Local governments are taking an increasingly active role in providing equitable tech opportunities to all citizens.
They call Austin, Texas, the Silicon Hills, for the curvature of its geography and the prevalence of tech companies on its north side, and indeed the city lives up to that reputation.
Texas’ capital has modern jobs, hip restaurants and bars, and an educated and creative young workforce. All of this has led to an influx of new citizens to Travis County, landing Austin atop the list of America’s fastest growing metro areas, which, of course, is a wonderful thing for a city. But Austin also frequently finds itself near the top of a more dubious list, that of the most economically segregated municipalities in the country. In other words, not all of Austin’s population shares in the ongoing gains being made, which, of course, is not so wonderful.
Aware of this dichotomy, Austin city officials and community leaders have long sought to stem the growth of economic disparity by providing equal access to technology. For many years, such efforts have been known nationwide as bridging the digital divide, and they’ve largely sought to ensure all citizens have access to computers and the Internet. Recently, however, the issue has grown more nuanced and complex.
Access to high-speed Internet is no longer the sole measure of whether citizenry has equal digital opportunity, as such access is now readily available via smartphones and other devices. As a result, the issue now seeks to address whether all populations have equitable access to things like tech training, high-speed Internet at home, and education that emphasizes the importance of going online to apply for jobs, finish homework, access better and more efficient medical care, and do the millions of other things enabled by the Web.
As such, the phrases "digital equity" and "digital inclusion" are now being used to frame the discussion. Digital equity is what cities want; digital inclusion is how they obtain it. Initiatives that fall under this umbrella still include old digital divide stuff like getting computers into low-income neighborhoods, but they also increasingly entail skills training, support programs and guarantees of meaningful Internet access.
This semantic shift is making it easier for nonprofits and city programs to proliferate around the cause, said Angela Siefer, director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the leading group in the matter.
“The reason is because there are so many digital divides,” Siefer said. “You might close one divide, but there’s another that pops up tomorrow.”
The group is also curating other proliferation efforts, including the first ever Digital Inclusion Week, which wrapped up Friday, May 12. This week has galvanized related efforts across the country, both in cities like Austin that have long been aware of the need for the work, as well as cities a little newer to the game.
The week has given Siefer an excellent opportunity to take stock of all the organizations and agencies across the country working on digital equity, and she said one of the most surprising revelations was that an increasing number of local governments are joining the effort. She was aware of early trailblazers — Austin, Portland, Ore., and Seattle, as well as Kansas City, Mo., which jumped in more recently — but about 10 other cities now qualify for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s list of forward-thinking local governments.
“We were totally surprised by that, until we started having this party and they invited themselves,” Siefer said. “That was awesome, because we do need them to be intricately involved.”
A brief series of discussions with city officials who are involved with digital inclusion in Austin, Boston, Cleveland, Kansas City, Louisville, Ky., and Philadelphia has found a familiar trajectory for cities active in digital inclusion efforts. In all of them, local governments found that nonprofit groups and public libraries had been on the front lines of such efforts for years.
They also found a wide swath of seemingly unrelated city agencies were starting to take notice of digital equity, including housing authorities, health departments, school districts and more. Rick Usher, Kansas City’s assistant city manager for small business and entrepreneurship, said his city’s health department has a community improvement plan so heavily steeped in digital issues, “it almost reads like a digital equity plan itself, because it’s more focused on economic mobility, education and employment, than it is health.”
Basically, they’ve found digital inclusion is so important to the well-being of the population that those who lack it are at a significant disadvantage in nearly all facets of life.
“The digital divide is extremely hard to just define as one thing,” Usher said, “because so many of the things we do are online, and we’re also seeing that nationally and globally more people are accessing online through smartphones.”
Funding and federal grants were also viewed by the cities as vital to such efforts, though John Speirs, the digital inclusion program manager for Austin, said funding isn’t everything, and having qualified people to teach skills is a challenge as well.
In Cleveland, the city council used Digital Inclusion Week to hold a meeting about digital equity. Councilman Brian Cummins said efforts in his city are being led by long-established community organizations and others, but the local government is increasingly aware of the importance.
“Inclusion is an issue that can almost be described as the tail wagging the dog,” Cummins said, “or the poor cousin to the sexier tech data stuff.”
Officials in Boston have made digital equity a foundational goal, appointing Anne Schwieger as a designated city broadband and digital equity advocate, a role few local governments have created, at least so far. Schwieger said local governments have a unique ability to create better infrastructure and utility circumstances that can foster digital inclusion. Boston, she said, has worked to ensure that all new construction is broadband ready. They’ve also undertaken efforts to give citizens more choice in Internet service providers.
“The important work related to digital inclusion has been happening for decades, and the people who have been working in that field are incredible leaders and very important progress has been made,” Schwieger said. “Local government has realized across the country more and more that the present condition of our broadband ecosystem will not enable us to reach the goals that we say are important to us related to innovation, equity, opportunity, economic growth, which is why positions like mine have come into being.”
One interesting concept that emerged from discussing the efforts in these cities was a copycat effect. When Austin does something, officials in Louisville, Ky., take notice. Ed Blayney, Louisville’s innovation project manager, said he reached out to the housing authority in his city after learning Austin had done the same.
Louisville takes from other cities while developing unique initiatives of its own. For example, the city noticed its Russell Neighborhood lacked a comfortable, hip coffee shop, the type where people use Wi-Fi all day and discuss startup ventures. To compensate, Louisville worked on a pilot program for a physical space called the PNC Gigabit Experience Center, complete with the modern furniture one expects from tech-friendly locales.
Louisville used National Digital Inclusion Week to launch that site and roll out its first official inclusion plan.
“There’s just a lot of good stuff coming, and I think this is really the start of something big,” Blayney said. “Unfortunately, now we’ve got something else that can make us inequitable. If you don’t have access to the Internet, it’s a problem. It’s a problem that’s going to affect outcomes for people.”