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Philadelphia Announces Digital Equity Grants for Census Work

Philadelphia has awarded digital equity grants to eight community groups that are working to foster Census completion in communities that are traditionally hard to count. The grants range in size from $13,000 to $40,000.

As the country prepares for the 2020 Census — which will have a lasting impact on everything from federal funding to political representation — local governments and nonprofit groups find themselves grappling with two overlapping challenges.

For the first time ever, the Census will be high-tech. Respondents can complete a paper form, but the emphasis is now on responding online, thereby creating a burden of responsibility on government resources such as libraries, which work to help citizens who lack Internet access or the skills to use it. At the same time, cities must work to help count groups that traditionally do not self-respond to the Census, a list that includes seniors and immigrant populations, among others. These challenges overlap because the populations most likely to lack Internet are the same as those statistically unlikely to respond to the Census. 

In fact, at the recent CityLabDC event — a global summit among the premier gatherings of major stakeholders in world cities — Census expert Terri Ann Lowenthal discussed these challenges and others facing the 2020 count.

“Every Census has its challenges, every Census has its controversies,” Lowenthal said. “I am particularly worried the 2020 Census is facing an unprecedented set of challenges that could thwart this Census.”

Last week, however, one city took a major step toward alleviating the digital equity challenge, in the process potentially creating a blueprint that other major cities can learn from. Philadelphia did this by rewarding its 2019 Digital Literacy Alliance Grants entirely to community groups working to encourage participation in the Census.

What emerged from the chosen winners was essentially a checklist of ideas other local governments might consider in their own communities.

For example, Philadelphia awarded one grant to a group called Center in the Park, which is focused on the senior population. Another recipient was a joint project between Temple University and Liberty Resources Inc., an academic-private-sector collaboration aiming to leverage those entities’ shared status as disability advocates to help count Philadelphians with disabilities — especially those in low-income or marginalized populations. 

Other groups in Philadelphia that received grants to aid digital equity work in the service of the Census include Asian Americans United, the refugee-support group SEAMAAC, and Africom, which will conduct Census outreach to African and Caribbean immigrants through social venues such as natural hair-braiding shops, restaurants and grocery stores.

Andrew Buss, who is Philadelphia’s deputy CIO within its Office of Innovation and Technology, said the grants were particularly focused on encouraging collaborations between groups that operate in the same space and seek to largely help the same populations, collaborations that might last past the Census. Using the Census as a starting point for lasting digital equity work in communities has become a shared goal for cities across the country. More information about each recipient can be found here.

All told, Philadelphia’s grants were a tangible step toward accomplishing something nearly every major city in the country is talking about this fall — supporting trusted, pre-existing groups in communities to encourage residents to complete the Census and potentially pick up computer skills and experience along the way. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.