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What’s New in Civic Tech: Philadelphia’s Digital Equity Plan

Plus, the National League of Cities announces the innovation projects that have won its 2021 Capstone Challenge; applications are now open for a pair of digital inclusion grant programs in Maryland; and more.

The Philadelphia downtown skyline at dusk.
Philadelphia, Pa.
Shutterstock/Sean Pavone
Philadelphia has released its first-ever digital equity plan, which covers the next five years and is accompanied by an executive order also aimed at addressing the digital divide.

The plan is exactly as it sounds — an organized set of key goals and strategies that work to overcome the inequities that contribute to the city’s digital divide. Within this framework, the plan addresses issues related to Internet affordability as well as access to broadband and the devices one needs to use broadband.

Other barriers the plan will work to overcome include language, limited digital skills, disabilities, and more.

“While digital equity has remained a focus for the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) for over 10 years, the pandemic has forced the consequences of the digital divide into day-to-day life for residents,” Philadelphia officials noted in a statement to the press. “To address the barriers in Philadelphia, the city created this overarching plan to serve as a roadmap for digital equity for the next five years.”

The mayor’s executive order has enabled the creation of this plan, which has four key goals: make sure that residents can access devices, make sure residents can afford Internet connections, help residents develop the skills they need for an increasingly digitized society and grow a citywide infrastructure that continues to foster digital equity in perpetuity.

Some of Philadelphia’s existing and longtime digital inclusion efforts are also rolled into this plan. Specifically, the new plan calls for attention on programs such as PHLConnectED, Digital Navigators and the city’s network of public computing centers. There is also a part of the plan that encourages collaboration with the state government on digital equity needs, which means distribution of federal dollars coming in part through the recent infrastructure legislation. Finally, the plan encourages forming new public-private partnerships in order to engage more community stakeholders with digital inclusion.

The new digital equity plan was created by Philadelphia’s OIT with input from community members, advocates and others throughout the city.

Digital equity and digital inclusion have increasingly become a priority for state and local governments the nation over. Society has digitized at an unprecedented pace in recent years, making access to the Internet and the skills to use it in meaningful ways absolutely vital. As Philadelphia officials noted in their announcement, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 highlighted the inequities inherent to the digital divide, with underserved communities left disproportionately vulnerable as the virus forced everyone to stay home. (Zack Quaintance)

NLC ANNOUNCES THE WINNERS OF 2021 CAPSTONE CHALLENGE


The National League of Cities has selected two projects to receive an award for demonstration of innovation and impact in the 2021 Capstone Challenge.

The two projects selected were titled Enhancing City Responsiveness to Resident Service Requests, led by Accela, and Bringing Affordable, Reliable Broadband to All Residents Through GIS, led by Esri.

The announcement follows a six-month pilot program, which began in June 2021, that connected strategic partners to local leaders for projects that benefit member municipalities, involving eight strategic partners and 17 municipalities.

One winning project, led through a partnership between Accela and the city of Madison, Wis., simplified the process for residents to communicate issues and needs to the city. The project involved upgrading five highly used forms for problem reporting with Accela software, enabling automated task assignments and simplified progress tracking.

The other winning project was a collaboration between Esri and the cities of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Butte-Silver Bow, Mont.; and Purcellville, Va. The primary goal of this project was to pave the way for cities to expand broadband infrastructure by offering a mobile app to crowdsource Internet speed tests from households. The cities used Esri’s Social Equity Analysis solution to map and analyze the data collected to better understand how vulnerable populations may be impacted by gaps. (Julia Edinger)

APPLICATIONS OPEN FOR DIGITAL EQUITY AND INCLUSION FUNDING IN MARYLAND


The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) announced applications are open for two separate digital equity and inclusion grant opportunities: the Connected Communities Grant Program and the Digital Inclusion Grant Program. There is a total of $7 million in funding available.

The first program provides grants to assist in creating or building upon community-based gap networks that aim to address affordability issues. The second program aims to support digital inclusion planning and programming to expand digital literacy.

Both programs are being offered by the DHCD through the Office of Statewide Broadband. Applications can be submitted until March 15, 2022. However, because the window may be closed earlier if applications exceed the total funding available, interested applicants should apply early. More information on the programs and applications can be found on DHCD’s website. (Julia Edinger)

DO YOU WANT TO WORK ON EQUITY IN CALIFORNIA?


Finally, the California Government Operations Agency (GovOps) team is currently looking to hire a chief equity officer.

The chief equity officer would be part of the GovOps leadership team, with a focus on developing and evolving a statewide equity framework. Chief equity officer positions are becoming increasingly common in state and local government agencies, and while the amount of interaction with tech and innovation work can vary, these roles are increasingly asked to partner with digital inclusion efforts.

Applications for this role are available now through CalCareers. (Zack Quaintance)
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.