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Digital Equity Takes Center Stage in U.S. Cities Post COVID

The pandemic demonstrated the importance of including everyone in our increasingly digitized society, but once people are connected to the Internet, do they know how to use it?

aerial photo of many people crossing a street in a crosswalk
Adobestock.com
A few years ago, one of the nation’s leading experts on digital equity was tired of explaining her work.

Angela Siefer, founder and executive director of the Ohio-based National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), had done digital equity work for decades, dating back to the ’90s. She’d seen the phrase “digital equity” — which refers to giving all members of society an equal chance to benefit from tech — grow into a blanket term. And she’d seen the Internet go from luxury to utility as more of life moved online. She had also seen — and helped establish — a host of effective digital equity projects, strategies and best practices.

Yet, as recently as 2019, Siefer was talking to public officials and business leaders who did not understand why digital equity mattered, or, at times, what the phrase even meant. With digitization rapidly accelerating, she wondered — how could there still be leaders in this country who needed a primer on digital equity?

Nowadays, however, Siefer rarely needs to explain.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the country to stay home in March 2020, the importance of digital equity became clear. To participate fully in modern life, people needed reliable high-speed Internet in their houses, up-to-date devices for accessing that Internet, and the skills to use it in meaningful ways. Many folks had these things, but across the country — in rural, suburban and urban communities — there was consistently a remaining percentage who did not. There was and still is a last mile for digital equity.  

And if that last mile is not bridged, students are left out of class. Workers are unable to join Zoom calls. Small-business owners cannot participate in e-commerce, and seniors cannot visit doctors remotely. Even well-off households can end up sharing bandwidth with neighbors and family members, often to the detriment of download and upload speeds. No, explaining is no longer necessary; the importance of Seifer’s life’s work is now clear to nearly everyone, nearly every day.

“We’ve never had awareness like this, and I could have never thought this was going to be my reality,” Siefer recently told Government Technology, noting her organization had grown from three to 14 full-time members. “I rarely have to explain to someone that the digital divide is important, and I can now jump right into solutions and on-the-ground strategies.”

Essentially, digital equity is having a moment. Along with increased understanding, the work is also getting an influx of federal funding. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) earmarks $2.75 billion for it, a historic sum. 

With all that in mind, Government Technology spoke with more than two dozen people who work on digital equity and digital inclusion in the United States, from officials with state and local government agencies to policy experts to leaders of community-based nonprofit groups. What emerged was a new picture of last-mile digital equity, efforts to get the United States connected for good and prepare us for a productive and equitable online future.

'A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME SITUATION': THE ROLE OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT


When the NDIA started in 2015, Siefer didn’t plan to work with local governments. Why would she? Save for an odd outlier, cities were simply not active in the digital equity space. 

Instead, Siefer expected to collaborate on digital equity with those already doing the work, a group largely made up of public libraries and community groups, and in some sporadic instances, the local housing authority. This too has now changed. In fact, local governments now regularly approach the NDIA looking for guidance. 

“Nobody told them this was their job,” Siefer said. “They’ve just seen that they have an important role in this.”

They’ve come to understand that bridging the last mile of digital equity is important for fostering equity throughout their communities. People on the other side of that last mile correspond directly with groups that are traditionally disinvested and underserved, including communities of color, recent immigrants and seniors.

The new understanding by local gov of why digital equity matters started growing before the pandemic, but it was greatly fueled by its outbreak. Cities began to prioritize digital equity as life moved increasingly online due to unprecedented tech acceleration, while at the same time equity in general was becoming a bigger priority within U.S. government, which was pushed forward during the summer of 2020 amid sweeping protests after the murder of George Floyd. Cities had also invested for years in flashy smart city projects, begging the question, how can you truly be a smart city if a chunk of your community isn’t online?

Advocacy groups have noted this increased government activity in digital equity. In 2021, the National League of Cities (NLC) published its first digital equity playbook, which explains what digital equity is and ways cities can work on digital inclusion. In addition, the group’s existing digital equity resources and webinars saw a massive uptick in traffic, said NLC Program Director of Urban Innovation Lena Geraghty.

One key for local governments taking aim at last-mile digital equity, Geraghty also noted, is studying the digital inclusion ecosystem in their communities. This means finding areas in need, organizing groups already doing the work and conveying what’s happening to higher levels of government.

“Cities are really in the driver’s seat at this point,” Geraghty said. “They have the ability and funding sources to make really major changes in their communities to meet these needs. It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime situation right now.”

While cities don’t have direct agency in obtaining federal digital inclusion funding, they have — or can collect — the data they need to make their case to states, which are tasked by the IIJA with dispersing the money. 

Corian Zacher, policy counsel for the government support nonprofit Next Century Cities, stressed the importance of focusing on Internet affordability, a topic that came up in conversations with several city-level digital equity staffers. Affordability varies by user. For some, $10 a month is all they can afford, while others consider $35 doable. Local government leaders must learn what affordability means to those they represent.

Community groups are invaluable partners, Zacher noted, because they already work with folks on the other side of the digital divide. More on that later too, but in short, trusted groups outside government know what the people need. Looking upward, local government must take that data and make the case to state government about where funding should go.

“It’s not a top-down approach to solving the digital divide, but it’s something that’s a collaborative approach,” Zacher said. “We know it’s going to take community organizations, local governments and state governments all working together to solve this problem.”

Meanwhile, for state government, supporting this work goes far beyond simply dispersing funding to cities. Getting everyone connected — from students in cities to far-flung farmers — is a very complex undertaking.

'BUILD A REALLY BIG TENT': THE ROLE OF STATE GOVERNMENT


Alyssa Kenney is the bureau director for Wisconsin’s broadband digital and telecommunications access office, a role in which she also works on digital inclusion efforts throughout the state.

Wisconsin recently convened a statewide digital equity and inclusion stakeholder group that numbers about 50. That group consists of representatives from community organizations, school districts, libraries, universities, elected offices, state agencies and more.

“We build a really big tent, invite everyone in and listen carefully,” Kenney said of the role that state government plays.

In Kenney’s view there are three main contributions that Wisconsin — and other states working toward digital equity — are well-positioned to make, and these are grantmaking, convening partners and collecting data, be it around broadband affordability, need for devices, Internet take rates or connection speeds. The need for digital equity data is great — to wit, nearly every government official interviewed for this story mentioned working toward better data — and with federal data in this area lacking, the state must collect its own.

Kenney also noted that in the wake of the pandemic, a shift amid county and regional economic corporations is happening. Those groups have long advocated for broadband infrastructure, and many are now pivoting toward broadband accessibility. There has been a widespread realization that infrastructure is, of course, vital, but so too is ensuring that people can afford Internet once it’s available. Also important is digital literacy, or as it is increasingly being called, digital skills training.

Messaging and outreach matters too, and the type of messages that prove effective may vary by region. This has certainly been the case in Indiana, said Roberto Gallardo, who has worked on digital inclusion there for years. Gallardo is an associate professor at Purdue University, where he serves as the director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development. His 2016 book, Responsive Countryside: The Digital Age and Rural Communities, addressed digital equity in rural areas.

Gallardo helps rural communities in Indiana develop digital inclusion plans, and he said that in many of those areas, economic development messages are more effective for stressing the importance of digital equity.

“Digital inclusion is a social equity, social justice issue,” Gallardo said. “In my work, however, I’ve found it a little bit better to frame it around economic development.”

This means emphasizing to business leaders the benefits of connecting workers at home. It also means stressing that mom-and-pop businesses on Main Street will suffer if they don’t have the Internet and digital skills needed for e-commerce, with the pandemic serving as a fresh example of why that matters.

“A cookie-cutter approach of ‘this is a social justice issue’ will fly in some areas and not in others,” Gallardo said. “We have to be smart and say, ‘Let’s frame it differently.’ At the end of the day we want digital equity, and getting it is often about how we frame the issue.” 

How the issue is framed has changed across the country too, with the nation’s largest cities taking the lead on the aforementioned pivot from availability to accessibility, often doing so in ways that provide a blueprint for others.

'IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME IS AN ASSUMPTION': ACCESSIBILITY VS. AVAILABILITY


For years, digital equity as an issue has been framed around infrastructure, around a simple yes or no about whether broadband Internet was available in a given area.

This has changed as the country has seen its broadband infrastructure expanding, at times without a corresponding bump in people signing up for Internet. The simple yes or no question has branched off, now encompassing questions like how much does Internet cost, can people in a given community afford it, are speeds sufficient, do people have access to devices, do they have skills to use it in meaningful ways and more.

The New York City Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer is well aware of the evolving nature of digital equity work. Meghan McDermott is the office’s director of digital inclusion and partnerships, and in a recent conversation with GT, McDermott stressed that when access is provided, automatic inclusion is not assumed. Providing access is part of the work, but so too is addressing the systemic equity challenges that have caused exclusion. 

A key question for New York City is what are the systemic issues that make digital inclusion work necessary? As well as, who has been left on the other side of the digital divide and why? Answering these questions involves looking at historical disinvestments, including redlining and other ongoing racial inequities.

“This question of what is a digital equity outcome is really difficult to design, and until we do, we can’t really answer whether it’s successful,” McDermott said.

New York City is investing $157 million in infrastructure, and at the same time, the city’s digital inclusion staffers are focused on strategies to ensure access and adoption are intertwined. As a result, the office works closely with the city’s other task forces and commissions on racial equity. 

For a city the size of New York, this has led to working with diverse vendors for solutions that apply specifically to individual neighborhoods, said Aaron Meyerson, deputy CTO for broadband. 

“‘If you build it, they will come’ is an assumption,” Meyerson said. “If you build it, we need to make sure people are adopting it.”

Adoption is entwined with knowledge about how to use technology and how technology can improve life. Digital skills training workshops certainly help, but an emerging area of digital equity involves also making sure that digital city services are easy to use. That’s why human-centered design is important, said Katherine Benjamin, the office’s deputy CTO for digital services. Human-centered design in this instance means making sure digital tools are simple, intuitive and built with ample user testing. When done well, human-centered design lessens the digital skills training burden.

Digital skills training, however, is complicated by the pandemic, often conducted via in-person instruction, either individually or in classes. As the pandemic slowly subsides, in-person digital skills training is returning. Philadelphia, for example, is revamping its long-running KEYSPOT program, which puts computers and digital skills training classes in community centers, now with a private-sector investment by Verizon. 

Philadelphia is doing other digital equity work too — from its Digital Literacy Alliance grants to newer programs — and most of it revolves around incorporating human interaction into the work, said Juliet Fink-Yates, digital inclusion manager with the city. This applies to both classes as well as having digital navigators in organizations across the city trained on how to walk residents through available affordability programs.

This speaks to one of the other major pieces of government digital equity work — working with community partners who already have relationships with people who fall in the last mile of digital equity. 

'AN ARMY OF ADVOCATES': THE ROLE OF THE TRUSTED PARTNER

San Antonio, Texas, covers about twice the square miles of nearby Austin. It’s a large city, geographically, with many different communities, from densely populated to suburban or almost rural.

This variety creates a challenge for boosting digital equity. What works in dense downtown areas might not in farther-flung neighborhoods. Yet, nearly every digital equity expert GT interviewed pointed to San Antonio as an example of effective last-mile digital inclusion. The reason? San Antonio has worked for years to foster collaboration in the community.

This effort roughly started in 2016. San Antonio won a digital inclusion fellows grant that brought with it instruction from national experts on best practices and other digital inclusion work, and out of their advice, the Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio was born.

This group was the first partner network in the city but not the last. Now, there is also SA Digital Connects, a public-private partnership under the San Antonio Economic Development Corporation, bringing together more than 140 partners, including schools, the health-care industry, city departments, county departments, military groups, banks and an increasing number of other private-sector entities.

As SA Digital Connects Executive Director Marina Alderete Gavito likes to say, San Antonio “is building an army of advocates.”

Indeed, from the start in San Antonio, a partner-centric approach has been central. The idea is to share data, build outreach and create a coherent picture of digital inclusion in San Antonio, said Candelaria Mendoza, interim digital inclusion administrator for the city. This effort can help focus the work while at the same time build a unified case for the state when it disperses federal digital inclusion funds.

“We do feel that collaboration makes us stronger, and we’re putting that concept into practice,” Mendoza said. “So, we’re going to see how successful that can be. We have the momentum on our side, and now it’s just about getting money committed to our efforts so we can start doing the work.”

San Antonio is not alone. GT spoke with digital equity staffers nationwide, from Charlotte, N.C., to Chicago to Philadelphia, all of whom stressed that the government should leverage the ability to convene, manage and empower trusted community partners that work directly with people, often on other issues such as health care, housing and food assistance. 

In Charlotte, Bruce Clark is the executive director of Digital Charlotte, a group that was developed in 2015 for regional digital inclusion there. As in San Antonio and elsewhere, Charlotte has a digital inclusion alliance with a long list of partners.

“What we’ve been able to do by bringing everyone together is get us on the same page for how we collectively address these problems, how we develop these solutions and how we fund these solutions,” Clark said.

In Chicago, Devon Braunstein is a digital inclusion policy fellow with the city, and she keeps in regular contact with the digital inclusion network that has coalesced there. The groups Braunstein works with are able to convey information about government programs to residents while at the same time bringing information back to government decision-makers.

“Every time I talk to our community partners — on basically a weekly basis — I’m always learning something new,” Braunstein said, “and they provide the best perspective of what’s happening on the ground.”

Hal Woods, the chief of policy for the education advocacy group Kids First Chicago, helped Braunstein and others with the city build the Chicago Connected program, which is one of the most extensive local gov broadband accessibility efforts in the country. Working through the schools, it has helped to connect an estimated 64,000 Chicago students in 42,000 households during the pandemic. Chicago Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett said there are plans to expand that program to more students, as well as households without students.

Work of that scale is, of course, difficult, but Woods said cooperation is getting easier. In America’s cities, there is a growing sense of urgency and support, one that no longer requires explaining what the problem is or why it matters.

“There are times when we certainly feel like we’ve jumped on a bandwagon,” Woods said. “Some people have been doing this for 20 years, but lately, everyone has become incredibly appreciative of what everyone else brings to the table.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine