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New Orleans Uses Targeted Approach to Spread Tech Awareness, Improve Digital Equity

Often the people digital equity programs were designed to help assumed the initiatives were for someone else. So officials reached out to underrepresented populations and spread awareness that they, too, deserve a place in tech.

New Orleans has collected 28 Requests for Information (RFIs) stemming from its Promoting Pathways to Opportunity Challenge, an initiative aimed at gathering ideas to improve digital equity within the city — and now officials are conducting an ongoing review of proposals to determine which may be a fit.

New Orleans CIO Lamar Gardere told Government Technology that the challenge's ultimate goal is to bridge the digital divide in his city and increase technology use among historically under-represented groups. Gardere said there are many different programs in New Orleans that address facets of the digital divide — one around broadband, one that provides technology training, another for workforce development — but what officials have realized is that regardless of how numerous these programs are, it’s difficult to get residents to adopt them.

“It’s well-known that in technology, there are groups of folks that are underrepresented,” Gardere said. “African-Americans tend to be underrepresented, women tend to be underrepresented, minorities in general tend to be underrepresented in technology, and what that creates is this reticence to adopt a program that’s targeted at you.”

What Gardere and those he works with learned was that often the people digital equity programs were designed to help saw the initiatives and assumed they were for someone else. So, they took a more specific approach.

New Orleans is one of the most singular cities in the United States, rich with a creative culture and residents who fuel it through music and other expression. Broadband and Internet access is key, but what Gardere described is an initiative that reached out to under-represented populations and spread awareness that they, too, deserve a place in tech.

A songwriter for example, may be using digital resources to record and store music, but he or she may not realize that the skillset they’ve learned doing this is applicable to a job in digital media. Another example Gardere gave was using telemetry to record activity on a basketball court, and then having experts review findings with the players about how fast they ran, how high they jump, whether their footwork was correct. A chief idea driving the effort to improve digital equity in New Orleans has been to “leverage something that people already enjoy doing,” he said, so they feel comfortable participating in tech.

“It’s about things that you would be looking at to improve how well you’ve been performing in the thing you enjoy — basketball — and at the same time you’re analyzing data about a situation,” Gardere said. “Paired with the appropriate person, you are now learning how to do data analytics. You are more prepared than you think to be a data scientist, and we want folks to realize that. We want folks to imagine themselves in those roles that they are perfectly qualified for, but may not really realize they are qualified for.”

Gardere and Deputy CIO Sara Estes White compare this kind of approach to sneaking vegetables into a smoothie. Everyone likes a smoothie, and, if made properly, one can get the vegetables they need from it as well.

New Orleans is conducting an ongoing review of the 28 proposals from the RFI, and, depending on what they find, the future may involve fostering partnerships among participants, bringing some in to work with the city or offering services such as space to work in recreational facilities. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.