Seattle, in many ways, is a tale of two cities. Through one paradigm, the city is a booming high-tech capital, driven by Microsoft, Amazon and other tech giants. The civic tech community has also left its mark on the city, as Code for America’s regional brigade, Open Seattle, has grown significantly within the last year, according to civic technology advocate Candace Faber.
At the same time, a sizable portion of the city still lacks access to broadband Internet at home, and lower-income residents are being pushed out of urban centers as a result of rising rents.
According to the most recent Technology Access and Adoption Survey, conducted in 2014, nearly 45,000 residents (15 percent of the population) lack Internet access at home — and this is at a time when high-speed Internet is rapidly evolving, becoming much less a luxury and more of a necessity.
In an effort to boost connectivity and digital literacy, and ensure affordable personal devices, the city has put up $404,000 in a Technology Matching Fund for community organizations and nonprofits to make Seattle a more digitally equitable city.
The program, which began in 1997, provides grants where the community's contribution of volunteer labor, materials, professional services, or cash is matched by the Technology Matching Fund. More than $4 million has been awarded to 302 projects since 1998.
“It's just as important, and perhaps even more important than ever, because of the proliferation of not just everything being online, but the variety of ways in which people can access information,” said Community Technology Manager Chance Hunt, adding that the fund provides an opportunity for the city to invest through micro-investments that come from the community expressing what the need is.
“This is very much a partnership with the community,” said Delia Burke, the program’s manager, adding that the program has continued to grow and evolve as technology needs have changed. “Back in the early days it might have been, 'Let’s get computers out to everybody.' But now we are recognizing that digital literacy is a huge part of it. You need the equipment, but you also need the skill to know how to use it."
There is also an ongoing trend toward workforce development, said Hunt. An emerging emphasis for the program is on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education programs, as well as getting women and minorities to enter the IT profession. Projects that were chosen as 2016 winners included a year-long club for young Native American women to gain cultural knowledge and computer coding skills.
“The fund is really focused on those who are underserved,” said Burke. “It is open to seniors, at-risk youths, immigrant/refugee groups, low-income families and those experiencing homelessness.” It is often those groups that slip through the cracks. One problem exacerbates another, so without reliable access to Internet, the problems of lacking digital skills or being able to access job applications can lead to underemployment.
“Connectivity is increasingly important," Burke said, referring to the 15 percent of the city's residents who lack Internet. "If you can't get online or don't have access to the Internet, you can’t do just about anything else.”
Mayor Ed Murray has taken this on as a personal challenge. The city published an RFI on Jan. 30 looking for information on public Wi-Fi.
The applications for the fund are due on May 3, and winners will be chosen mid-July. The city will host two workshops to help groups interested in applying but have questions about the process.
Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.