Mayor Vincent C. Gray has taken a number of steps to make the District of Columbia an attractive location for tech companies. In November 2012, he signed the Technology Sector Enhancement Act of 2012 to expand the benefits and incentives for tech companies looking to locate in the District. The City has also supported business incubators and recently created Digital Commons—an 11,000 square-foot tech center equipped with a 3D printer, 80 computers, collaborative spaces, and other resources for entrepreneurs.
This atmosphere of entrepreneurship and creativity is exactly what a city needs to compete in a global economy. But what about all of the people in a city who aren’t running tech startups or creating the next app that will change the world? What about the people who, in 2014, still don’t have access to high-speed Internet service at home? There are approximately 150,000 households in D.C. that fall into this very category. Unsurprisingly, these homes are in the City’s most economically vulnerable neighborhoods. So what can a city do to address the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots? One way is to invest in technology training for its most disadvantaged residents.
The first step in that process for D.C. was to use federal grant funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to make critical investments in broadband infrastructure, digital literacy training, community coordination, and public technology resources. The investment in public infrastructure helped the city upgrade computers in libraries and other public facilities (e.g., recreation centers) that later served as digital literacy training sites.
Libraries are critically important resources in any serious efforts to bridge the digital divide. Libraries in D.C. offer resume workshops, clinics on how to use e-readers, and classes on building basic computer skills. One of our local nonprofit partners, Byte Back, teaches digital literacy classes in libraries across the city. Byte Back serves thousands of low-income residents each year and offers three levels of classes: computer literacy classes for students who have never used a computer, Microsoft Office classes for students seeking an office job, and computer certification classes for students interested in entering the IT field.
Connect.DC didn’t limit the City’s investments in training to digital literacy for residents. The City also used grant funding to create an 8-month pilot program partnership with the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) to train almost 200 entrepreneurs from some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods. LEDC held sessions that taught small business owners how to get their businesses online, use social media, and improve efficiency through technology. At the end of the program a group of 21 participants received tools that helped them improve their business. Of that group, 20 of the businesses are minority-owned and 15 are women-owned.
This model—expanding public technology access and offering digital literacy training in the areas hardest hit by the digital divide—is one other cities can follow. The key is to find partners that have the resources to deliver sustainable programs that can scale to meet the needs of target communities. Potential partners also need to understand the social and economic factors affecting low-income communities. For example, we’ve partnered with local government agencies to use our 48-foot Mobile Tech Lab—equipped with seven computer workstations and wireless Internet access—to sign residents up for affordable health insurance and register teens for a summer youth employment program. By investing in access and training in underserved neighborhoods, local policymakers lower the types of barriers to digital access that have nothing to do with technology, whether the cost of transportation or the availability of childcare.
Another factor that also creates a barrier to digital use and access is a lack of information. That’s why Connect.DC created a Tech Locator that residents can use to find training and access in their neighborhood. This information is also accessible through our text messaging platform and a new mobile website created specifically for smartphone owners.
Digital literacy and public technology access are a worthwhile investment and a critical step in ensuring access for every person in your city, regardless of income, education, or age. Through our nonprofit and government partners, Connect.DC has delivered more than 272,000 hours of training to almost 8,000 D.C. residents. This training is one way to help the most vulnerable residents compete for jobs in an information economy that can help lift families out of poverty. For policymakers who are constantly looking for ways to maximize resources as cities deal with tightening budgets, these investments can pay serious dividends.
For more information about digital inclusion efforts in the District of Columbia, visit connect.dc.gov.
About the author: Delano Squires leads Connect.DC, the DC Office of the Chief Technology Officer’s (OCTO) digital inclusion program. Connect.DC works to “bridge the digital divide” in the District by making technology easier to use, more accessible, more affordable, and more relevant to the everyday lives of DC residents and community institutions.