How to Create a Public Computer Center

Blog Post
June 7, 2011

The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program’s Public Computer Center (PCC) grants provide funding for organizations across the United States to construct and expand places for the public to access broadband Internet. The City of Philadelphia, as the anchor partner in the Philadelphia Freedom Rings partnership, received over $6 million to build and expand a total of 77 PCCs throughout the city. The Open Technology Initiative’s Hannah Sassaman and Preston Rhea in March helped the Media Mobilizing Project (MMP), a managing partner in the Philly PCC project, to build two PCCs.

How they prepared

Preston helped MMP set up a PCC at their office in West Philadelphia. The equipment for the setup of two PCCs had already been delivered to MMP’s office, ready to be unpacked.

All the PCC Parts for MMP and SEIU

Here are all the parts that MMP had ready to go for their own PCC and for SEIU's PCC.


The boxes included several Dell tower CPUs, widescreen monitors, a few Mac Minis and MacCuffs for mounting the computers behind monitors, and tables and chairs for assembly. A reminder to grant awardees: the BTOP grant has a “buy American” clause for furniture, so consider that before purchasing to outfit your PCC.


Chakka Shows Off a MacCuff

MMP received a few Mac Minis for basic use by high school students. The Mac Minis will be secured to their monitors with these MacCuffs. Securing your parts is very important, so no one steals devices meant to be used by everyone!


As for ensuring there would be enough volunteers on-hand, Bryan Mercer, Digital Inclusion Organizer at MMP, described how MMP reached out to volunteers from past programs to help out with this and other setups. They also coordinated with staff and members of the organizations where other setups would take place, like SEIU and the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU). To make sure people who committed showed up on time and ready to work, MMP followed up with one-on-one calls for each volunteer to communicate about times to work. Bryan said it was helpful to make clear that there are many roles for techies and non-techies alike to fill on Setup Day.

Josh marcus and chakka reeves inventory computers

Over at PSU, Josh Marcus and Chakka Reeves go over the inventory for transforming this space into a PCC.


Bryan described the challenges he expected to face the volunteers on setup day. He knew that preparing the space was a key consideration, both for the actual setup and for planning on fitting all the finished furniture and computers. Luckily MMP had a large, fairly open space at their offices for this PCC, but many partners are working with limited space, so keep it as open and clear of clutter as possible when beginning setup. He also said that the cost, difficulty of customization, and redundant leftover material when ordering the equipment was a headache. It is hard to order a large number of computers meant to be mirrored with one operating system, because you get the same OS material for each one - most of which goes in the trash.

Organizing and cataloging

The first step on Setup Day is to arrange and catalog all of your PCC hard assets. The PCC at MMP’s office is slated to have eight computers initially, including four Dell towers and four iMacs, but all of the iMacs had not arrived on Setup Day. Thus, we only arranged the Dell assemblies, four tables and eight chairs.


Becca Entering Part Numbers

This is what MMP used to organize their parts before they even opened the monitor and desktop tower boxes. They set up a spreadsheet to record the location, type, model number and serial number of each device they had for their PCC. From this info, they generated a unique object ID for each device (like MMPDesktop3). We wrote the part numbers with marker on Post-it notes, which we used to tag the parts before engraving the ID permanently. Don’t forget the scissors for opening all those boxes!


Cataloging is best done before you set everything up. It helps to keep track of all of those parts which could be misplaced or stolen, and it also works if the NTIA wants to verify that their grant money is properly spent.


Bryan later remarked that a photographic inventory of everything would have been an easier alternative to a written inventory.

Applying ID tags and assembling tables with anchors

With everything out of the box, we split up tasks. Some people assembled chairs, Chakka applied permanent ID tags to each of the computer parts, and Milena and Preston assembled four tables to use as desks for the computers.


An Assembled Computer

An assembled computer.


Labeling Items Before Engraving Them


For this setup, Chakka used an engraver to permanently etch the unique part IDs, which had been written on Post-it notes. This was really loud and took a long time! Even so, it helps keep parts from being misplaced.


Chakka Engraves a Monitor


Another way to keep things from being misplaced is to lock or otherwise anchor the computer hardware to the table, so it’s much harder for someone to knock over or steal. Remember, these are public computer centers - what gives them a great impact in the community can make them vulnerable to theft. MMP was smart and thought about this before we even started: Bryan purchased anchors to be drilled and glued underneath the table, to hold a computer lock threaded through the anchor and the table legs.


Applying an Anchor to the Table Bottom


At first, the anchors were easily pulled out  of the table after we secured them with screws, because the table is made of particle board. Once we applied Gorilla Glue between the anchors and the table, in addition to screwing them in, the anchors set firmly. Make sure to wear gloves - Gorilla Glue is no joke!


Anchor Under the Table

This anchor is binding to the table as the Gorilla Glue sets. The computer lock cord will thread through this anchor, keeping the computer from being stolen.


Megan, bryan, kristin build tables at psu lab

Here Megan, Bryan and Kristin assemble tables for the PSU lab.


Megan williamson assembles a table at the philly student union lab

Megan wields a drill as she builds tables for PSU’s public computer center.

Installing and mirroring the operating system

The several computers at each PCC should be root-controlled and maintain a centrally mirrored operating system (OS) to ensure every user has a reliably productive and smooth experience. Before setup day, Bryan arranged a custom version of Windows with productivity software and a program called Deep Freeze, which protects each PC from configuration changes by users.


What you Need for a Host Image


The things required to maintain a mirrored version of the same OS on each computer are pictured. To set up each computer, Bryan pressed a few backup discs with the PCC version of Windows he curated, with at least one kept at his own desk so it would not be lost out in the field. A hard drive hosting the “upstream” OS is needed for each computer to maintain the mirror, and if a change is made to that upstream copy of the OS, it passes on to the other computers.


Loading the mirror OS disc


This photograph shows what’s needed to set up each individual computer. The computer must boot from the recovery or mirror install CD, as shown on the monitor. Although it’s hard to see, the USB hard drive in Preston’s hand acts like a one-time upstream mirror host for installing the OS. After initial setup, the computer should maintain its mirror over the network to the common mirror hard drive, as mentioned earlier.

Recycling and closing up

Your furniture is assembled, your parts are labeled and all the computers are set up with their software. It’s time to put the parts together and call it a public computer center!


A New Public Computing Center!


After all of that unboxing of of computer parts and furniture, you are bound to have a lot of waste. To be environmentally sustainable, try to keep boxes as intact as possible so they can be reused or “freecycled,” which MMP did with many of its leftover boxes. There will also be plenty of fragmented styrofoam, instructional packets and synthetic baggage and wrapping, most of which - except for the instruction papers - will not be recyclable. Keep a vacuum on hand to make sure your PCC will be clean and orderly for its opening day after throwing out the packaging.


Recycling the Packing Waste


Fred pinguel and the packaging left over from the philly student union lab materials

Fred deconstructs the cardboard packaging after setting up PSU’s public computer center.


When Preston later asked Bryan about his favorite part of the setup, he said it was working with people who watched the space transform from its state before the setup into a real PCC at the end. He described the feeling at the end of the setup as “exciting and validating.”


For the next setup, MMP took a few lessons from this day’s experience. Bryan said they will plan for people’s activities and the process of setting up more clearly, and urged others to focus on getting enough people on-hand to effectively handle all the tasks needed. Most importantly: make sure you have the equipment for music to play loud during the setup! It makes it much easier to handle hours of assembly when you have good music to listen to.


As a bonus: Some audio from MMP’s sustainer celebration and fundraising event, at which these programs were formally launched, and photos from that event.