rolling out

Innovative library on wheels brings tech lab and resources to Houston communities that need it most

When seven Houston Public Libraries were damaged during Hurricane Harvey, the library system rolled out its resources to the communities that needed it most. Photo courtesy of Houston Public Library Foundation

To those that think the Houston Public Library has a dearth of innovation, think again.

"If people don't think libraries are relevant, they just need to visit one," says Sally Swanson, executive director of the Houston Public Library Foundation. "The 21st century library really is a technology hub.

"The libraries here in Houston have been around over a hundred years, but regardless of what decade it was in, it has always kept up with the needs of the community, therefore it always has to be innovative."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, seven libraries across Houston were forced to close due to extreme flood damage. To mitigate the loss, the HPL decided to modernize its Mobile Express Unit, a custom-built technology lab and library on wheels designed to bring access to technology and programs to high-need neighborhoods.

"Even though the hurricane was two years ago, the damage in Houston was so extensive, that only one of those seven locations has reopened," says Swanson. "The other ones are still in need, so having the Mobile Express now will bridge that gap until the city is able to reconstruct or reopen those closed locations.

"Thanks to the renovated Mobile Express, we'll be able to go to community centers, to schools and to other events. Basically, we're bringing the library to the people."

With the help of The Brown Foundation Inc., John P. McGovern Foundation, The Powell Foundation, corporate partner Crown Castle and thousands of donations from generous Houstonians, the HPL will use the $325,000 vehicle outfitted with advanced programmatic features to expand services to a growing waiting list of neighborhoods in need.

"We couldn't have done this without the generosity of the Houston community," says Swanson. "The vehicle itself was $325,000 and there was another $30,000 added in for technology. I would really like to thank our significant donors that made this vehicle possible. Thanks to that outpouring of support, this is now our reality."

The Mobile Express Unit, which will begin venturing out and serving the community in early February, has three touchscreen monitors, one desktop tower, 12 student Apple MacBook laptops and 10 iPads in a training room, eight tech lab workstations and a 3D printer.

"Even though we've had the public debut, it hasn't started accepting appointments yet," says Swanson. "The Mobile Express is operated through the Houston Public Library's Community Engagement division. They will have the online schedule and they have a driver and a program team that will go out and bring activities to people. The beauty of this is that it's free to the public."

As a fun way to get the word out, the HPL is sponsoring a contest for kids to name the Mobile Express Unit's robot mascot. Kids that enter the vehicle will be able to use the mascot to learn robotics and whoever wins the naming contest will receive that same robot, with five runners up receiving five slightly smaller versions of the robot.

"The beauty of the Mobile Express is its versatility," says Swanson. "There is a need for getting kids engaged in STEM activities and while some kids are very computer proficient, there are others that don't have access to the equipment. There will be learning at every stage and kids will be able to go on the vehicle, experiment with the different platforms and be part of the technology.

"There will be computer classes, coding classes and 3D printing workshops, so anyone, no matter their level of skills will be able to go on and actually have a real positive hands-on experience."

The Mobile Express, which can serve up to 24 participants or expand its interior walls to accommodate more, has an outdoor flat screen for dance sessions or for showing the instruction that is being held on the inside.

With its improved classroom flow and comfortable and engaging environment, the Mobile Express is able to offer English as a Second Language classes, workforce development classes, sewing workshops and pop-up library activities.

The mobile library and technology lab on wheels has no restrictions on its service area, so it can go into every neighborhood and corner of Houston and serve the public where it is needed the most.

"Every stop the Mobile Express makes is a continued investment into the Houston community," says Swanson. "A lot of people take for granted that everyone has equal access to online resources, but there's a lot of families that are having trouble making ends meet and they don't have internet in their home.

"The Houston Public Library has always been really good about finding creative and innovative ways of bringing services to the community."

For those that can't wait to make an appointment with the Mobile Express, there's always the neighborhood brick-and-mortar library.

"I welcome everyone in Houston to just go visit their local library," says Swanson. "They will be very surprised when they walk in and they see how many people are there reading or on computer terminals. They'll also be surprised by the library's focus on technology."

Coronavirus-caused closures have resulted in a nearly 30 percent drop in the county's daily economic output, according to a new report. Getty Images

Houston's economy continues to suffer as a result of the coronavirus-fueled economic slide and the collapse in oil prices. But just how much are these twin crises injuring Bayou City?

Economic data and forecasts present an increasingly grim outlook for Houston.

A new Moody's Analytics analysis commissioned by the Wall Street Journal provides one measurement of the economic damage being inflicted on Houston. The analysis, published April 2, indicates business closures in Harris County — which represents two-thirds of the region's population — have caused a 27 percent drop in the county's daily economic output.

Ed Hirs, an economics lecturer at the University of Houston, says the 27 percent figure is likely lower than the actual number. He thinks it's closer to 50 percent.

"The reason is that we are talking about output — actual work getting done — and not including monetary transfers from the bailout bill or unemployment insurance," Hirs says.

The lingering daily decline undoubtedly will bring down the Houston area's total economic output for 2020. In 2018, the region's economic output (GDP) added up to nearly $478.8 billion. By comparison, the 2018 economic output for the nation of Austria totaled $455.3 billion, according to the World Bank.

Harris County ranks as the third largest county in the U.S., as measured by population. The Moody's Analytics study shows the country's two largest counties — Los Angeles County in California and Cook County in Illinois — have been hit with even bigger decreases in daily economic output. Los Angeles County's loss sits at 35 percent, with Cook County's at 30 percent.

Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership, says in a podcast interview published April 2 that it's difficult to accurately gauge how the economic climate is hurting Houston right now. That's because economic data lags present-day economic reality.

"The situation is changing daily," Jankowski says. "There's so many unknowns out there. This is unprecedented."

Economists predict the Houston area's workforce will see massive losses as a result of the coronavirus and energy downturns.

Economist Bill Gilmer, director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business, says a moderate recession could siphon as many as 44,000 jobs from the region's economy by the end of this year. A more dire forecast from The Perryman Group, a Waco-based economic analysis firm, envisions the Houston area losing nearly 256,000 jobs due to the COVID-19 shutdown and racking up $27 billion in coronavirus-related economic losses.

Jankowski anticipates the Houston area tallying job losses of at least 200,000, meaning losses would be less severe than the 1980s energy bust but more severe than the Great Recession.

"If we're still working from home after May, everyone's job is at risk," says Jankowski, adding that this would trigger more furloughs, layoffs, and pay cuts.

Aggravating Houston's situation is the coronavirus clampdown on restaurants and hotels.

According to survey data released March 30 by the Texas Restaurant Association, 2 percent of the state's more than 50,000 restaurants already had closed permanently, and another 32 percent had closed temporarily. An additional 12 percent of Texas restaurants anticipated shutting down within the next 30 days.

If you add the 2 percent of restaurants that have closed to the 12 percent that expect to close, that would equal roughly 7,000 shuttered restaurants.

"Restaurants are in a fight for survival. The statistics from this survey provide a mere snapshot of the extreme economic impact the COVID-19 crisis is having on one of the most important industries in Texas," Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, says in a release.

In the lodging sector, Texas is projected to lose 44 percent of its jobs, or more than 64,000 positions, according to a mid-March forecast from the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Experts predict some Texas hotels won't survive the coronavirus crisis.

"COVID-19 has been especially devastating for the hotel industry. Every day, more hotels are closing, and more employees are out of a job," Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the hotel association, says in a March 26 release.

While the restaurant and hotel sectors face a shaky future, the energy industry is grappling with the oil war between Russia and Saudi Arabia as well as depressed demand for crude oil and gasoline. Jankowski says gas prices could stay low through mid-2020 or even the end of 2020 as the energy industry copes with a prolonged oil glut.

Relief funds coming from Washington, D.C., will help stabilize the energy sector and other industries, Jankowski says, but will not "juice" the economy and spark growth.

"We're going to need to move beyond the pandemic," he says, "and we're going to need for some consumer confidence and business confidence to come back before we start to see growth returning again."