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GovTech checked in with Boston, Mass.; Mesa, Ariz.; and Oakland, Calif., to get a sense of what some of the newest things happening in digital equity are across the country, as cities continue to prioritize the digital divide.

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

This week marks roughly the two-and-a-half-year anniversary of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, which had the inadvertent effect of showing Americans the importance of digital inclusion. Traditionally, digital inclusion has meant making sure that everyone has access to high-speed Internet at home, devices to use that Internet, and the digital skills they need to do so in meaningful ways. This remains true at the core level. Yet, some cities have now started to expand the scope of the work, doing so in different ways specific to their individual needs.

GovTech recently spoke to elected officials and tech leaders in three cities of different sizes spread out across the country — Boston; Mesa, Ariz.; and Oakland, Calif. — to get a sense of what is happening in their communities, as American government civic leaders continue to prioritize digital inclusion and digital equity.

DIGITAL EQUITY IN BOSTON, Mass.

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

While making sure all residents have high-speed Internet, devices, and skills training remains a priority for the city, Boston CIO Santiago Garces says a new focus has emerged alongside that one. Specifically, he and his department have broadened the scope of the work to also include looking at how technology can ease barriers toward equity for different groups.

This means, for example, looking at city programs that help older adults who have transportation issues receive coupons to use taxis, Garces says, and considering things like language barriers in that work, which may ultimately result in ensuring digital products are available in more languages.

And that’s just one example.

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

Specifically, the tech team is looking at digital marriage license forms as applied to the trans community, and the way those forms are used to select gender on marriage licenses. The team is evaluating the process end-to-end, to make sure it feels dignified for all the city’s residents, using data and other human-centered design techniques as it does.

Doing this work — and other projects like it — involves Garces and his team working closely with Boston’s Equity and Inclusion Cabinet, within which are departments related to causes such as Black male advancement, fair housing, and LGBTQ+ advancement, among others.

“Most of the work we have is being aligned precisely under an equity lens,” Garces says. “Work we’re doing around improving procurement, hiring, marriage certificates — almost everything we’re doing is aligned and tied back to broader digital equity work. The buck doesn’t end just where we deliver our services.”

DIGITAL EQUITY IN MESA, ARIZ.

In Mesa, Ariz., 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 the needs of their community.

Oftentimes, discourse around broadband affordability focuses on rural communities, which are areas of the United States that have long been underserved by telecommunications infrastructure. Increasingly, awareness has grown for urban communities, especially as large-school kids in big cities were unable to participate in digital learning at the start of the pandemic. Mesa, however, falls somewhere between those two discussions, located as it is just outside of Phoenix.

It has digital inclusion needs unique unto itself, and so city leadership has reacted accordingly, says Mesa Mayor John Giles.

“People like me, we have to figure it out, and that’s the story of our experience in Mesa,” Giles said.

For his city, a big part of the work of figuring it out has involved taking steps to foster more competition among broadband providers there. Competition between high-speed Internet providers has the same effect as competition in most other markets, leading to lower prices and better service as consumers gain the ability to choose the best option.

When Mesa leaders started exploring how best to do this, Giles said they looked into the feasibility of building a community-owned network there, which proved to be too costly, as well as “an uphill battle” given the heavy likelihood of pushback from legacy providers. So instead, Mesa put out a Request for Information (RFI) in February hoping to identify new partners for an open-access fiber-optic network in the suburban community.

All told, about seven companies expressed interest in helping improve Internet speeds in Mesa, with four ultimately entering into licensing agreements, representing a major increase from before the RFI, when the city only had two providers total. 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 hard look at construction methodologies — “Are you microtrenching?” Giles says to ask, and have you updated your municipal fee structure to make it easier for new companies to enter your market?

Finally, with a historic amount of broadband funding on the way from the federal government, Giles says his last piece of advice is to look at support from higher government as a bonus, rather than to wait for it to be a catalyst.

“You have to just 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, CALIF.

When the pandemic shut down most of normal life in the United States, Oakland, Calif., like many cities nationwide started working to provide free Internet and devices to school children who needed them to participate in online classes.

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

What’s new in Oakland with digital equity is that the city is now looking to extend this same success to the wider community, helping to connect not just families with students, but all residents who are in 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 in a way that the crisis demanded that probably would have never happened otherwise. Now that we know what it feels like to have that digital divide bridged, we’ll never let it open up again.”

This network of partners working to close the digital divide in Oakland has been given the name #OaklandUndivided Coalition, and the next phase of it involves expanding the work done for the school students to the other 37,000 unconnected households there. They are hoping to — among other things — expand Oakland’s municipal fiber footprint, enable more innovative public-private partnerships and launch a citywide enrollment campaign for the Affordable Connectivity Program, a federal subsidy that reduces the cost of high-speed Internet for low-income households that qualify.

This is all, perhaps, a full circle moment for Schaaf personally. Perhaps the first major nationwide digital equity effort in the U.S. took place in 1996, with NetDay, an event that called on tech companies to help schools, libraries and clinics enjoy the benefits of what was then a very young widespread Internet. NetDay gave rise to localized events throughout the country, and Schaaf recalls organizing the Oakland event what is now more than 25 years ago.

Now she is leading the local government in the city, as it assembles a growing network of influential stakeholders determined to help fix this. Just as the Internet is now capable of more than most folks thought possible in 1996, so too are the efforts to get everyone connected to it.

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

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Zack Quaintance

Quelle/Source: Government Technology, 13.09.2022

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