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SXSW 2019: Nation’s Mayors Consider Who's Left Behind Online

Kami Griffiths of the Community Tech Network moderated a discussion Friday morning at South by Southwest, offering talking points and soliciting input from city leaders on the future of digital inclusion.

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Digital inclusion has increasingly become a vital focus for municipal governments in recent years as more services migrate online, with cities rapidly moving their processes from paper-based to digital.

The risk, however, becomes that segments of a city’s population will be left behind, lacking access, willingness, or the ability to embrace new technologies. At the Civic I/O event Friday during South by Southwest, this issue and the associated challenges took center stage, with an entire room of mayors from across the country discussing their jurisdictions’ challenges, progress and prospects for fostering digital equity.

The discussion was moderated by Kami Griffiths, executive director of the San Francisco-based digital inclusion group Community Tech Network, who is also a board member of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Griffiths started off by noting some key facts, including that information from a Pew survey shows that as many as 40 percent of residents older than 65 don’t have broadband Internet access in their homes.

Older residents are not the only population at a statistically greater risk of missing out on digital services. Constituents with a high school diploma or lower education level are also less likely to have access, as are residents of underserved geographic areas and lower income levels. This all matters quite a bit to mayors, who across the country are working to create new apps, platforms and other digital projects to better serve populations.

“The reasons why people aren’t connecting are that they can’t afford Internet, they don’t know why it’s relevant to them, they don’t know how to use it, they’re afraid to use it, or they think they’re too old to learn,” Griffiths told the mayors. “All of those people are not going to be using the tools you’re creating.”

A clear majority of mayors in the room — who hailed from a diverse range of cities, spanning from Shreveport, La., to Albuquerque, N.M. — had stories about efforts undertaken to make their communities more digitally equitable, be it through classes offered at libraries, working with big telecommunications companies to ensure they offer high-speed Internet infrastructure to low-income neighborhoods, or simply designing their websites in a way that makes them accessible for users with visual impairment or other disabilities.

In Albuquerque, for example, Mayor Tim Keller noted that the city is working to bolster the strength of the free Wi-Fi at its community centers so that it becomes available to nearby residents.

“If you happen to live near a community center, hey, you get free Internet,” Keller said. “We’re OK with that.”

Overall, a picture emerged as a group of municipal leaders with a clear understanding not only of what technology can do to bolster their communities, but also of the importance of ensuring that their communities have a solid handle on that tech. Discussion centered on this plight was not overly rosy — indeed, much of it centered on how digital work is subject to the same long-standing problems with lack of participation or inequity that have plagued local government for years — but understanding, however, is rapidly improving.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine