IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Digital Equity Is Having a Moment. What Happens When It Ends?

Even as digital inclusion was celebrating a peak in interest, long-time practitioners in the space were preparing for what comes next and stressing the importance of thinking sustainability.

People gathered at tables in a large conference room for Net Inclusion 2023.
Net Inclusion 2023 in San Antonio.
Zack Quaintance.
Digital equity is having a moment, but what happens when that moment ends? This was a big question at Net Inclusion.

Held this week in San Antonio, the event is the nation’s premiere gathering of digital equity and inclusion practitioners. The event itself was a testament to the national momentum in the space, having attracted a presidential cabinet secretary and seeing its attendance balloon to more than 800 people, up from last year’s previous high of 330. With the pandemic as proof, the entire country seemed to be acknowledging that Internet and digital literacy were now a basic need.

The federal government has even ponied up $65 billion in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to help get Americans connected, with $2.75 billion going specifically to digital equity, while the rest goes mostly toward broadband. The fact the money is a literal one-time payment — not to mention the fickle nature of the human attention span — had those in attendance asking “what happens when the limelight fades?”

Angela Siefer is the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the organizer of Net Inclusion as well as a good deal of the digital inclusion work happening in the United States generally. Siefer took the stage on day one, amid the sort of raucous cheering reserved for movie stars in a packed ballroom.

While acknowledging the success the work has had post-pandemic, Siefer brought a bit of sobering reality.

“How do we keep this going?” she asked. “We can’t be like, ‘this is our moment’ forever.”

The answer, Siefer said, is to figure out what the work needs to live on, specifically how practitioners can create “sustained, robust digital inclusion ecosystems in every community.”

Digital inclusion ecosystems is a concept that the NDIA has already defined. And the definitions the NDIA creates in the space have a history of becoming official, with their meaning for digital inclusion now codified federally as part of the IIJA.

The group defines a digital inclusion ecosystem as “a combination of programs and policies that meet a geographic community’s unique and diverse needs. Coordinating entities work together in an ecosystem to address all aspects of the digital divide, including affordable broadband, devices and skills.”

Many communities have digital inclusion ecosystems and have for a good while. The work that comes next for digital inclusion is strengthening them. The NDIA also offers guidance on what makes a digital inclusion ecosystem strong.

This includes having programs and policies that address all of the aspects for the digital divide, including affordable and subsidized broadband as well as device ownership. There should also be multilingual digital literacy and skills training available, tech support and digital navigators to guide residents in all of the above. Finally, there needs to be collaboration on digital inclusion work between policymakers, advocates, social service groups, community leaders and, really, anyone else in a given community that holds public sway.

Another absolutely key thing for continuing digital inclusion work long term is data. And not data that shows people why the Internet is important — that question has been answered — but rather data about the specifics of digital equity programs in a community. To keep this work strong and thriving past its moment, Siefer said practitioners need data around how digital equity programs work, why they work, and who is benefiting from them.

That last question is perhaps the most crucial, as its answer is likely to lead to continued interest and funding. Who benefits from digital inclusion work? The answer is most — if not all — of the nation’s biggest industries: health care, education, telecommunications and even retail.

“Is retail in here yet?” Siefer asked the 800-plus people at Net Inclusion. There was little reaction. “That’s about to change.”

Essentially, the more people who are able to be online, the more people that can participate in e-commerce. It’s a simple equation, but it’s one with the potential to motivate the nation’s most profitable and powerful companies to support digital inclusion and equity.

Another industry that stands to benefit, Siefer noted, is philanthropy. While there is some philanthropic presence in the digital inclusion sector, there will likely be more as charitable organizations continue to realize that digital inclusion is part of their missions. A foundation that donates money to housing causes, for example, may come to realize that with Internet access and a device, an individual is more likely to find employment. There was already significant attendance at this year’s event by people from the ed-tech space.

It’s a sort of ripple effect, ultimately, one that will rapidly spread throughout the philanthropic world as digital inclusion successes lead to ease in their own work.

Finally, government is another stakeholder that stands to benefit as it seeks to digitize more of its services in ways that save time and money. Some of that saved money, Siefer noted, can and should be put back into digital inclusion. All of these organizations, though, are crucial to ensure that this current bout of interest leads to sustained funding.

“I’d like to say we’re going to find another big pot of money,” Siefer said, “but unless there’s another pandemic, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

So, how can these industries be brought to fund this work that benefits them? In a word, storytelling. CEOs, policymakers and board chairpeople must all be made to understand the impact that successful digital inclusion work has. This happens with stories of the work, stories backed up by data.

And Siefer wasn’t the only one discussing how to build and future-proof digital inclusion ecosystems at the event. On the second day, there was an entire panel about it, including practitioners from Texas, Tennessee, New York and Arizona.

Mikhail Sundust is the executive director of Digital Connect, a digital inclusion and equity program within the Gila River Indian Community, which is located south of Phoenix, Ariz., and covers roughly 580 square miles. Sundust said one thing that is crucial to understand about digital equity ecosystems is that in most communities, they already exist, except they’re often “disconnected from each other and doing their own things.”

For advocates and inclusion practitioners, the real work is supporting, strengthening and ultimately bringing them all together to be more cohesive.

“The ecosystem already exists,” Sundust said, “but in order to be intentional about it, we need to create partnerships with the groups already in our communities.”

That panel was moderated by Colin Rhinesmith, a veteran of the digital inclusion space who currently heads up the Digital Equity Research Center, a group he founded and that is housed in the Metropolitan New York Library Council.

Rhinesmith noted that putting people rather than tech at the center is key to the storytelling, to explaining why digital equity matters.

“We are most successful when we emphasize each other and not the technology,” Rhinesmith said, “... and one simple way to do that is by finding out what people care about in the community, then make the connection.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.