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Digital Literacy Is at the Heart of a Thriving Smart City

During the Smart Cities Conference in Kansas City, Mo., earlier this week, thought leaders broke down the issues facing technology deployments and the importance of bringing constituents along for the ride.

The path forward for smart cities is not without its obstacles and challenges, many of them far removed from the worlds of tech, and instead more linked to the societal, political and financial factors.

Kimberly LaGrue, chief information officer in New Orleans, recalled a community event when one resident said, “I don’t have a computer. I don’t use any of that stuff.” LaGrue shared the experience during a panel discussion at the Smart Cities Connect Conference in Kansas City, Mo., March 27.

“I asked her another question and she went to her phone,” LaGrue added.

“She didn’t even understand that her phone was a tool for digital literacy. That the Internet on her phone was the same as Internet in her house,” she went on, underscoring the growing need to educate residents about the many ways technology is serving the city.

Since then, New Orleans has launched initiatives like a program called Tech Goes Home, as well as a digital equity challenge to close the digital divide that often leaves those without technological knowledge behind.

Understanding and overcoming the digital divide is an issue officials in other cities explore as well, said Girish Ramachandran, Dallas' chief technology architect.

“If there’s public Wi-Fi out there, do people even know how to access public Wi-Fi?” Ramachandran asked. “Do they have the devices needed to access public Wi-Fi as opposed to just deploying a solution and then saying, ‘Great, now go use it’?”

San Francisco holds classes that focus on using the Internet for job searches and other information like college programs. The idea is to go beyond simply putting a tool out in the world; it hinges on fostering its use for the greater public good.

“Essentially, what we’ve done is we’ve created a place where there’s plenty of computers, they’re attached to the Internet, so they come do the training and go back to their home and kind of apply what they’ve learned,” said Nina D’Amato, chief of staff for the City and County of San Francisco Technology Department. 

The panelists also zeroed in on some of the peripheral issues that must be addressed as cities become smarter, more data-driven and more network dependent. In the end, they warned, residents can’t be left behind in the process.

“We have to help our citizens understand why the information is important,” said LaGrue. “And if technology is as much of a demon as it is an asset, if data is as much of a demon as it is an asset to them, then we’ve got to fix that.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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