Last week, EveryoneOn released their final report from a three-part series on the digital divide during the pandemic. he report, State of Digital Equity, highlights lessons from surveys and focus groups with income insecure households and digital inclusion practitioners, and offers recommendations for digital equity planning. The report is interesting and well timed given the need for states and communities to come together with a plan to invest in a better technology future. Below are their recommendations for digital equity planning…
- Lead with an equity framework: As a digital inclusion practitioner highlighted, “Equity needs to be in the center.” With billions of dollars directed to states and local communities in the coming years, it is imperative that policymakers and decision makers ensure funds are used to reach and benefit all communities, in particular those who are underserved and have been disproportionately affected by the digital divide. It is equally important to be explicit about equity and inclusion goals while also including digital inclusion practitioners and community voices in coalitions, planning activities and advocacy efforts.
- Facilitate community-driven messaging: Focus group participants and especially practitioners underscored the importance of the local dimension of digital inclusion. Not only do circumstances differ across communities, but reaching target populations who need help getting and staying online happens best when community members connect with one another, which is where trust is strong. This makes the notion of digital navigators highly relevant. These are ambassadors from the community who are trained to help others find the resources, e.g., discount plans and free computers, to start and sustain their internet journeys. In recent months, many communities have piloted digital navigator models, including the organizations that participated in the focus groups. The practitioners highlighted the important role digital navigators have played in recent months to promote the Affordable Connectivity Program, the new federal internet subsidy program.
- Localize and centralize digital resources: Not only are community-driven initiatives key, but having a trusted and accessible place in the community for digital resources is crucial. People need a one-stop shop that gives them access in one place to the digital assistance they may need. The data shows that local nonprofits, public libraries and other community anchor institutions are far more trusted than internet service providers and the government. For enrolling in discount or free internet plans, it is also important that people be able to complete that transaction in one visit. Complicated processes for determining eligibility for such programs inhibits participation. If people have to leave a place that they have gone to sign up to retrieve a document to demonstrate eligibility, they often do not return. Easy-to-use enrollment processes at trusted community places are foundational to promoting digital equity. In addition, as devices become more prevalent in households and new adopters come into play, people require hands-on technical support. A one-stop shop or community space that offers technical support, coupled with internet enrollment assistance and digital skills training opportunities, addresses the multiple barriers that new adopters, in particular, face. As documented in the focus groups, people are eager to return to in-person activities, including digital skills training, as the pandemic eases.
- Prioritize people over networks: Practitioners emphasized that closing the digital divide requires people as much (if not more than) networks. The digital divide is not primarily a technological problem, but instead a social problem. Yet practitioners worried about a tendency among some stakeholders to equate fixing the digital divide with building more networks. The social nature of the digital divide means people-driven solutions have to be the main part of the equation, and this entails having people in the community, i.e., boots on the ground to address the problem. This puts the notion of scaling solutions in another light. Scaling a solution, in the business sense, connotes finding the easily replicable digital solution that can go viral quickly and reach the masses. That is not as relevant for a social problem. Rather, “seed” is more appropriate. Fostering digital equity requires seeding initiatives in places where community members are cultivating solutions. This requires patience and clear thinking about “seed versus scale” to address digital equity. It may be possible to scale digital equity solutions, but only after models have been cultivated in and for specific communities.
- Engage and fund organizations doing the work: In the last two years, many organizations across the country have become digital inclusion experts in order to ensure their communities are connected and have the devices needed to participate in various online activities. At the same time, organizations that have been focused on digital equity since before the pandemic, including those that participated in the focus groups, have expanded their services exponentially to meet the demand. These are the organizations that states and local jurisdictions should engage to both inform the design and implementation of initiatives and fund to drive the work locally. Nonprofits, workforce development agencies, libraries and others are trusted voices across diverse communities and also know how to reach the hardestto-reach populations. And to ensure digital inclusion efforts are successful, community partners need to be funded appropriately. Whether building out new infrastructure or a community wireless network, launching an awareness campaign to drive adoption of the Affordable Connectivity Program, or creating a computer refurbishment program, sufficient funding should be allocated to cover all costs associated with a successful implementation, including all personnel costs. As we heard from the organizations that participated in the focus groups, without appropriate funding, digital inclusion initiatives fall short of meeting goals