How three cities across the country are tackling digital equity

As municipal leaders across the country continue to prioritize closing the digital divide in their communities, the work continues to evolve.

This week marks roughly two and a half years since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, which had the unintended effect of showing Americans the importance of digital inclusion. Traditionally, digital inclusion has meant ensuring everyone has access to high-speed internet at home, devices to use that internet, and the digital skills they need to do so in a meaningful way. This remains true at the basic level. Yet some cities have now begun to expand the scope of the work, doing it in different ways specific to their individual needs.

GovTech* recently spoke with elected officials and tech leaders in three cities of different sizes spread across the country – Boston; Mesa, Arizona; and Oakland, Calif. — to get a sense of what’s happening in their communities as civic leaders across the U.S. government continue to prioritize digital inclusion and digital equity.

Digital Equity in Boston

In Boston, elected officials and tech leaders are collaborating to broaden the scope of digital equity work beyond the three traditional pillars mentioned above.

While ensuring all residents have high-speed internet access, devices and job training remains a priority for the city, Boston CIO Santiago Garces said a new goal has emerged parallel to it. Specifically, he and his department have expanded the scope of work to also include examining how technology can mitigate barriers to equity for different groups.

That means, for example, looking at city programs that help seniors who have transportation issues receive coupons to use taxis, Garces says, and factoring in things like language barriers into that work, which can ultimately result in ensuring that digital products are available in more languages. .

And this is just one example.

“All of this follows the evolution of what digital transformation means,” says Garces, who arrived in Boston in March after being nominated by Mayor Michelle Wu. “Another example is marriage licenses. You wouldn’t necessarily think that getting married is a technological problem, but we try to make the process of getting married, regardless of your gender, a better experience.

Specifically, the technical team is examining digital marriage license forms applied to the trans community and how these forms are used to select gender on marriage licenses. The team evaluates the process from start to finish, to ensure it is dignified for all city residents, using data and other human-centered design techniques as it does.

Doing this work — and others like it — involves Garces and his team working closely with Boston-based firm Equity and Inclusion, which has departments related to causes such as the advancement of black men, fair housing and LGBTQ+ advancement, among others.

“Most of our work is aligned precisely with an equity lens,” says Garces. “The work we do to improve sourcing, hiring, marriage certificates – almost everything we do is aligned and linked to broader work on digital equity. The responsibility does not end where we provide our services. »

Digital Equity in Mesa, Arizona.

In Mesa, Arizona, meanwhile, city leaders continue to use the tools available to local government to make high-speed internet more affordable, doing so in ways specific to their community’s needs.

Often, the discourse on broadband affordability focuses on rural communities, which are areas of the United States that have long been underserved by telecommunications infrastructure. Increasingly, the awareness of urban communities has grown, especially since children in large schools in big cities were unable to participate in digital learning at the start of the pandemic. Mesa, however, falls somewhere between these two discussions, located just outside of Phoenix.

It has unique digital inclusion needs, so city leaders have responded accordingly, says Mesa Mayor John Giles.

“People like me, we have to understand that, and that’s the story of our experience at Mesa,” Giles said.

For his city, a lot of the work of determination has been to take steps to foster greater competition among broadband providers there. Competition between high-speed Internet providers has the same effect as competition in most other markets, resulting in lower prices and better service, as consumers have the opportunity to choose the best option.

When Mesa executives began exploring the best way to do this, Giles said they looked at the feasibility of building a community-owned network, which turned out to be too expensive, as well as “a tough battle” given the high probability of inheritance rollback. suppliers. Instead, Mesa launched a Request for Information (RFI) in February in hopes of identifying new partners for an open access fiber optic network in the suburban community.

A total of about seven companies have expressed interest in helping improve internet speeds in Mesa, four of which eventually entered into licensing deals, which is a significant increase from before RFI, when the city had just two. total suppliers. Giles said Mesa was able to do this by creating favorable circumstances for more companies to do business.

And now he has advice for other communities in the same situation, including taking a close look at construction methodologies – “Are you digging micro-trenches? Giles says ask, and have you updated your municipal fee structure to make it easier for new businesses to enter your market?

Finally, with a historic amount of federal government broadband funding, Giles says his final advice is to view senior government support as a bonus, rather than expecting it to be a catalyst.

“You just have to decide you’re going to do it and then figure it out,” Giles says. “If the feds are going to be helpful, that’s a bonus, but you can’t wait for the government to show up to help you.”

Digital Equity in Oakland, CA.

When the pandemic interrupted most of normal life in the United States, Oakland, California, like many cities across the country, began working to provide free internet access and devices to school children who needed them to participate. to online courses.

The results there have been substantial. When the pandemic began, about 12% of students in low-income neighborhoods in Oakland had access to a device and high-speed internet at home. Today, that number is around 98%. Oakland was able to do this through a joint effort between the city government, local schools, and other community partners, forging a highly effective set of public-private partnerships.

What’s new to Oakland with digital equity is that the city is now looking to extend that same success to the wider community, helping to connect not just families with students, but all residents who live there. need.

“I will say that bridging the digital divide has been the brightest silver lining of this pandemic,” says Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. “It allowed us to catch up on the backlog that the crisis demanded and which probably never would have happened otherwise. Now that we know what it feels like to have closed this digital divide, we will never let it reopen again.

This network of partners working to bridge the digital divide in Oakland has been given the name #OaklandUndivided Coalition, and the next phase of it is to expand the work done for school students to the other 37,000 unconnected households there. . They hope to, among other things, expand Oakland’s municipal fiber footprint, enable more innovative public-private partnerships, and launch a citywide enrollment drive for the Affordable Connectivity Program, a federal grant. which reduces the cost of high-speed Internet for low-income people. eligible households.

This may be quite a looping moment for Schaaf personally. Perhaps the first major nationwide digital equity effort in the United States took place in 1996, with NetDay, an event that called on tech companies to help schools, libraries and clinics reap the benefits of what was then a very young and widespread Internet. NetDay has hosted localized events across the country, and Schaaf remembers hosting the Oakland event more than 25 years ago.

She now leads the city’s local government, which brings together a growing network of influential players determined to help solve this problem. Just as the Internet is now capable of doing more than most people thought possible in 1996, so are the efforts to connect everyone to it.

“We need to bring high-speed Internet into homes,” says Schaaf. “It’s a 21st century necessity.”

* Government Technology is a sister site of Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.

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