constructed) shouldn't differ too much from using a native desktop today, assuming a reliable connection.
To take advantage of the desktop, we could have a low-cost netbook rental service. You can get really quality books in the $350 range. These could be paid off for the business if they rent at $1.00/day (plus a bit for insurance/security deposit) in under a year. The price of internet service would have to be factored in as well, but the rental service could obtain a very competitive contract if they buy in bulk. We could offer every resident one personal cloud desktop account for free.
The netbooks could come loaded with some city-branded fork of, say, ChromiumOS, whose opening screen can be configured based on the renter (Resident or Visitor, for example). For visitors, it could be like a VisitPhillyOS. It could be their light, portable guide to the city, incorporating and expanding on all aspects of the new visitphilly.com.
For residents it could serve as a virtual briefcase preconfigured with various useful tools for using their city—a PhillywareOS. With it, residents could locate and have instant streaming access to local community radio and television stations. Notifications for things like 311 reports they've filed or updates on legislative actions they've subscribed to could be integrated into their desktop experience. It could come configured with applications for things like managing utilities, licenses, and taxes, and other things that residents might be interested in doing with the city (however, expanded online presences for these services would have to be created first; see Philadelphia 3.0).
The hardware rental aspect of this idea isn't technically necessary; residents would be just as able to access their personal cloud-desktop from library computers, or from any computer with the appropriate software. However, the rental aspect is exciting because it seems a good way to expand tech access in the city. A pay-as-you-need model might be ideal for many residents. And with all their data online, if they did have to get rid of their computer (e.g., for financial reasons), it wouldn't be AS big a deal.
Perhaps most exciting is that schools could strike up some sort of subscription deal, so that students would all have a netbook and a PhillySchoolOS cloud desktop account, which would come loaded with educational software tools. Look for netbooks that are good for reading and eliminate the need for physical text books. No more beat-up, out-dated texts (even if the computers get a little banged, the information content could be kept up-to-date).
And this wouldn't only be valuable for the technology challenged either. I've actually considered doing something like this myself—keeping a machine up at my house, and just VNCing in from a nice light, portable, netbook with an SSD. The primary thing that stops me is that latency is just too high—I like (and for some development tasks, need) a snappy interface. Gigabit to the rescue!
One more reason I like the idea of netbook rental is that it could work even without gigabit! It would just work so much better with it.
What could be done with $10,000? That is enough to buy about 20 machines. That's not many. Moreover, gigabit infrastructure does not yet exist in Philadelphia. But we wouldn't need to twiddle our thumbs until it does. One possibility for the grant funds would be to use a limited number of netbooks (starting with 10 or so) to run a pilot program, perhaps in cooperation with one of the Free Library branches in the city. Netbooks could be rented through the library's checkout system to any adult with a library card.
Let's use Clear Wireless as a simple sample price point. From Clear, with a 2-year subscription agreement at 40$+tax ($42.80)/mo, you can get a Dell Inspiron Mini-10 with built-in 4G WiMax for $250+tax ($283.54). If you expect to use a netbook for the full two years, the cost of hardware and internet comes out to $1310.74 (or $54.62/mo). If the library charged something like $0.60/hour ($0.01/min) or $5.00 for overnight, the price of the hardware and internet service could easily be recouped.
Improve this idea!
This is doable! If you have something that you think would make this idea better, leave a comment, or send a message to the Philly Software for Citizens Google group.