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Seattle's Changing IT Landscape Shifts to Internet Skills, Knowledge

While Internet access remains a priority, it is no longer the driving need behind tech projects being funded in Seattle.

Just last year, the city of Seattle handed out $320,000 in support of 10 community-based IT projects. And it was thanks to the Technology Matching Fund, which was founded in 1997 and has awarded over $4.2 million to 302 projects since 2008.

Looking back over the past year, and across two decades of community-IT funding, program leaders see a changing landscape. While access to Internet remains a priority, it is no longer the driving need behind these projects.

“There is more Internet for everybody and it is getting cheaper. Issues of cost are no longer the primary barrier in Seattle. The battle has shifted to skills and knowledge. People don’t know how to use the Internet effectively,” said Jim Loter, director of digital engagement, a division within Seattle IT. “The challenge now is in adoption, actually getting people to use the Internet effectively.”

Making connections

The city’s most recent survey, conducted in 2014, showed 85 percent of residents have some access to the Internet. Though that doesn’t solve the matter entirely, it does free up community leaders to focus on schemes that look beyond matters of connectivity.

That broader scope is evident among the 2016 grantees, with projects that put an increasing emphasis on the interpersonal nature of IT adoption.

Take for instance the Coalition for Refugees from Burma, which received $34,040 for a tech training program run in partnership with the Somali Youth and Family Club. “In immigrant communities, there is a need to have a trusted partner, a person who understands your needs,” said Delia Burke, the city’s technology matching fund manager.

In this case, the recipient is teaming with other groups to sponsor family talk times. “They bring people in, they have food," she said, "and through that one-on-one connection, they are giving people technology skills that meet that need."

In addition to building skills, the training engages parents with their kids’ tech-related academic needs, including Internet research and email for communication with teachers.

The 2016 recipients also showed a trend toward incorporating IT literacy as part of a larger service offering, moving beyond connectivity for its own sake.

An advocacy group for homeless youth, New Horizons drew $10,560 in funding for a program to train young people on Microsoft Office products, offering certification in partnership with Seattle Public Library.

“People will go to organizations to find resources, to help them find a job. That in turn can give them an introduction to the technology,” Burke said. “If they get some basic computer training along with these other services, that can be a very effective combination. In this case young people come in for basic needs, they may come in for a place to stay, but then they have also developed a small computer lab where kids can get certified in Microsoft Office.”

Non-traditional labs

Other grantees also focus on at-risk youth, including the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, which won $40,000 for a six-week summer university program serving 60 African-American middle- and high-school students. The Na’ah Illahee Fund also looked at an underserved population, winning $13,240 to support a year-long coding club for young women.

Program managers say another emerging trend has to do with a shift away from the traditional computer lab. The project by El Centro de la Raza is typical of the new approach: That group won $43,000 to develop a mobile computer lab as a way to engage more effectively with low-incoming youth and seniors who might not be able to travel to a conventional computer lab.

“In the static computer lab, people might take a class, but that information didn’t necessarily stay with them,” said Loter, adding that mobile labs are more convenient and can be augmented by programs that allow people to check out tablets in order to further develop their skills at home. “Now they have ways to follow up, so that the learning actually sticks.”

The Seattle Housing Authority is working along these lines with its Full Life Care program. It drew $44,640 in funding to support this effort, which aims to make mobile computer labs available to provide access and training in nine public housing communities.

“People really need technology where they live and where they work and where they are. So it’s an evolution away from the old model where people go to a place to learn the technology,” Burke said. “That is a critical need in public housing.”

Looking ahead, the matching-fund organizers say they would like to see more work along the lines of the New Horizons effort, where training leads not just to literacy, but to some tangible outcome.

“If someone walks out of a digital literacy program, they may know how to use computers, but they may have trouble translating that onto a resume,” Loter said. “So how do we take this digital literacy ecosystem up to the next level? We’d like there to be a way for organizations to do that, to develop common curricula or common credentialing that carries meaning and carries weight in the private sector.”

Applications for Seattle’s 2017 matching grants will be due in the spring.

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.