Building the Digital Inclusion Ecosystem in the District of Columbia
Digital technology has changed the way people around the world learn, work, and communicate. People use it to start new businesses and support social and political causes. The ability to use and access technology is a necessity for success in today’s world. However, even as more and more people are becoming familiar with digital technology, about one-quarter of all homes in the District of Columbia do not have a high-speed internet connection. Unsurprisingly, these homes are in the city’s most economically vulnerable neighborhoods. This digital divide is the reason the city’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) created Connect.DC. Connect.DC works to bridge this digital divide by making technology easier to use, more accessible, more affordable, and more relevant to the everyday lives of District residents. Connect. DC offers discounted Internet and low-cost computers, free public technology access in DC neighborhoods, and computer training.
Community institutions play a critical role in helping low-income DC residents become digitally connected. Like many cities, DC’s neighborhood libraries are at the forefront of the digital inclusion movement. District of Columbia Public Libraries (DCPL) continue to be the largest provider of free public computers and Internet access in the District of Columbia for residents. They offer public computer access and free Wi-Fi resources that are particularly valuable to residents who do not have Internet service at home.
In an effort to increase education and employment opportunities for residents in low-income communities in DC, DCPL successfully piloted a checkout system of mobile Wi-Fi devices at two library locations. The Deanwood Neighborhood Library and Parklands-Turner Neighborhood Library allow patrons to rent MiFi –mobile Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops. This program gives resident’s access to the Internet from home where they can apply for jobs, take online classes and complete homework when it is most convenient. In addition, these libraries offer workshops for job-seekers, including resume writing tips and interviewing skills. DCPL also serves as a model for what libraries of the future will look like. Many redesigned branch libraries have received awards and recognition for excellence in design. The city’s main branch, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, recently closed for a major modernization project but, prior to closing its doors, it operated an audiovisual lab with video and photo editing software, a fabrication lab with laser cutters and 3-D printers, and a memory lab for digitizing home movies and scanning documents.
Libraries work alongside and in partnership with other community institutions to support the digital inclusion ecosystem by providing digital resources. At Connect.DC, one of our local nonprofit partners, Byte Back, teaches digital literacy classes in locations across the city. Byte Back serves thousands of low-income residents each year and offers three levels of classes: computer literacy classes for residents who have never used a computer, Microsoft Office classes for residents seeking an office job, and computer certification classes for residents interested in entering the IT field. In addition to teaching in libraries, they also offer classes at their headquarters, District government buildings, other nonprofit locations, and workforce development centers.
Connect.DC partnered with Byte Back and the DC Housing Authority to bring the power of technology out of buildings and into communities. They used the Mobile Tech Lab (MTL)--a converted bookmobile with wireless internet and ten computer workstations--to bring training classes directly to public housing residents in their own neighborhoods. Connect.DC also used the MTL to launch training programs for seniors, public housing residents, and entrepreneurs as well as outreach opportunities for parents searching for new schools for their children.
This diverse mix of training locations highlights an important point about tech inclusion and anchor institutions. Some community organizations--libraries, for example--provide technology services like free access and training. Others are trusted organizations because they provide other types of services (e.g., education, health, family support) and have either begun to include digital inclusion in their portfolio or have offered their space to facilitate technology inclusion. Any community organization can play a role in helping low-income residents become full digital citizens if it is trusted and accessible. Partners who possess those two traits help us in every aspect of our programs, from outreach and recruitment to participation and completion.
Bridging the digital divide is not a problem the government can solve alone. Success requires collaboration between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. For practitioners looking to help constituents get online, it is wise to remember that the right partners are just as important as the right programs.
Connect.DC - Digital Inclusion Initiative