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What’s New in Civic Tech: Microsoft Funds Digital Skills Ed

Plus, how human-centered design helped city officials in Seattle massive increase testing for COVID-19, the U.S. Senate introduces a new $100 billion broadband infrastructure bill, and more.

Atlanta skyline and Interstate 75 and 85.
Atlanta skyline and Interstate 75 and 85.
A new program dubbed Accelerate: Atlanta aims to help underserved communities in that city learn digital skills that can boost regional economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program is a cross-sector effort between Atlanta, Microsoft and list of other partners such as Accenture, as well as the education organizations, General Assembly, OpenClassrooms and Tech Bridge. Microsoft announced the Atlanta effort this week with a press release, billing it as “the first of many city-focused digital skills and employment partnerships designed to upskill and increase employability.”

When it comes to closing the nation’s digital divide — which is the term used to describe a situation in which portions of the population are being left out of technological advancement in society — there are often three main areas: access to devices, Internet connectivity and digital skills training. Digital skills training, essentially, means possessing the knowledge to use devices and connectivity in a meaningful way that benefits one's life, be it from increasing employment opportunities, accessing healthcare or bolstering education. 

The new Accelerate: Atlanta program is intended to be the first of a global digital skills initiative from Microsoft, which has stated intentions to help as many as 25 million people globally acquire digital skills by the end of this year. Areas of focus in the effort include helping with digital fluency when it comes to keeping up with newer tech work such as AI and machine learning.

To do so, Microsoft is investing more than $1 million in Accelerate: Atlanta, going toward cash grants to Atlanta-based nonprofits that are led by or actively serving Black communities.

“Through Accelerate: Atlanta, Microsoft and its partners will help close the digital divide and ensure there is a place for everyone in our shared future,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in the press release. “The road to economic recovery must begin with pathways to opportunity that are inclusionary and accessible to all. This is more than an initiative — this is an investment in underserved and underrepresented communities that will equip our residents with skills to compete in a modern workforce, while at the same time grow our middle class.”

Human-Centered Design Helped Seattle Increase Testing for COVID-19

Deploying human-centered design approaches — the type that have taken hold rapidly within government agencies in recent years — was key in Seattle increasing its testing for COVID-19, according to a new blog.

The effort was led in part by Leah Tivoli, who is a manager with Seattle city hall’s innovation team, which is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Bloomberg authored the blog detailing the effort, noting that in that capacity Tivoli had been trained in human-centered design, which means in the most basic sense, designing processes that have in mind the needs of the humans who use them. In this case, that meant considering the experience of the people being tested for COVID-19.

A team in Seattle worked with public- and private-sector partners to double the city’s capacity in a span of two weeks, creating two new locations for tests that are able to test as many as 700 people each day spread across a six-day week. 

There were several things stemming from customer feedback inherent to human-centered design that made this increase possible, and the list includes choosing locations wisely, starting small and scaling up, making sign-up easy via a page on the city’s website, and continuing to collect customer feedback in a way that supported improvements to the testing process.

Another vital component was partnerships, which is a trend for local governments trying to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 crisis. The Seattle testing effort saw the city working with the University of Washington, a U.S. Digital Response team and a software company called Solv, among others.

U.S. Senate Introduces New $100 Billion Broadband Infrastructure Bill

The U.S. Senate has introduced new legislation that would invest $100 billion in broadband infrastructure with an emphasis on helping to fund added connectivity for health-care providers.

The bill — dubbed the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act — is a companion to a bill introduced recently in the U.S House of Representatives. The new bill calls specifically for encouraging universal broadband access by investing $80 billion in deploying high-speed broadband infrastructure, spending an addition $5 billion in low-interest financing for deployment through a loan program and creating a new office within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that would oversee the use of the money. 

Another component of the bill is ensuring affordable Internet by requiring affordable options for Internet service within all newly built infrastructure, offering a $50 monthly discount for low-income residents and directing the Federal Communications Commission to publicize data on price changes throughout the nation.

Finally, there are also provisions in the bill aimed at promoting Internet adoption, and these include investing $1 billion in grant programs at the state level, spending $5 billion to help students without Internet at home get access in order to benefit from remote learning, and funding Wi-Fi on school buses, with an emphasis on rural areas where longer bus rides are common.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.