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Philadelphia Funds Digital Literacy to Prep for the Census

With the 2020 Census deadline growing closer, the city will use its digital inclusion grant-making program to educate citizens about the importance of being counted, and to help train census workers.

Philadelphia’s Digital Literacy Alliance — a coalition that works to ensure city residents have access to technology and the skills to use it — will focus its annual grant-making on the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census.

This mark’s the Alliance’s third round of grant making, having previously given out a total of $350,000 — generally between $10,000 and $25,000 — to community groups, schools and others who work toward digital equity. According to Andrew Buss, Philadelphia’s deputy CIO for innovation management, a change made this year will concentrate efforts on the forthcoming census.

In coming months, the city will give roughly $200,000 to push digital literacy and help with census counting. Examples include: educating citizens on why they should get counted, or preparing census workers for the unique challenges of 2020, which marks the nation’s first digital census. The grants will be between $10,000 and $25,000 for single applicants, with up to $40,000 available for collaborative efforts. The city will spend the next couple of months soliciting proposals, with the first recipients to be announced in August.

Linking digital literacy and census preparation makes sense since this is the nation's first digital collection of information about its population. But there are other reasons too. Statistically, the percentage of people Philadelphia estimates went uncounted in the 2010 Census is roughly equivalent to the number of its residents who don’t have high-speed Internet connections at home, said Stephanie Reid, who is leading the city’s census work as the executive director of Philly Counts 2020.

That doesn’t mean that it’s the same people, however. Reid noted that a key factor in a successful count is understanding the unique qualities of communities, and in that context, those numbers are important to think about.

Organizers aren’t entirely sure which projects — and their organizations — to back with the grants. Both Reid and Buss said that receiving creative ideas that hadn’t yet occurred to the city would be an ideal scenario. One thing Philadephia will be looking for is census-related digital literacy projects that have the potential to continue developing the city’s digital inclusion infrastructure — now roughly eight years in the making — after the census has ended. This could, for example, take the form of a new public computer lab aimed at helping census workers complete digital training that would transition into helping community members learn computing skills they could use to boost their employment prospects.

“It would be a real shame to have all these resources for a year and a half, but when the census is over, everything goes away," said Reid.

The census is always an important undertaking that can impact both how many congressional seats a given region has and how much funding it gets from the federal government. Philadelphia, for example, receives $3.3 billion from the federal government, all of which is dependent on the census. A substantial undercounting could cost the city vital money for crucial tasks like repairing roads.

One area of concern this year is training census workers. According to Reid, these workers need to be intimately familiar with the communities they are working to count; they need to know the culture, the vernacular, and the other little things that someone from elsewhere cannot. In order to work with this first digital census, individuals must complete 14 hours of webinar training on their own, all of which must be done on a computer, rather than a tablet or phone.

This can be a major challenge in neighborhoods with a low percentage of residents who have access to broadband at home. To that end, Philadelphia is currently identifying computer labs in neighborhoods that people can use.

These are just some of the challenges Philadelphia faces. The city must keep things local while adhering to federal requirements, all with substantially less funding than they had in 2010. Tech can be a blessing when it comes to counting more Internet-savvy residents, but also a challenge for those on the wrong side of the digital divide.

More information about applying for the Digital Literacy Alliance’s new round of grants can be found on its website.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.