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How Local CIOs Can Help Narrow the Digital Divide Amid COVID

By making connections between groups in need of digital assistance and local nonprofits, city and county CIOs are well-poised to help overcome the realities of digital inequity exposed by the pandemic.

by / September 2020
Shutterstock/Evannovostro

Former Charlotte, N.C., Chief Information Officer Jeff Stovall recently authored a thoughtful article that suggested the era of the smart city is fading in favor of a new era of digital equity. He’s exactly right. Social justice protests and COVID-19 have exposed and highlighted long-standing and growing inequities often represented in a digital divide. These digital inequities were unacceptable before COVID-19’s arrival and are now even less so.

Defeating the digital divide is much more than wiring up a home with an Internet connection. Families, particularly those with school-age children, often experience gaps in device access, digital literacy and cyberhygiene. There might not be enough devices, the hardware may be outdated or incompatible, and there may be a lack of security software. The household may also need training, have privacy concerns or require additional digital wraparound services. Our public library allies will continue to play a vital role in supporting these programs and needs.

We’ve witnessed retail outlets, restaurants and others discouraging the use of cash in favor of apps and credit cards. While these policies are understandable in a COVID-19 world and laudable from a digital transformation perspective, they create additional challenges for underbanked families and customers. These households are typically the very ones who are disproportionately impacted by the global pandemic. Many public-facing government services are now limited, curtailed or altered in favor of technology-driven options. While this is terrific progress on many levels, we must still recognize residents who cannot efficiently conduct online business due to financial barriers, or lack of Web access or digital knowledge.

All indications point to a long-term COVID-19 battle even as progress continues with vaccine trials and treatments. In particular, seniors are facing months or even years before normalcy returns for many of them. Isolation, loneliness and social disconnection will pose substantial challenges to our older citizens. Subsidized broadband in concert with special devices can help bridge the engagement gap. Products such as Uniper can turn a regular television into a smart device capable of real-time, two-way communication. This technology opens the door to critical services such as telehealth, fitness classes and connections that support well-being.

Many schools are starting their academic years with completely virtual or hybrid formats, or will need to fall back on virtual methods as conditions dictate. School can be difficult enough for students (and parents), but technology shouldn’t be one of the hurdles. Now is a great time to connect with our local ed tech directors to build or strengthen these relationships. Government IT leaders have an extraordinary opportunity to support our education partners, students and parents. Modest investments now can provide community dividends for years to come.

We would also benefit from a coherent, national strategy on technology access. Too often, the initiatives or funding are weighed down by too much bureaucracy, inefficiency or restrictions. Other broadband plans pit urban constituents against rural constituents, while suburban stakeholders are often left out altogether. The focus is usually on broadband but frequently overlooks devices, training and privacy concerns. Many local nonprofits and groups, and national organizations such as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, stand ready to help us with this essential endeavor.  

Government CIOs and IT directors are well-positioned to step forward to wear another hat as a visionary technology leader for their communities. There needs to be a collective sense of urgency to move this effort forward. We can help connect dots among nonprofits, our residents and the private sector. It’s time to lobby the broadband carriers to be true partners in bringing everyone online. Our communities need this vision from us now more than ever. 

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Luke Stowe Contributing Writer

Luke Stowe is CIO and interim director of administrative services for Evanston, Ill. One of Government Technology's Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of 2018, he works to bridge the gap between technology and business practices.

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