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The Quest for Digital Equity

A look at the evolution of the challenge to ensure advances in technology bring benefits to everyone.

Connectivity, most agree, is pretty important to modern life. Perhaps no entity is more aware of how unevenly it’s distributed than government.

For many years, this concern was known as the digital divide, and, for the most part, it referred to whether populations had access to hardware, specifically to computers. As technology evolved and became more complex and nuanced, however, so too did the breadth of this concern. Now, discussion of the digital divide is framed in terms of whether a population has access to hardware, to the Internet, to viable connection speeds and to the skills they need to effectively use it. As such, the nomenclature has also changed, with a national conversation that now frames the matter as one of digital equity.

Digital equity refers to whether people can access and effectively use the technology necessary to participate in modern society. Another phrase, “digital inclusion,” denotes efforts to remedy deficits in digital equity. Simply put, digital equity is what cities and states want, and digital inclusion is the work they and their partners are doing to create it.

Advocates for digital equity, as well as many public servants within governmental tech and innovation departments, stress that this issue has grown into one that is vital for the success of our communities, and it will become even more important as technology continues to advance and services continue to migrate online. Overcoming major obstacles — such as having to travel to a public library to use it or lacking the skills to find resources and forms — positively impacts communities, leading to kids doing better in school, senior citizens having an easier time receiving health care, and adults being able to get and keep better jobs, said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit group that advocates for digital equity.

For businesses, digital equity means a better and more competitive workforce. For taxpayers, it means being part of a community where everyone is equipped to thrive, to contribute and to succeed. While there is still hesitation to support aggressive digital inclusion efforts by some within government, particularly at the federal level, Siefer said the matter is presenting our nation with a weighty question.

“Where does the United States want to be in this regard?” Siefer said. “Do we want to be leaders? Do we want to make sure everybody has access, because we know that it lifts everyone — the same way it does when people have access to electricity? If everybody has a telephone, it’s more valuable. If everyone has access to the Internet, the Internet itself becomes more valuable. Or do we want to just get by, because that’s basically what we’re doing now. We’re just getting by and that’s fine, for some of us. Some of us, however, have to use our parent’s mobile phones to do homework. So, what do we want that to look like in the future?”

Basically we know technology and its associated capabilities will continue to accelerate and evolve, but the question is what can we do in the face of that to minimize the number of people being left behind?

The State of Digital Equity

There are, essentially, two major issues within digital equity. The first is access to digital infrastructure. This largely affects rural areas, and it relates to whether residents have broadband available where they live. The second is access to sufficient speeds and to digital services, which addresses whether citizens have the money or knowledge they need to effectively use and benefit from technology.

It can often be hard to quantify these issues in order to get a read on the current state of digital equity in the country, Siefer said. Data about Internet usage, connection speeds and cost of services must be provided by private telecommunications companies, and the data required of them by the FCC is far from comprehensive or precise.

With this in mind, digital equity advocates point to the Home Broadband 2015 report by the Pew Research Center as the most comprehensive data about the state of digital equity. In that report, researchers found that broadband access has essentially plateaued, and that the number of Americans with it at home actually decreased to 67 percent from 70 percent in 2013. A second major finding in the report was that the decrease in high-speed Internet within the home has corresponded to an increase of adults who can only access the Internet through a smartphone, and that smartphone adoption — which is at 68 percent of Americans overall — is roughly equivalent to the number of Americans who have broadband at home. Of that group, 13 percent only have smartphones, which represents a 5 percent increase from 2013.

Awareness that gaps in digital equity exist is a shrinking problem, but still, Siefer said, there are times when government’s push toward cheaper and more efficient online services can leave segments of the population behind.

“Online services, whether they’re provided by the government or a for-profit or a nonprofit, there are often assumptions made that everyone is online,” Siefer said. “Take GED [General Education Development] tests. In many states now, it’s all online. You can’t take your GED test on paper, which seems really logical, but if you haven’t used a mouse and the whole thing just intimidates you, what will that do to your score? Digital skills impact — as a society — these systems that we’ve set up.”

True digital inclusion, then, means ensuring that broadband Internet is available and affordable for everyone, and that everyone has access to relevant skills training.

Nonprofits and Libraries

When the recession hit in 2008, libraries in Portland, Ore., were inundated with people who had been pushed out of the workforce and had never before used a computer to apply for a job. In response, the city government in Portland teamed with libraries to offer a grant program around providing laptops to these job seekers.

This is an example of a library spotting a need for digital inclusion work in a community and the government there helping to support the library in addressing the issue, and this model has largely become a guidepost for Portland’s expanding digital equity efforts.

Fostering comprehensive digital inclusion is a massive and complex undertaking, to be sure, and while it’s a relatively new one for many jurisdictions, most areas of the country have existing outreach organizations, such as libraries, which have been doing the work for some time. The potential that community groups and libraries have in digital inclusion is easy to see in Portland. In 2016, Portland crafted its Digital Equity Action Plan (DEAP), which grew from a joint effort between the municipal government, the Multnomah County government and the Multnomah County Library. Members of those groups, as well as from other organizations in the community, came together to form Portland’s Digital Inclusion Network, which is now working closely to help the DEAP come to fruition.

Rebecca Gibbons, the digital equity program coordinator for Portland, and Julie S. Omelchuck, a program manager with the city who has been heavily involved in the DEAP, said both the network and the plan came after the library identified a need for better digital inclusion. The library is now primarily tasked with overseeing the implementation of Portland’s DEAP, while the city has tried to embrace a less direct role in digital inclusion efforts.

“Our approach here has really been that the city’s role is to facilitate relationships and capacity-building of our libraries and nonprofits, and we’re really trying to augment their efforts,” Omelchuck said. “They’re the on-the-ground providers. They’re the organizations that really know what their constituencies need, and they’re the ones who are going to be providing classes and doing outreach and working one-on-one with folks that are having a difficult time getting online for whatever reason.”

The city has worked diligently to incorporate participation of nonprofit community groups such as Human Solutions, which works to provide low-income and homeless families with housing, and Free Geek, which refurbishes discarded electronic devices to give back to those who need them in the name of digital inclusion. This capacity as a convening and supporting body is gaining ground with many governments.

State and Local Governments

Digital equity issues vary by region, and, as a result, so too does the work that state and local governments are doing to address them. Taking a look, however, at some of the more mature efforts can start to bring into focus the work happening all over.

Boston, like Portland, has hired a staff member within the city to focus expressly on digital equity. Anne Schwieger’s official title is broadband and digital equity advocate, and for the past two years she has worked with people across the city to make fast and affordable broadband available for everyone in Boston.

In Boston, as in many cities engaged in digital inclusion, the local government’s efforts have been varied. In October, the city launched a digital equity fund that aims to fund individuals and communities that are engaged in the digital skill-building part of this work, including the libraries and community groups that are already working to teach people how to more effectively use the Internet and computers. This fund is managed by a group of individuals involved in workforce development, local economic development, innovation, education, the media and social justice. The idea behind the fund is to ensure that as technology continues to advance, no one who lives in the city will be left behind. In the first year, money for the fund came from the city’s operating budget, and officials are currently exploring options to support it moving forward.

Boston is also a great example of an urban area where broadband is available to everyone, but cost acts as a barrier for a certain segment of the community. Schwieger said that the city’s approach is that fostering affordable access to broadband and providing opportunities for skills training are all part of the same inclusive ecosystem. The city has worked hard to create conditions that enable private investment in broadband to flourish by incorporating digital infrastructure considerations into its permitting processes. One example of this is a questionnaire in the proposal stage of construction that seeks to proactively ensure that developers are considering broadband in their plans.

“We see it as all fitting together,” Schwieger said, “and we really believe that you can’t have one without the other. We see digital equity as foundational to all of the things we care about as a city as they relate to access opportunities in educational spheres, workforce spheres. It’s just something that’s profoundly foundational to all of our other priorities.”

Seattle, meanwhile, has long been a pioneer in terms of municipal digital equity efforts, and much of the work done there has inspired or influenced that done in other cities, including Boston and Portland. David Keyes was the first community tech planner hired by a city government in the country back in 1997. He’s still with the city today and has remained heavily involved with digital inclusion efforts. Also, the city recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Technology Matching Fund, which helps community groups provide tech and skills training to those in need, by increasing its financial commitment to it.

“There have been a nice mix of things happening here,” said Chance Hunt, community technology manager for Seattle, “partially because we have the technology sector here and the philanthropy.”

What has emerged in Seattle is a picture of what funding for state and local digital inclusion work may look like in the future. Funding comes from a patchwork of sources, including philanthropy, negotiated franchise deals with telecommunications companies and other sources.

“Private dollars or public dollars or franchise or regulatory fee dollars all by themselves are probably not going to cut it moving into the future,” Hunt said. “Getting more creative in developing our funding structures and the various sources that we pull funding from, I think that’s definitely where we need to go, and there are some examples — Nashville is one of them — that start to point toward much more public-private partnership to develop a supportive environment that will be conducive to this sort of work in the future.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.