Seattle is upping its financial contribution to a program that for the past 20 years has helped community groups provide technology, as well as the skills needed to use technology, to residents who are traditionally underserved and often left behind.
The program is called the Technology Matching Fund, and the Seattle City Council recently voted to award $430,000 through it to 15 local groups. This year the fund is expected to help more than 6,000 residents of Seattle in underserved or underrepresented communities, including those of immigrants and refugees, seniors, at-risk youths, and people with disabilities. The resources will help these residents by being put to use through a wide range of social groups, including the Boys and Girls Club, LaunchCode, the West African Community Council and many others.
The matching facet of this program is a simple one: For every dollar the city gives, an organization will match it with 50 cents of its own money then being put toward tech. What the money is used for varies from organization to organization, but in a broad sense it all will go to one of the three priorities that have been established by Seattle’s digital inclusion planning: increasing connectivity throughout the city; fostering better digital skills among residents; and providing devices and other technology to those who do not presently have access to it.
Although the fund has grown slowly over the years — it started out at $100,000 and has only just this year reached $430,000 — the city’s commitment has been steadfast. Over the lifespan of the initiative, 300 projects have been funded by more than $4 million in grants.
City officials involved with the fund and with Seattle’s larger digital equity work say one of the benefits of distributing the money this way is that it reaches residents whom the municipal government often struggles to engage. When deciding which groups will receive the grants, Seattle’s technologists spend time interacting with the groups and the communities, giving them a window into the city.
“Seattle — probably because of the kind of companies that have been there for a very long time — has been on the leading edge within city government for creating opportunities for people to engage with government online,” said Chance Hunt, a community technology manager with Seattle. “So, with that comes the realization that we need to do more to then help our community get involved.”
Seattle is home to Microsoft and Amazon, among other tech companies, and, as Hunt notes, has long been in the vanguard for gov tech. Seattle has also been out ahead on digital inclusion work, as evidenced by its 20-year commitment to the Technology Matching Fund. Still, that doesn’t mean it has digital equity all figured out. City officials are well aware that there is still work to be done, and that being such a technologically advanced city means they are perhaps at an even greater risk than other major local governments of leaving some residents behind.
Jim Loter, Seattle’s director of digital engagement, is very much aware of all of this. He uses an experience he recently had as a reminder and example of the challenges that citizens who aren’t in possession of or savvy with technology face around town.
Loter said he recently went to see a movie on a typical Seattle afternoon, when it was “already dark and already raining.” To get to the theater, he had to use a parking garage nearby, and that parking garage had a payment system that required an app. There was no kiosk, and seemingly no way to pay with cash money. To go to a movie, Loter had to have a smartphone with a data plan, he had to download the app, and he had to connect a credit card for payment. That’s fine for him, but what if someone was missing any one of those three things? Parking their car to go to a movie would have then been problematic.
Although it was a privately owned garage, Loter said he often keeps the experience in mind in his work.
“[Digital equity] is something we’re acutely aware of here in Seattle, because you can’t turn around and not see evidence of the high-tech presence here,” Loter said. “There’s Amazon and Microsoft, and Google and Facebook are growing here. We have a rich and robust startup and small business community in the tech sector as well. There’s probably even a greater risk in a high-tech city like Seattle of people being left behind and unable to receive certain benefits and services.”
The city is well aware of this, as the increasing support for the fund attests, and the community groups are putting the money from the fund to good use. The Somali Family Safety Task Force, for example, is using the funds to expand an existing program that has been helping immigrant mothers build computer skills.
“The laptops we’ll purchase will triple the time these women can spend in a computer lab each week,” said that group’s grants manager, Consuelo Echeverria, in a statement. “We’ll also be able to hire college students from the Somali community to teach them.”
Seattle recently won a pair of awards from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors for its efforts to foster digital inclusion. Digital inclusion is of increasing concern nationwide, with many cities establishing official initiatives. This was also the first year that an official national digital inclusion week was established, complete with a series of accompanying events.