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How COVID-19 Drove Digital Equity Work in Southern California

The COVID-19 pandemic heightened the need to address the digital divide in the Los Angeles area. However, it also led to funding and collaboration opportunities for government agencies to combat the issue.

Despite the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic created, it also pushed governments forward in efforts to enhance digital equity. This ongoing push was a major topic of discussion during a session at the Los Angeles Virtual Digital Government Summit* this week.

Panelists at the “Digital Equity – The Great Imperative of Our Time” session discussed the obstacles and opportunities that were born out of the past year, exploring how it has shaped governments’ strategies.

The recent passing of the federal infrastructure bill in the Senate has spurred questions about its potential impact on the nation’s digital divide. While the progress of digital equity varies by state, the remaining gaps have been brought to the forefront during the pandemic.

In Southern California, officials in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas have worked to implement programs and partnerships to increase access to digital devices and services as well as increasing digital literacy — a fundamental component to digital equity.

Jeramy Gray, the county of Los Angeles’ chief deputy at the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, described technology as a social science, offering that the challenge is not only to provide access to an Internet-connected device, but also to enable individuals to use the devices to improve their quality of life.

The county has long offered technology literacy classes, free Wi-Fi, tutoring and more, he explained.

Los Angeles County Deputy CIO Jagjit Dhaliwal, echoed these sentiments, suggesting that agencies launching new services should take special care to ensure that community needs are being met and that the service is reaching its target audience.

One area the pandemic underscored was the importance of partnerships between government and organizations in the nonprofit, private and academic sectors.

Gray explained that the digital divide has existed for a long time but alleviating its impact has not always been the central focus of government with other pressing issues. However, he said, the COVID-19 pandemic gave the issue what he described as a “common sponsorship” from federal government partners, private-sector entities and local agencies.

When local government agencies were challenged with ensuring kids could access Internet so their education experience was not interrupted, he said, public and private partners offered their support.

Jeanne Holm, the deputy mayor of the budget and innovation office of Mayor Eric Garcetti for the city of Los Angeles, noted the importance of partnerships with private-sector entities like T-Mobile, Starry Internet and Microsoft, all of which helped expand Internet service.

Dhaliwal also highlighted the value of collaboration with people from different sectors, and he cited the value of partners in academia during the panel.

“We know that [the digital divide] is a very multidimensional problem, and very interconnected with other socioeconomic issues, so it is very important for us to work with our partners and other entities,” he said.

Long Beach CIO Lea Eriksen, said federal funding from the CARES Act had a big impact on the city’s strategy. She explained that by securing a million dollars through that source in the summer of 2020, the city was able to administer Wi-Fi hot spots and offer digital literacy training to low-income community members.

She also cited the importance of $1.8 million through the American Rescue Plan Act, which will allow the city to continue getting resources to those in the community who need it.

“For Long Beach … digital equity is not just inclusion, but also making sure that we design our technology solutions and our data privacy protections with equity in mind in order to reduce historic inequities and disparities,” she said.

Gray added that while the infrastructure bill recently passed by the Senate offers a significant funding amount, more needs to be done within the space of broadband connectivity to reach digital equity.

*The Los Angeles Virtual Digital Government Summit was hosted by Government Technology.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.